Seeking a higher education is still a valuable strategy to advance your career goals. According to the U.S. Department of Education, college graduates earn an average of 66 percent more than those with a high school diploma. Also, two-thirds of American job openings by 2020 will need some post-secondary education.
Yet, with so many stories about student loan debt, college may not be the best path. This year, Pew Research Center shared some shocking student loan debt statistics. Student loan borrowers in the United States owe $1.5 trillion. A quarter of borrowers with outstanding debt owe $43,000 or more.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren proposed canceling student debt for more than 40 million Americans. Even President Trump is open to loan forgiveness. He recently directed the Education Department to cancel the student loan debt for disabled veterans.
While this is some relief, there needs to be more options that reduce the cost of college. Here are some strategies to avoid taking on student loan debt as much as possible.
Scour all possible sources of financial aid.
You don’t want things like interest rates, monthly payments or repayment plans to dominate your life. Examine your FAFSA form to see what’s available beyond federal student loans. Explore grants or scholarships based on family income and financial need. The form is a federal financial aid portal that directs and defines available options.
Don’t stop there. Conduct your own online research to determine other financial aid opportunities. Online directories like The College Board can guide the scholarship search. Local rotary clubs, the chamber of commerce, parent-teacher associations, and businesses provide scholarships.
If your child is an athlete, consider the college athlete recruiting process. Use sites like CaptainU to start conversations with college coaches. The strategy may drive athletic scholarship opportunities.
Start at community college.
Too many young people get caught up in the prestige of attending top universities. Student borrowers who want a college degree often take the tougher four-year path lined with student aid and even credit card debt. Instead, try a path of deferment. Postpone attending the big college (and taking out student loan payments by going to community college first. Then, transfer to the larger institution.
Additionally, getting the associate’s degree at a community college can fast-track you to courses that complete a bachelor’s degree. This path lowers admissions requirements and offers class selection priority over other students.
Some California community colleges offer free tuition. Other states offer similar tuition-free programs at two-year institutions. By living at home during community college, higher education expenses shrink further.
Take college courses in high school.
Ambitious future college students around the country have the opportunity to take college classes during high school. First, have your kid take advanced placement (AP) courses. Your child needs a passing test score to qualify for college credit. Second, try other college credit options. This includes dual-enrollment classes taught on high school campuses, at a community college annex, or online. These also deliver college credit.
Taking these courses is challenging and increases your child’s workload. But, it’s a sound strategy for avoiding federal or private loans as well as reducing student debt. In some cases, students take enough college courses during high school to complete two years of college education before stepping foot on a university campus. Even a semester or two of completed college work may result in lower federal student loan debt someday.
Supplement education with free online courses.
Whether you’re in high school, college, or graduate school, you can always look for free courses. Taking these free courses in the summer or during school breaks can remove some study burden.
Free education often includes online lectures, podcasts, and coursework. Free learning doesn’t get you college credits, but, the skills and knowledge will set your resume and LinkedIn profile apart from others. Two examples include MIT’s OpenCourseWare and the edX collaboration between MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley. Many other global colleges and universities offer similar free courses.
Delay college and go straight into the workforce.
Another option is to put college off for a while. Many young people find it more attractive to work hard and save up money to spend for college instead of applying for federal student aid.
Perhaps you’ve already completed school and have a large loan balance. Remember many employers offset the cost of federal loans as a perk for joining their company. It may not be a loan forgiveness program, but it can greatly offset the cost of a degree.
John Boitnott has been writing for TV, print, radio and internet companies for 25 years. He’s written for BusinessInsider, Fortune, NBC, Fast Company, Inc., Entrepreneur and Venturebeat, among others.
Feature Illustration: Laura Caseley For The Money Manual