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Go to College Without Going Into Debt: An Example

This article was written by in Education. 13 comments.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about options for going to college without going into debt, in response to an article about the near impossibility of doing so.

Commenter “t” shared his or her experience:

I also chose the state school route. I’m lucky enough to have grown up in a state (washington) with an outstanding public university (it wasn’t really luck, it was a conscious decision on my parents’ part), and I went to the best university in the state. With good grades and test scores, I got even that paid for – a state tuition waiver for my HS grades, and a series of scholarships and research jobs that came with stipends.

One thing I didn’t know and just lucked out on was that by applying for so many scholarships, I not only got things paid for, but I developed a great resume. When it came time to apply for graduate training, that made a huge difference – not only did I get in with full funding to every program I applied to including the three most competitive programs nationally, but I even got a 10k signing bonus to sweeten the deal.

Another streak of good luck attached to this strategy: at a large state school, you typically have first rate professors, and a mix of highly motivated students (so you have plenty of peers to challenge you) and less motivated / more distracted students (so your professors aren’t yet sick of students who all want extra attention, and are instead still happy to have you show up with further questions / ask to work in their lab).

I was really unsure when I made my decision to go to a public university when all the rest of my peers were going to private universities – but it’s made all the difference. I would do it the same way again in a heartbeat.

Get good grade in high school, apply for lots of scholarships, and live where the state college system is inexpensive and provides a good education.

Published or updated July 16, 2007.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

I couldn’t agree more. This is the type of advice I really could have used about 12 years ago. My parents truly believed that a private university offered a superior education to the public schools where “everyone” was accepted.

Today, I can’t tell a difference between those employees who graduated from public school and those that graduated from a prestigious private school (besides ego maybe).

Oh well, at least my student loans are set at 4.125%.

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avatar 2 Anonymous

It is good that you are talking about these issues. No one has mentioned this, and it may be unpopular, but I think more people should think about taking time off before attending college. They can work to save money and then travel while still debt free, maybe learn a language or two as well. Some might benefit by beginning studies at a community college and then transferring to a 4 year institution. In a lot of states, the public universities are required to give you credit for the community college courses you take. This plan may be best for middle class types whose parents both went to college who are extremely likely to get a college degree. For example of my high school graduating class, 100% had a college degree within 6 years of our graduation.

We go to college very young and have to make big financial and career decisions before we have seen much of the working world. I don’t think it is always a bad thing to go into debt, but I think students should be going into it with their eyes open.

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avatar 3 Anonymous

That’s a good idea in theory but if you don’t go to college right after high school, statistics show you may never go or finish.

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avatar 4 Anonymous

I’m a Western grad as well (’94). It’s an outstanding school, when I went to the University of Chicago for grad school, and then later to Columbia, I could hold my own with graduates of the best private colleges in the country. It only cost me $1200 per year in tuition (though tuition went up to $1500 by the time I graduated).

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avatar 5 Anonymous

Where did he say it was Western? Since he says its a “large” state school it seems he must be referring to the U of Washington? Great school, and still (relatively) affordable for in-staters. Go Huskies!

I completely agree that a lot of students seem far too eager to saddle themselves with tens of thousands in debt without seriously considering a public institution.

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avatar 6 Anonymous

I couldn’t agree more. I benefited from a tuition waver for Undergrad and a work study. I then worked as a Resident Assistant to help pay for my room and board. This enabled me to get through undergrad debt free. Med school was a different story unfortunately.

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avatar 7 Anonymous

In the same vein of taking time off before college, instead of rushing through college in 4 years, do it in 6. Taking less classes each semester lets you work more hours to pay for college. I’d much rather spend 6 years and graduate with no debt versus 4 years w/ 20K debt. Most people can’t pay off 20K in the 2 years so that usually means the 6 year plan produces better a financial outcome even with delayed entry into the workforce.

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avatar 8 Anonymous

I’ve been helping my brother financially through school at UW (enviro science program) for a few years now and don’t know if I completely agree that its such an easy thing to do just get it all paid for. The writer stated they were very lucky in getting their scholarships and they must have worked very hard and had some very impressive grades and SAT scores to get a full ride when the average GPA going into that school is a respectable 3.69. The writer may be really modest but they are clearly on a top level to get that many scholarships when compared to what the rest of us would consider good students at 3.8 gpa’s who don’t get nearly as many scholarships

$6k tuition + $1k or so in books/supplies as hard costs plus living in Seattle while much cheaper than a private school or out of state still will run you $400+ for rent(so-so place with a few roommates) and then food/transportation/everyday costs.
My brother qualified for very limited aid and took out loans for tuition and works part time and I paid his first year of rent and help him out with about a semesters of rent every year as well as my parents helping with food and insurance

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avatar 9 Anonymous

Wow – just got back into town from a vacation and saw my comment up as a post! How flattering!

Thoughts upon reading others’ comments…

@xshanex: Yeah, I definitely benefited both from a lot of luck and having been in an unusually good position coming out of HS. I wouldn’t say it’s “easy” to get everything paid for by any means. Looking at what’s happened to friends since we’ve graduated, though, I do think that even if you can get just parts of your expenses paid for, and you’re at a state school, you can still come out in a great position compared to people who’ve gone to a private school.

Also – as I got further along, I think the emphasis of funding opportunities was less on grades and test scores and more on whether you’ve established yourself in independent research projects in your area(s) of focus and can get good letters of rec from professors and such. At that point, I think a lot of my advantage just came from stubbornness – my two largest scholarships I applied for two years in a row, having been denied both the first year I tried.

@Elizabeth: The question of whether or not to take time off (and also whether or not to extend your time in college to make it financially more feasible / try more) is a hard one. A lot of was said on this above I agree with… but I’ve also been thinking a lot more lately about the cost of doing this, which I think my friends and I didn’t appreciate much at the time. I’m sure this doesn’t end up an issue for everyone, but, as a women in science, I’ve been shocked to realize recently just how hard it still is to figure out how to manage issues of having kids / time for family during the early years of establishing oneself in a career. I never would have thought it back in the carefree days of undergrad, but… it turns out, those few years you fall behind by taking time off really can matter! The difference between being in a position to have your first kid at 31 versus 34 is a huge one, and there’s less flexibility in a lot of career paths than I think I’d hoped when I was younger. Again, I don’t really know how much this holds for other career paths… but I suspect it’s at least somewhat of an issue in most professional fields. Anyways, it’s something to think about!

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avatar 10 Anonymous

What would you say for students with no real outstanding in state options? I am from south carolina and headed to the university of colorado and i’m really worried about all the debt I’m going to run into.

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avatar 11 Anonymous

Unfortunately, charlsan, all of us didn’t grow up in California, NY, or Washington. I grew up in Oklahoma and did well enough in high school to earn a full ride (including room and board) at all three major universities there (including the private University of Tulsa). I was very excited to go through college without worrying about paying, until a professor associated with OU gave me some unexpectedly candid advice, don’t stay here… go. I had only applied to two out of state schools, both small private liberal arts colleges that attracted me with their acadmic atmosphere but had scared me with their price tags. I ended up more afraid of sabotaging a possible academic career and chose to go to Oberlin College with its associated 40,000 per year cost.

I now have roughly 15,000 in debt. What I’d say in response is… absolutely worth it. If all you’re concerned about is professional degree or certification that can be gained through regional or community colleges or live in a state that has a great public university system, then by all means take advantage of it. But for the rest of us concerned with the total academic environment that accompanies the price tag and that don’t have good options closer to home, loans are well worth the cost. Atleast with Oberlin, my loans (after parent support with some of the tuition, need-based grant, and two academic scholarships) were reasonable amount and the interest rate on them makes them worth what I got out of them.

I wouldn’t trade the education I got at Oberlin for what I would have had to settle for back home, not even for $15,000 cash… and that’s really what it comes down to.

(As a side note, after Oberlin I went on to UW for grad school, stipended and tuition-free, but I couldn’t have gotten into the program here with a degree from OU)

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avatar 12 Anonymous

i go to a state school … i work full-time and have paid every single semester in cash. i did not qualify for any fafsa aid and only got a couple of scholarships, all of which ran out long ago … so yeah … work and throw some cash at it. you can do it.

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avatar 13 Anonymous

I believe it means Western Illinois University, one of the many state schools in Illinois.

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