graduate college debt freeThere’s no doubt college these days costs a TON of money. But what if you could get your degree for free? Or even come out ahead? Yes, it’s possible to graduate college debt free! I’m a living example that it is possible to not only graduate college debt free, but to also come out ahead. Not only did I get out of college without debt, but I had enough money saved up to put a down payment on a house. Whether you are looking for yourself or your child, I’d like to share with you 11 things I did to graduate college debt free.

What I Did To Graduate College Debt Free:

1) Got Good Grades In High School (and prior)

One of the most important things to graduating college debt free is being able to get scholarship-based scholarships. A big part of scholarships is demonstrating that you have gotten (and are getting) good grades.

I can’t stress this enough.

Grades matter. Period.

I was fortunately blessed with wise parents. In high school, I wasn’t allowed to have a job. I was told my “job” was to get good grades.

I didn’t understand at the time, but having good grades paid exponentially more than any job would have (in the form of scholarships…more on that later).

While I may have been able to save up a few thousand working, with scholarships it was tens of thousands.

boy in green sweater writing on white paper

2) Volunteered In High School

From about 9th grade on, I spent plenty of time volunteering.

I volunteered several different places: the library, church, school, etc.

Basically, as soon as you are old enough to volunteer, start volunteering wherever you can.

If you are able to volunteer in the field you want to go in to, even better. For example, thinking of becoming a veterinarian? Consider volunteering at your local animal shelter.

Be sure to keep track of your volunteer hours.

Your supervisors will also make good people to get recommendation letters from when you go to apply for scholarships.

Volunteering and especially getting experience will take you a long ways towards being able to graduate college debt free.

3) Chose an In-Demand Field

person wearing lavatory gown with green stethoscope on neck using phone while standing

When you choose an in-demand field, you are more likely to get scholarships, paid internships and (most importantly) an actual job once you graduate.

Choosing an in-demand field of study is another simple thing you can do to graduate college debt free.

Here are some careers/degrees that are usually not so in demand. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule.

  • Humanities
  • General studies
  • Sociology

Here are more in-demand fields to choose from to help you graduate college debt free:

  • Medical field (any and all)
  • Engineering
  • Law
  • Teaching
  • Computer Science

Your choice of study can be a winner or a deal breaker right from the get go.

If you’re still not sure, when you go to look for scholarships, it will become quickly apparent that some fields have more scholarship opportunities than others.

4) Applied For Every Scholarship I Could

Having grown up in a middle-class family, I didn’t qualify for financial aid or scholarships based on income level. However, there were many scholarships based purely on academics, volunteer work, and what you were going to be studying.

I’m not sure exactly how many scholarships I applied for, but I got lots of rejection letters.  In total, though, I ended up getting 21 for a total of over $42,000. That’s nearly $60,000 in today’s dollars (taking into account inflation)!

Based on the minimum wage at the time, I would have had to work over 70 hours a week for 52 weeks a year for 2 years to make that much, not counting what would have been deducted for taxes.

Yes, good grades indeed did pay more than a job.

My best advice here is to apply for any and every scholarship that you can possible qualify for.

It’s easy to think you’ll never be chosen. But the only way to actually have a chance is to apply.

If you don’t apply, you’ll never be selected, right?

So get out there and start applying.

Not sure where to find scholarships? Here are some ideas:

  • Parent’s employers
  • Your local bank/credit union
  • Local companies
  • School counselors
  • College where you’ll be attending
  • Online

Some popular websites to help track down scholarships to help you graduate college debt free are:

And as a side note, not every scholarship application requires having to write an essay. Some are as simple as a short form and a few questions.

Yes, it’s possible to get chosen for scholarships so you can graduate college debt free.

5) Worked Throughout College

person using MacBook Pro

During my time in college, I took every job I could. Some jobs were steady employment, but lots were temporary odd jobs that might only be one week long (or less).

I had so many I don’t think I quite remember them all. Here are the ones I can remember:

  • Sorting cubicle pieces
  • Sorting and/or delivering on-campus mail
  • Carpentry work (didn’t know anything about carpentry)
  • Secretary work 
  • Campus copy center
  • Setting up for concerts
  • Setting up for sporting events
  • Scoring a volleyball game (didn’t know anything about volleyball)
  • Bag factory for two summers including one summer of graveyard shift

Yes, it was work. Some was fun. Some was not so fun. But I was determined to graduate college debt free.

And working during college and summers was a big factor in graduating without debt.

If you’d like to graduate college debt free, I’d highly recommend to plan on working at least during summers and breaks at a minimum.

6) Only Purchased Used Books

Text books are a major part of the cost of attending college.

Unless I had to, I only purchased used books. I didn’t really care about the condition. I just looked for the cheapest.

Sometimes I might not get my book until a few days into the semester/quarter. If it was late in coming, I could usually borrow the professors or another student’s until mine came.

Yes, I was that student. But again, I was determined to do whatever I could to graduate college debt free.

7) Sold Back Books

As soon as classes were over, I’d look around to find the best place to sell my books.

assorted books on wooden table

Sometimes it was on campus, but more often than not, it was online. I found I could get the best price on eBay most of the time.

I didn’t know at the time, that doing this would lead me to starting a reselling business as a stay-at-home mom where I’ve made over $60,000 just by working a little during nap time.

8) Joined & Held Positions In Professional Clubs

I was a member and held positions in 2-3 clubs at a time.

Each club I was elected (aka volunteered) to positions of secretary, treasurer, etc.

These helped me continue to get scholarships through college.

The clubs you should join will be specific to the degree you are going for. But to give you an idea, here are some of the clubs I was part of:

  • Phi Theta Kappa
  • American Society of Civil Engineers
  • Society of Women Engineers

Although I wasn’t a part of clubs in high school, this is another thing you can do in high school to help you get scholarships so that you can graduate college debt free.

9) Lived Cheaply

This goes without saying, if you don’t want to get in debt, avoid spending money.

white and blue textile on pink textile

I lived as carefully as possible.

  • Spent very little on food
  • Rode my bike or walked almost all the time
  • Participated in free campus entertainment (movie nights, etc)
  • Shared a house with 4 other girls

The short time during college that I lived on a shoestring, was definitely worth the freedom of graduating college debt free.

I don’t feel like I missed out on anything and the reward was totally worth it.

10) Had Paid Summer Internships

One of the great things about being in an in-demand field is the opportunities for being paid for internships.

A lot of (if not most) degrees don’t have a lot of demand. These types of degrees you likely will have to “intern” for free. Also known as volunteering.

But choosing an in-demand field will likely bring work that you are actually paid for.

I spent two summers interning and the pay was more than double minimum wage! Plus, I made sure to take every opportunity for overtime. (Pay at double and a half…woohoo!)

man looking at device on road

And I made sure to maximize the length of time I worked – as soon as I got out of school until school started again, leaving just the weekend to get moved.

These internships played a big part in helping me graduate college debt free.

They also helped me in getting a job upon graduation.

11) Worked As An Undergraduate Research Assistant

My senior year of undergrad, I was asked to work as an undergraduate research assistant.

I was able to quit my odd-jobs and just work on this.

Not only was it in my field, but it led me to getting grad school paid for!

Paid research work is mostly for those in-demand fields (yes, there is a theme here).

Doing your best, studying hard, and getting good grades in college can help you in getting positions like this and ultimately help you graduate college debt free.

Bonus: Worked As A Graduate Research Assistant and Teaching Assistant

I’d thought I’d throw a bonus item onto this list. It really only applies for those of you thinking about going to graduate school. Here it is.

Working as an undergraduate research assistant, led me to continue with researching the same project while in grad school.

In addition, I designed and taught a course as a teaching assistant. At the time I didn’t know it, but it would lead me to working as an adjunct professor down the road.

woman in blue tank top standing beside white wall

As a research and teaching assistant, I not only got paid well for my work, but my entire tuition was paid for! Plus I got health care benefits!

Talk about a great hourly wage! Now if only I could go back to that $200 rent for my bedroom….

Conclusion To Graduate College Debt Free

I hope these tips help you achieve your dream to graduating college debt free.

It’s possible and I know you can do it.

Sometimes it’s just knowing it’s possible and not taking college debt as an inevitable part of life.

Best wishes in your preparation to rock graduating college debt free!