How to graduate college with (almost) no debt

Graduating debt-free is possible, though it requires some strategic planning. (iStock)

Graduating debt-free from college is an ideal financial goal, though, for many students, it's not the reality. According to statistics gathered by Credible, the average student loan debt clocks in at $33,654.

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Paying off federal student loans or private student loans can hinder your other financial goals. If you have private student loans, you may want to consider refinancing while interest rates are low. Credible easily and quickly helps borrowers compare rates and other options to determine how much money you could save.

But there are other steps you can take to finish school and earn a degree without bringing a mountain of student debt along for the ride.

Be strategic with school choice

You may have a shortlist of dream schools you'd like to attend. But if you're focused on graduating debt-free, it's important to cast the net wider to include cost-effective options.

For example, that may include:

Any of these paths could mean paying less for tuition, fees, room and board and other education expenses, even if it means skipping out on your dream college.

COLLEGE DEGREES WITH THE WORST ROI

"Don't pay just for a school name," said Adrian Ridner, CEO and co-founder of Study.com.

According to Ridner, employers care more about the skills you acquire while in school than the name on your diploma. "In most cases, it doesn't make sense to pay that premium for an elite school when a more affordable option may offer a degree program that will develop skills just as well, if not better."

Research scholarships and grants

Scholarships and grants can help with graduating debt-free, since these types of financial aid typically don't have to be repaid.

There are numerous places you can look for scholarships and grants. If you've chosen a school or you're already enrolled in college, your school's financial aid office can be a good starting point.

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Your financial aid officer should be able to tell you what scholarships and grants the school offers that you may be eligible for. Other options for finding scholarship and grant funding include:

  • U.S. Department of Labor's scholarship search tool
  • U.S. Department of Education
  • U.S. Military scholarship programs
  • State scholarship and grant programs
  • Corporate scholarships
  • Nonprofit and charitable scholarship and grant programs
  • Community and religious organizations
  • Your parents' employers

When seeking out scholarships or grants, be aware that some may require a service or work commitment. For example, the Nurse Corps Scholarship Program can help you pay for nursing school but there's a two-year minimum service commitment required after graduation.

Get a part-time job

Working a part-time job can help with graduating debt-free if you're able to use your earnings to pay for college expenses. You could get a job off-campus, work on-campus, or try a flexible side hustle.

Federal work-study is another option. Work-study offers part-time employment while you're attending school full-time or part-time. The program allows you to earn money to pay for school if you have a demonstrated financial need.

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Your school has to participate in work-study for you to apply. You can contact your financial aid office to learn whether work-study is an option and how to get funding.

Compare financial aid packages

Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can help you determine how much financial aid you might qualify for, including scholarships, grants, and federal student loans.

If you've completed the FAFSA and been accepted to multiple schools, take time to compare the financial aid package each one is offering. It may be in your best financial interest to choose the school offering the largest aid package if you want to minimize the potential for debt as much as possible.

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Remember, the FAFSA doesn't cover private student loans. You'll need to apply for those directly with private student loan lenders. If you're considering private student loans, be sure to compare interest rates using an online platform like Credible to find the best borrowing options.

Pay off loans while in school

If you have to take out federal student loans or private student loans to pay for college, paying down your loans while you're in school is a smart move.

This may require a part-time job or even a full-time job. You can make paying off student loans while in school easier by only borrowing what you need and budgeting your monthly expenses carefully.

If you receive a refund check for an overage because your cost of attendance ended up being lower than expected, you can apply that money directly to your loans. You can also use other found money, such as tax refunds, rebates or stimulus checks to chip away at the balance.

Keep an eye on interest rates as well if you have private student loans. If rates drop after taking out loans, you could refinance them to save money and potentially pay them off faster. Again, Credible can help you find the lowest refinance rates from different lenders.

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Lastly, make sure you're on track to graduate on time or ahead of schedule if possible, as a means to cut costs. Switching majors, having to retake courses or making slow progress in earning enough credits to graduate can all postpone your graduation date and increase the overall expense of earning a degree, Ridner said.