I graduated with my bachelors degree with $24,000 in debt, which seemed like a terrible amount of money at the time, but was a completely average student loan debt at the time, though that number has now skyrocketed to something like $37,000.
I went to a high ranking small liberal arts college though, so the average debt my classmates graduated with ended up more in the $40,000-$80,000 range, with some in the six figures. Eight years after graduation, most of my peers are still struggling to pay off that debt.
While there are a lot of other options that can keep your costs low for a college education (military service, community and state college, living at home, etc), I really wanted the full college experience and the small class sizes and education that comes from a liberal arts degree.
That being said, I also wasn’t willing to go into six figure debt to get that education, so I had to figure out how to make that happen. My parents were going to contribute to my education, but not pay for anything close to all of it, so I started planning early.
10 steps to hacking a college education
1. AP Classes
My high school offered a decent number of AP (Advanced Placement) classes, and I took every one available. If your school has IB (International Baccalaureate) classes offered instead, they will work the same way. AP classes are awesome because you are taking classes anyway and then you are prepared to take the corresponding AP test at the end of the year.
AP tests are graded from 1-5, and while some colleges will accept a score of 3, most require a 4 or 5 to be counted toward college credit. This is awesome because you can earn some serious college credits from these tests – I ended up with 7 AP tests under my belt at the end of my senior year, which translated into a semester and a half worth of credit.
Out of these 7 tests, only 5 were from classes offered at my high school. My senior year, I decided that I wanted to take AP Statistics, which wasn’t offered at my school. I had already struggled through AP Calculus I the previous year, and while I did get a 4 on the AP test, I knew I didn’t want to take the next calculus clsss.
Another school in our district offered AP Statistics instead, and I was able to enroll in that class for first period and then head back to my school after that. My biggest reasoning for both AP Calculus and Statistics was to avoid taking math in college if at all possible, and it totally worked. With those two AP scores under my belt, I had enough basic credit to cover the math portion of my degree.
One of the tests I took was for a class I didn’t actually take though. I knew that high AP scores would translate into future college credit, so I looked through the list of all the tests beyond the classes that were offered at my high school.
Being a history and government nerd already, I found that Comparative Government was another AP test I could take. I did a little bit of studying for the exam and ended up scoring a 5 on the test. That score got me just as much college credit as the tests I had taken a whole class on, and it only cost me a weekend of study and the test fee, which I think was about $50 at the time.
Unless you have a full ride scholarship, how awesome is it to pay $50 for a college class? Even a community college charges $300-$600 for that same class. That same class at a liberal arts college like mine would cost in the thousands.
I started my college search VERY early. By ninth grade, I had started fleshing out what I thought I wanted in a college, and by tenth, I had a list of schools I planned to apply to.
While this is definitely earlier than you really need to start planning for college, it helped me shape my choices in high school.
I had done my research enough to know that the schools I was interested in would generally accept AP test scores, but that a 3 wouldn’t get me there, so I made sure to study enough to score only 4’s and 5’s.
My senior year finally rolled around, and it was time to start putting together my college applications. I applied to 10 schools to give myself choices once I saw the final costs after scholarship awards.
My college acceptance letters started coming in along with their scholarship options. There were a couple of schools that I would have loved to have applied to, but they offered zero merit based scholarships (I didn’t qualify for need based aid), so I chose not to even waste the application money. I wasn’t interested in paying full price for a school (minus the portion my parents were chipping in).
My future school initially offered me a $9,000/year scholarship, and while this was a good amount of money, it was nowhere near a full or even half ride. I owe my dad big time here, because he made me realize that this didn’t need to be the final offer from them.
I put together a letter and a packet outlining my high school accolades along with recommendations from volunteer work I had done and took it back to the school and pushed for more money. I let them know I really did want to attend, but the cost was too high.
To my complete shock, they increased my annual scholarship from $9,000 to $12,000. I decided then that I would be able to make that work, and sent my acceptance and filled out the loan paperwork.
3. Choose a useful degree
While I had set myself up for a more reasonable college cost through my high school preparations, I then had to continue that focus through college. I knew from early on that the environment was really important to me and that steered me toward an environmental science degree. Because I was at a liberal arts school, that meant I got a wide range of topics to choose from and had the opportunity to take a lot of really great classes.
I really loved my history and Spanish classes as well, but I knew that they wouldn’t be as useful for any future career that interested me. I compromised by taking enough classes in both areas that they ended up being very robus minors (really – majors without the written thesis). Since I knew I didn’t need the specific degree in either of my other interests, I contented myself with my single major.
4. Stay focused
While I did get to take quite a few Spanish and history classes, I stayed focused on the requirements for my environmental science degree.
Each semester, I picked classes that qualified for my major or for the basic graduation requirements. This did mean that I didn’t get to take any random “fun” classes, but as I really did enjoy most of the ones I did take, I don’t feel that I missed out at all. Really, my only regret is that I didn’t have time to take more classes than I did.
5. On campus jobs
After my first semester and I had settled in to the routine of college, I started looking for on campus job opportunities. At my school, these were scarce outside of work study programs, which I didn’t qualify for.
Finally, I landed a job at the Writing Center for $8/hour. It was a great fit and I loved getting paid for helping other students with their papers, though it was a little intimidating at first to review a senior thesis as a second semester freshman.
I worked there 8-10 hours a week through the rest of my time in college, and it more than paid for my regular expenses since room and board were covered through tuition and my loans.
6. Summer community college
Like the AP classes I took to avoid math in college, I listened to my friends who had taken Introduction to Chemistry our freshman year. Even for those who really liked the hard sciences, it was a really hard class with a lot of additional lab time.
I decided I didn’t want to take that class, but it was a prerequisite for my major. So I looked up community college classes in my hometown for the summer quarter, and found a chemistry class offered online. I confirmed with my school that it was an allowable transfer, and I took the class the summer after my freshman year.
I was working a full time internship, but as it was an entry level community college class, it was a really reasonable addition to my summer. And when I went back to school in the fall, I had fulfilled my chemistry requirement.
7. Summer jobs
Finals were over, I’d packed up my things and taken the train home. Summer had arrived. A week later, I hopped on the bus and headed to my full time summer internship.
As nice as it would have been to take just one online class and otherwise enjoy summer, I knew that wasn’t the best long term option. Instead, I got an internship at an architecture firm that was working on green building projects and I spent that summer learning about green building certifications and basic computer drawing.
I had a lot of fun, learned quite a bit, and went back to school with a nicely padded bank account. In hindsight, I definitely could have saved more of my pay checks, but I did have a lot of fun that summer as well.
8. Pay for books and extras out of pocket
Both my summer internship and on campus job were low paid positions, but since my expenses beyond tuition/room and board were also very low, they were enough to cover my costs.
I paid for all of my books and fees out of pocket instead of rolling them into my loans like so many of my friends. This was painful as this was upwards of $1000 or more per semester, but I was determined to graduate with no more debt than was absolutely necessary.
9. At the same time, I was also on the college’s fastpitch softball team. Practice and games took up most of my time that I wasn’t working or in class, so I really didn’t have an opportunity to spend money even if I had wanted to.
My coach was very strict and had a no-tolerance rule regarding drinking and generally being a stupid college student. If you were discovered to have been drinking – or even had your picture posted online with a red cup of arguable substance – you were off the team.
While his rules felt really strict at the time, they kept us out of a lot of trouble. Not only was there no online documentation to haunt us as we tried to get jobs in the future, but it also saved a lot of money and trouble by mostly avoiding the drinking and parties that usually accompany the “typical college experience.”
By being expected to make good decisions and be aware of how we were perceived by others, my coach taught us a lot more than just how to get better at playing ball.
10. Course load
My favorite part of each semester was always looking at the full course catalogue and deciding which classes I would take. After the limited options in high school, the list was endless and amazing. So much so, that I realized I wanted to take slightly more than the standard amount of classes.
While this initially began because there were just so many classes I wanted to take, it really worked in my favor for early graduation. In order to sign up for an extra class beyond the standard amount, I had to submit extra paperwork to be allowed to overload for the semester and pay an additional fee, but this fee was A LOT less than the proportional cost for an additional class.
By overloading a few semesters, I realized I was on track to graduate way early by the time I had entered my second year of college. While the extra classes by themselves didn’t add up to a whole lot, when I combined them with my AP test credits and summer community college class, I had more than enough credits to graduate the spring of my junior year.
And so I did. At 21 years old, when my peers were heading back home for the summer before their senior year of college, I graduated cum laude with a BA in Environmental Science. I then hopped in my car and drove cross country to start my post college career.
Instead of paying an additional year of school at an expensive liberal arts college, I got a job and started paying off those loans. By the time the rest of my freshman class threw their caps at graduation the following summer, I had a year of loan repayment under my belt and was saving up for a home purchase with my husband.
Three and a half years later, I made my last college loan payment ever and that income has been forever freed up for other purposes, even some avocado toast, because hey, I’m a millennial after all.