When you’re in elementary school, you invariably get asked what you want to be when you grow up. For most kids, their answer is “fire fighter” or “astronaut” or maybe “doctor” or “soccer player.” And then you get the oddballs like me who answered “senator.”

Even as a young kid, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career that would allow me to change things and make a positive impact on the world. As I got older, that desire to do good in the world got more specific, and I knew that I wanted some sort of career that would protect the planet. I also thought that in order to get the job I wanted, I would need a master’s degree at minimum, and most likely a PhD. 

Once I graduated high school, I began complete undergrad in a whirlwind 3 years with a degree in environmental science. Partway through my second year, I sat down with my college advisor and had a serious heart to heart about my hopes and dreams of the future. He strongly suggested that I take a few years and work in my desired field before undertaking more education. 


Time continued to pass and my student loans continued to grow, and I decided to take his advice and wait on graduate school. While my student loans were moderate compared to many ($24,000 at graduation), I knew I wasn’t interested in stacking more on top of them. 

And then I graduated college, moved cross country, got married, and ended up working as a naturalist (and then at a pet store) for a year after graduation. I really enjoyed my time working on a nature preserve and landed a job as a park ranger when we moved back home to the west coast the following summer. 

None of these jobs paid very much, but I continued to pay down my undergrad loans while I learned what I did and didn’t want to do for a long term career. I loved the animals, hiking around in nature, and teaching kids all about it all. I hated all the down time in between. Had I looked into grad school right after college, I might have thought I was interested in being a park ranger as my forever job, so maybe something to do with GPS and mapping (which would mean I would be stuck behind a computer screen 40+ hours every single week). 

By waiting until I had some experience working careers I thought I had interest in, I was able to be more specific about my grad school desires. 


After I had been working my park ranger job for about 3 months, I got an opportunity to do something entirely different within the environmental science realm – working for a green builder. I still enjoyed my park ranger job but had started to get a little bored with it (lots of down time with not a lot to do), and it was winding down as full time employment. 

The new job needed me to start right away, so I shifted to evening patrols and worked two full time jobs for a few weeks so I could continue on as a park ranger part time. After that, I transitioned into what would become my career job (I just celebrated my 7th work anniversary there in August). 

After I had been there a few years, I started to look at grad schools again. I had heard about a school from a few work acquaintances that offered a sustainably focused MBA program that was compatible with a full time career. The price tag was typical for an MBA program, but I was interested nonetheless. 

As I looked into the program, I found out that they also had a master’s certificate for the Sustainable Built Environment – a program that seemed to be tailored to my specific career – plus it was only a year long and much more affordable than the full MBA program. 

Just like in undergrad, my natural tendency to go to as much school as I could warred with the cost, and again, I realized that the simpler answer more than covered the schooling I needed. Since I was already working my dream career, an advanced degree was simply for more knowledge and experience – and a negotiating tool for a higher paycheck. 

I put together a summary of the program and what I expected to learn through the process, and I took that information to my employer. Since the program was so directly related to my specific job, and the certificate was reasonably priced, they were willing to pay for half of the program. 

Bonus – my commute to class was via ferry

On top of that, once I completed the program, I would have an automatic raise to acknowledge the achievement. Talk about incentive to finish school. 

The next step after getting an agreement from my work to pay part of the graduate degree was to get myself admitted to the school. I looked up the enrollment requirements and found that the school had a couple of different options for their prerequisites. Instead of taking the GRE or GMAT, I was able to take an online class at mbamath.com, which was also helpful for work in general because it gave me a baseline knowledge of MBA type accounting and finance. 

Since I looked at all my graduate school options in depth before beginning applications, I didn’t spend any time or money taking additional graduate level standardized testing. Before you start studying or taking these tests, check to see if there is a cheaper, more useful option you can use in its place. 

Before taking the MBA math class and getting accepted to the program,  I saved up some of my income to pay for my portion of the classes. The school also offered installment payments, so I didn’t have to pay for everything up front. Because I was also working full time, I also had a full time paycheck that I could dedicate a large portion to school without taking any loans. 

If I had gone to school directly from undergrad, I wouldn’t have had the income to support my continuing education, nor would I have had an employer to pay for half of it. 

While not every job includes tuition assistance as a benefit, there are quite a few that do. My company is small, so it wasn’t an advertised benefits, but I’ve since heard from a number of people that other small companies do sometimes offer it as a perk. It doesn’t hurt to ask – if it’s a relavent degree, they may agree to it even if it hasn’t been a standard program in the past. You may need to sign an agreement that you will stay employed with them for a set amount of time after graduation, but isn’t that a better way to be tied to a paycheck than to student loan repayment?

The campus itself made it worth coming back every month

If you aren’t ready for your career job right out of undergrad but know you do eventually want to go to grad school, you might as well get a job at a place that does offer education reimbursements. A few large companies that do (many don’t even require full time employment):

  1. Home Depot
  2. Lowe’s
  3. Starbucks
  4. Dick’s Drive In (Seattle area burger joint)
  5. Bank of America
  6. Wells Fargo
  7. Key Bank
  8. Chipotle
  9. McDonald’s
  10. Kroger

Make sure to do your research as some of these companies have limitations as to what area of study qualifies for reimbursement, but many are very general. 

Any college will generally also offer free tuition to their employees, regardless of position. It might be worth your while to consider an entry level position at the school of your choice, once you’ve decided on a program. 

While all of these options do require at least part time employment during the graduate program, I think it’s well worth it to come out with a degree with no more (or very little debt). You’ll then be free to work at a job of your choosing without worrying about the staggering costs of loan repayment. 

2 thoughts on “College Hacking: Get Out of Grad School Debt Free

  1. Did you write this post for me???! LOVE IT! I want to get back to school, and my employer covers a class a semester, so I will be going that route. Studying for the GRE has been a freaking nightmare, since it has been four years since I’ve had ANY reason to use math haha.

    Do you have a post outlining how you balanced work and school? I’d love to get some details in that, since I’m so nervous!

    1. Balance???? If you mean I finished up grad school when I was still pregnant before my son arrived, then sure, balance 😜 That and multi tasking – I would go for runs during my Wednesday lectures because they were remote – two birds, one stone.

Leave a Reply