How to get the college degree without the debt

65% of graduates have student loan debt

College can be exorbitantly expensive, but some strategies can help you graduate with minimal or no debt.

SAN ANTONIO – College can be exorbitantly expensive, but some strategies can help you graduate with minimal or no debt.

Joshua Mata is studying to be an architect without building a tower of student loan debt.

“They pay the whole tuition, three years,” he said.

He’s starting his studies at San Antonio College by participating in the Alamo Promise program. He’ll then transfer to a university, possibly UTSA.

Smart move, according to Kristina Ellis, who literally wrote the book on how to graduate debt-free. She’s a college finance expert with Dave Ramsey Solutions.

“Don’t buy into the myth you need to spend a ton of money. You don’t have to go to a fancy school,” she said. “The idea you have to go for prestige is just not true. There are a ton of successful people who went to a low-cost college and got to where they are because they were willing to hustle and work hard.”

Look beyond the sticker price. Some colleges are more generous than others when it comes to financial aid.

Community college is worth considering, Ellis said, especially if you’re not sure what you want to study. Once you complete the basic courses, you can transfer to a four-year college or university for the degree.

“A lot of states and cities have free or very low-cost community college. It’s a great place to start,” Ellis said.

Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and do it as early as possible.

“A lot of people who think they won’t qualify for financial aid actually are surprised when they do get a little bit of award,” Ellis said. “If you are a low-income student, this can be a tremendous access point to a huge amount of financial assistance.”

If you don’t qualify for a grant, you may be eligible to participate in a work-study program.

Next, apply for as many scholarships as you can.

“My senior year of high school, I treated it like a part-time job,” she said.

Ellis secured half-a-million dollars in scholarships for her degrees.

You can find scholarships by searching online databases on websites like Scholarshipowl.com and MyScholly.com.

Ellis recommends starting with your high school guidance counselor.

“They are going to coordinate a lot of local scholarships,” she said. “Those typically have less competition.”

Employer tuition assistance programs are becoming increasingly common, too. By tapping those opportunities, you can earn a degree and a paycheck at the same time.

Budgeting and planning are key. Setting up a college savings plan such as a 529 when a child is very young lets the investment grow as the child does.

“I encourage parents to start saving as soon as possible,” Ellis said. “Even if you don’t have a lot, that little bit can add up.”

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About the Authors:

As a consumer reporter, Marilyn is all about helping people stay safe and save a buck. Since coming to KSAT in 1985, she’s covered everything from crime to politics, winning awards for her coverage of the Mexican Mafia, Oklahoma tornadoes, children’s transplants, an investigation into voting irregularities and even a hit-and-run Santa Claus.

Luis Cienfuegos is a photographer at KSAT 12.