By now, everyone knows the terrifying figures.
More than $1 trillion in total outstanding student debt across the United States. Almost seven in 10 college grads emerge owing money, with an average debt of $28,400 for the Class of 2013, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.
But flip that statistic on its head: Three in 10 students are coming out of college with not a penny owed. So who are these people—and how exactly did they do it?
Meet Vanessa Joseph. The 31-year-old registered nurse in Iselin, New Jersey, did not graduate debt-free once, but twice.
First she earned a business degree from the public College of Staten Island, which charged a reasonable $2,000 a year in tuition. She lived with her mother, worked odd jobs as a magazine intern and language teacher, and cut daily expenses to the bone.
Then Joseph went back to school for nursing, a two-year degree that cost $13,000 a year. During that time she lived with her uncle, and worked at a hospital as a nursing assistant. Sometimes she would work the night shift from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., and then turn around and attend classes during the day. When did she sleep? "Never," she said with a laugh.
But it paid off: She graduated with zero debt, and is now a nurse at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
"It may not seem easy to graduate debt-free, but it can be done," said Stuart Ritter, a financial planner and vice-president of Baltimore-based T. Rowe Price Investment Services.
To get to that point, you will need to pull out every arrow in your quiver. T. Rowe Price's recent Family Financial Trade-offs Survey found that 76 percent of college grads helped pay for college themselves. But that only got them part-way. In addition, 48 percent relied on some parental assistance, and 39 percent got a boost from grants or scholarships. Respondents to the survey could choose more than one category, if applicable. One thing is guaranteed: To graduate debt-free you will need to think creatively, and be willing to sacrifice far more than you would like. Some tips from the experts:
Get A Running Start
With advanced-placement courses, you can rack up credits before you even set foot on a college campus. This year over 4.5 million exams were taken by more than 2.5 million students at over 19,000 high schools, according to College Board.
Some states, like Hawaii and Washington, even offer programs that allow qualifying students to enroll in college courses during their high-school years.
Compound those early AP gains by attending local community college instead of a top-flight Ivy. Public two-year colleges average just $3,347 for in-state residents, according to the College Board.
"Spend your initial college years living at home and paying much cheaper rates," says Steve Burkett, a financial planner in Bothell, Washington. "Then transfer to where you want, to earn your final degree."
Need proof of the soundness of that strategy? In Sallie Mae's report "How America Pays for College," 56 percent of those at four-year private colleges had to borrow cash to cover their bills, compared with only 22 percent of those at two-year public colleges.
Having a summer job is a given if you are looking to graduate debt-free. But take advantage of work opportunities during the school year, as well, to really cut down that final bill.
"Look for colleges that have a Resident Advisor program where they cover your room and board," advises Therese Nicklas, a Boston financial planner. "It equals tax-free income. When many schools charge in the $20,000 range for room and board, the value is huge."
Applying For Aid Like A Job
If you are not taking advantage of every aid opportunity available, then shame on you. But that due diligence takes work.
Pursue every possible avenue of funds imaginable: parents' employers, religious bodies, community service clubs, or philanthropic organizations.
FastWeb.com has a database of more than 1.5 million of them, which provide $3.4 billion in funding. "Spend ample time at your Student Aid office, and apply for any unused grants and scholarships," said Minneapolis financial planner Andy Tate. "It sounds simple, and it is, but no one does it."
In the end, it comes down to choices. Vanessa Joseph recalls her lean college years of shopping at thrift stores, never taking any vacations - rarely even going to the hair salon. Meanwhile, her sister decided to go away to a college that had a price tag of more than $30,000 a year.
"Now she is over $50,000 in debt," she says. "And that bill comes every month."