How To Pay For College Without Taking on Debt

By on January 14, 2016 in Leadership, Pay & Benefits with 44 Comments

Image of 2 puzzle pieces with words 'college debt'

A college degree is a necessity in today’s competitive job market, but paying for it has become a Herculean task. According to College Board, an institution that tracks college data, the average cost of tuition alone at a public university tips the scales at nearly $10,000 per year for in-state students.

Private universities boast price tags upwards of $32,000 a year. The future outcome for the cost of education is grim; according to the U.S. Department of Education, a complete college education (including room, board, taxes, and fees) is expected to be somewhere near $205,000 by the year 2030.

If you have children nearing college age, hearing these numbers can be scary, especially when you’re in the middle of planning your retirement and budgeting for your own future. The average middle class family doesn’t make enough to pay such an exorbitant rate for higher education, but you also don’t want your child saddled with insurmountable debt on graduation day.

Programs For Federal Employees

If you’re a federal employee or service member, you child can benefit from discount programs offered by both public and private universities. Some offer course credit in exchange for military or federal work experience, while others offer discounts on tuition.

The University of Maryland University College, for example, offers a 25% tuition discount for federal employees, their spouses, and their dependents. Talk with each prospective university on your list to determine what kinds of incentives they offer to federal employees and their families. Here’s a list of colleges that offer perks by state.

Even with the perks offered through federal employment, college is still expensive. With the rising costs of education hitting the middle-class, many wonder how to pay for a child’s college and remain debt-free? Of course, this dilemma is multiplied by the number of children you have. We have some suggestions for how to get your children through college, whether you have little time to plan or a lot, without the burden of debt.

Start Planning Early

Obviously, the best way to send your kids to school without financial aid and burying yourself in debt is to plan ahead. Just as you plan for retirement by participating in the Thrift Savings Plan, start planning for your children’s academic future by opening an account to pay their higher education costs. Your choice will depend on the amount of time you have to save, but here are some common options:

  • A 529 account is a popular option for parents who are firmly established in the state they live in. Account rules vary by state, but generally there are no income limits or age restrictions. 529 account funds effectively allow you to pay for college at a locked-in rate, saving you from tuition hikes.They’re also tax-deferred, making them an attractive option, but there’s one caveat: 529 funds can only be applied to in-state tuition at local universities. If you’re a Bruins alum displaced in Pennsylvania and want your child to follow in your footsteps, this isn’t the option for you.
  • If your child is very young, meet with a financial advisor and discuss the merits of high-risk, high-yield investments. These are great ways to maximize your funds during their early years. As your child gets closer to college age, transfer your assets to a safer location, like a 529 or high interest savings account.
  • A safe way to play it is to have a mixture of high and low risk investments and to change the proportion as the child ages. For example, you may choose to put 75% of your children’s funds into a high yield investment and 25% in a 529. At age 6, proportion these to be 50/50, until all of their educational funds are in low-risk categories by the time they enter their junior year of high school.
  • No matter which avenue you choose—high risk, low risk, or a combination of both, commit to adding a fixed amount to your child’s educational fund monthly. Also save the money under your name, not your child’s, so as not to affect their chances of receiving need-based financial aid.

When You’re Strapped For Time (And Cash)

In spite of your best intentions, you may not have enough to pay the entirety of your child’s college education, given the amount you have already and the time you have until they take their first steps on campus. Never fear, your kid still has options when it comes to lowering the cost of education. Here are some of the possibilities:

  • Look into Pell grants. These are need-based resources, allocated by the U.S. Department of Education. Since they’re grants, not loans, you don’t have to pay them back. Eligible students are entitled to up to $5575 per academic year. The amount you receive depends on financial need, student status (full-time), and your cost of attending college. Students may receive Pell grants for up to 12 semesters (approximately 6 years), as long as they remain in good standing with the university.
  • Scholarships are another popular option for those who need extra help paying for tuition. There’s a searchable database for scholarships on many popular websites, but have your student check with the college of their choice for demographic specific programs and other offerings. There are often scholarships available to women pursuing STEM careers, for example. Searching and applying for scholarships can be a very time intensive process, however. You can get help from experts in the field like Shanice Miller or Elizabeth Hartley.
  • Cast a wide net. Have your student apply to as many local, public universities as possible. The more acceptances they have, the more you can research to determine which is going to offer the best combination of scholarships and grants.
  • Find a non-profit benefactor. Certain agencies, like AmeriCorps, will offer tuition funds in exchange for a service commitment after graduation.
  • Encourage general education credits at a local community college so students can live at home. Not only do community colleges cost exponentially less than their 4 year counterparts, many local universities have agreements that allow general credits to transfer, hassle-free. Once your student is at a four year university, have them live off of campus to save money on room and board.
  • At tax time, ask your financial advisor about educational credit opportunities, like the Lifelong Learning Credit and the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which may reimburse you for tuition and fees. Keep in mind that your income affects eligibility, so you may have to consider letting your student file as an independent for maximum return.
  • Set up a meeting – or have your student arrange one – with the school guidance counselor. These professionals are trained to be aware of programs that you may not have access to otherwise.
  • Ask about work-study options. Often, students are eligible to work in University departments in exchange for payment toward tuition and fees.

Given the cost of today’s college education, students and their parents often complain that the worst part of earning a degree is figuring out how to pay for it. For the short term, it appears that tuition hikes are here to stay. With the cost of education becoming more exorbitant with each passing year, parents are desperate for viable options.

With careful planning and research, it’s possible to earn a college degree without getting financial aid and drowning in debt. The University’s financial aid department can also help you find aid opportunities you may have otherwise missed. It will take some legwork on your part, but watching your student walk across the platform on graduation day debt-free will make it all worth it.

© 2016 Jason Kay. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Jason Kay.

About the Author

Jason Kay is a professional resume writer and regular contributor to, a professional federal resume service and repository of sample KSA statements.