How I graduated from college debt free

Adam My Life, Personal Finance 13 Comments

People often ask me how I managed to get through college without any debt or parental assistance, so I thought I’d outline my process here. It’s not an option for everybody but it worked for me.

I don’t come from a well off family. I grew up in a household that depending on the year (my dad’s income was pretty variable as an entrepreneur) we ranged from lower middle to middle class. My senior year of high school, as my parents went through a divorce, we hit some pretty hard financial times in our house. Before I was aware of all the financial issues, I had applied to something like 8-10 colleges. Those included a few Ivy’s, several other super prestigious schools, a couple of upper tier regional schools, and my backups in Arkansas.

I initially really had my heart set on going to a “prestigious” school on the east or west coast and hadn’t really put much thought as to cost. When I realized that I was pretty much on my own, I had to really change my mentality.

I’ve always been super driven, to the point of it being a bit too much, and academics were always something I excelled in. By my senior year I was rocking a 4.xx (something – i don’t remember what, 4.25 maybe), played varsity sports, and was in all the extracurriculars I could to boost my resume. My test scores (ACT /SAT) had always been pretty solid, so I had already put myself in a good position. Though if I could go back, I would have taken study prep much more seriously. 1-2 more points on the ACT, which was a very realistic goal with some practice, could have added thousands to my pockets annually and made my life much easier.
I didn’t have the same level of success as Ramit, but I basically had the same strategy. Apply for everything and those $500-1000 ones can add up to something substantial. Beyond just putting in the apps for both admittance and academic scholarships, I started scouring the web for any all scholarships I could find. I applied for scholarships from dozens of companies (thank you Walmart), any organization I could think of (Polish Americans, random right?) and a bunch of other random ones I can’t remember now. The internet was quite a bit younger in 2004, but I searched any and every website listing scholarships as well as looking through google. Back then there were also books you could buy at a Barnes and Noble full of scholarships. I talked with my counselor or scholarship ideas as well.

Most scholarship applications are surprisingly short and at most ask for an essay or two and a recommendation. Most will be pretty wide open to the topic, so if you write a couple of pretty killer ones you can just use the same files over and over. You also need to have a good relationship with at least two teachers who are willing to write stellar recommendation letters. APPLY APPLY APPLY. This is a battle that someone with a solid academic background can win by sheer brute force of applications.

So how did all those applications turn out? Well I got rejected from most of the schools, got in to a couple in the prestigious ones, regionals and of course my Arkansas backups. Unfortunately, I didn’t get much in the way of financial aid to my upper tier options. However, I did receive a full academic ride the Arkansas and an even better package to the University of Arkansas, Little Rock (UALR). I wasn’t really interested in UALR so that was tossed out. I debated long and hard about taking out student loans, but in the end I couldn’t bring myself to put myself in that much debt before I even got out of school. Watching my parents struggle left me with a real fear of debt so I decided not to be stupid and take the gift looking me in the face. That left me with Arkansas.

The scholarships I received were enough to cover my tuition and the bulk of my room and board. Add to that the numerous small wins I managed to wrack up and I had enough to cover all my bills, plus receive a check from the school for $1,000-2,000 to cover books and whatever else. I also managed to score a few extra ones over the next couple of years as well as figure out a couple of housing discounts that let me bump those checks up a bit more.

What I did Right

  1. Started early. In order for this strategy to work at all, you need to be in the top tier of students, both for GPA and test scores. I was diligent from 9-12 when your academic career matters.
  2. Applied to a variety of types of universities – 1. reach schools, middle level and backups.
  3. Applied to every scholarship I could find.
  4. Took the smart path and stayed away from the loans.

What I did Wrong

  1.  Applied to too many schools. I should have narrowed it to about 5-6. 10 is exhausting and unnecessary I think unless your really trying to get in to one of the most competitive schools in the country with very low admittance rates.
  2. I should have gotten much more professional vetting of my essays. I can recall one of them now and it’s a bit cringeworthy. I think I’d have ended up with a good bit more in scholarship had I consulted some adults with a lot of knowledge on the topic.
  3. I should have studied much more for the standardized tests. My score was better than pretty much anybody I knew so I got lazy. I made the mistake of comparing myself to the small pond around me and ignoring the larger pool. A single additional point on the ACT would have given me a guaranteed scholarship from the Arkansas government that would have added more than $10,000 in spending money to my 4 years and would have removed an enormous amount of stress from my life.

So that’s how I did it. I made it all 4 years of college with no student loans, some intermittent, but always paid off credit card debt, and zero help from the parents.

*I would like to note for transparency sake, that my grandparents and parents helped me pay for my first car and other basic necessities to move out on your own. I wasn’t completely on my own and realize I started in a better position than many.


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