The Ultimate College Hacking Guide

The Problem of Student Loans

Basically people owe A LOT of money in student debt. This debt can cause extreme stress for its borrowers years down the line. Student loans keep people from getting married, buying houses, pursuing new opportunities and financial independence. Most would agree that having a huge amount of debt having over your head can really put a damper on your lifestyle.

  • Current U.S. Student Loan Debt = est. $1.53 Trillion
  • 1 in 4 Americans have student loan debt: An est. 44.7 Million people
  • Average student loan debt amount = $37,172
  • Average student loan payment = $393/month  (source)

In short, student loan debt is a huge problem that does not seem to be getting any smaller.

Student Loans

How I Hacked My Way Through College

I got my B.A and Masters without taking a drop of student loans, and no my parent’s did not pay for all of it either.

I also did not do the “traditional college experience” which many people would not be willing to forgo. Was it worth it? Maybe. It’s hard to say. But I wanted to share with you how I did it.

  1. HOPE scholarship/In-state school: I grew up and went to High School in Georgia which made me eligible for the HOPE scholarship. I had to attend an in-state college which limited the colleges I could even consider. However, the scholarship amount was too good to pass up. There are other states that offer similar programs as well: Florida, New Mexico, West Virginia and Tennessee all have similar scholarship programs. More states offer significant financial and student aid to those who meet their requirements and stay in-state for school. HOPE covered the bulk of my tuition and was the biggest contribution to my college expenses. A simple google search can help you find out if your state offers a similar program. 

  2. Living at home: Since I went to an in-state college I decided to live at home rent-free for most of my college career. My parents were kind enough to let me live rent-free at home which significantly reduced the amount I had to pay in housing, food and even entertainment costs. I did have to buy a car to do the commute. I found a $4,300 car (ten years old). It took a hefty amount of my savings at that point but was a great investment. It lasted me for 5 years.

  1. Work: I got a job before I even started college. It was not easy and quite stressful at times. I was lucky enough to be able to arrange my school schedule to accommodate work and vice versa but there were times where I was running back and forth:) I also took some online classes which allowed to have even more flexibility. I used the money from work to pay for whatever HOPE did not cover as well as my books and other fees. I was also able to put some money into a ROTH IRA and start saving up for graduate school. I completed my B.A not only with no debt but with money in the bank and a car.

  1. Summer and Mini-mesters: With my CLEP and AP credits I had quite a few of my non-major credits completed. The first summer I decided to knock more out. Since I worked in a school during the year I took advantage of the summer semester to double up on my classes. I took 24 credits. How? I took 4 courses (the limit I was allowed to enroll according to the University) and then took another 4 in community college. Then I transferred them over. It took some research to make sure that all the credits I took at CC would transfer properly. A few of those courses I took online as well to lessen the physical workload. Mini-mesters are a small semester tacked on during winter or spring break. They usually consist of enrolling in one class all day for one week. Its a great way to get a specific course or per-requisite in. What is the purpose of stuffing so many credits into a short period of time? While colleges charge per credit they also charge certain fees per semester. Every semester you spend in college will cost you more. By taking less semesters in school you will save yourself significant amount of money. In my University, mini-mesters did not have separate semester fees so you only paid for the actual credit.

  1. Used Books: Textbooks are expensive!! I used a variety of used book stores, rentals etc to buy whatever I could second hand. I looked at message boards from former students and emailed professors to see how important it was too have a newer edition of a textbook. In many cases, an older edition had no significant differences and was half the price. After the semester was over I tried to sell many of the textbooks again. Some I was able to, some I was not. I did not recoup the the price at all! But every little bit helps!

My college experience was not traditional at all. I am not sure if that made an impact on my life today. Maybe yes, maybe no. There is no way to know. I do know that no one has asked me in a job interview about the details of my college experience as it pertains to where I got my credits or where I lived during college. The intangibles of college are hard to quantify. Perhaps if I had lived on campus I would have made some connections that would have helped me later in life. Perhaps it would have just been a waste of money. Maybe if I hadn’t worked so hard to pay for school I would have had more experiences or more time to excel with my schoolwork. Perhaps the experience of working with teenagers in a school during those years was a better experience than any college experience. There is not way to know.

What I do know is that I have never had to deal with the stress of debt. When I was unemployed for a stretch I was able to focus on things that we NEEDED (shelter and food) without defaulting on debt that would have haunted me for years. I am extremely grateful o my former self for making those choices.

Hacking college is not for everyone, There are people who feel that the college experience was the greatest experience of their life. There are opportunities available in college that are not available anywhere else. I think that the college setting is the quickest and easiest way for someone to change their life than anywhere else. For many people, the opportunity is literally life-changing and worth any money and debt in the world. For a lot of people, not as much. It’s hard to quantify what going to college can do for you. However, spending and borrowing tons of money for something that may or may not pan out is not a great move. There are ways to cut down on the amount of student loans you have to borrow.

The Experts Weigh In

Student loan debt is widely discussed and analyzed in the personal finance twitter “world”.

I posted this comment on my timeline:

I read a lot of PF blogs and I want to say: IF YOU ARE GOING TO COLLEGE OR IN COLLEGE: DO WHATEVER YOU CAN TO REDUCE YOUR STUDENT LOANS. Take extra classes each semester, get a job, live on less, take out less. Starting adulthood with… Click To Tweet

I then asked:

A/o else have ideas?

And they did have ideas! Below are some of the responses I got from the great people of Twitter:

“Take dual enrollment & AP classes if you can. Do first couple of years at a community college. And make sure you live like a broke college student so you’re not a broke college grad.”

@SeptemberAcres  

CLEP tests. Saved me a few hundred $$$

@profitdare

Look at options to get college credit in high school. Dual credit courses, advanced placement, and international baccalaureate. They’re often cheap or free, and the more early credits you get, the fewer you pay (and borrow for) later. Just make sure they’re usable credits.

@FiPrincipal

I’m late to the party but SCHOLARSHIPS!!! So many scholarships actually have a small applicant pool because nobody takes the time to apply. Especially scholarships that have a brief written component; do a good job and your chances skyrocket!

@early20smoney

Take AP classes in High School. If you get a certain score, the credits will transfer over to college and you may be able to graduate a semester or even a year early. Apply for local scholarships, go to college locally so you can live at home.

@KUWTBulls

Apply for scholarships over and over again. Not just senior year of high school. And small ones!

@picksuppennies

I’d say college choice is a huge factor. If your family has an extra half million sitting around, a private college is a luxury you can afford. If not, unless you get a big scholarship, go instate. 99% of employers will take a state grad as fast as they’ll take an Ivy.

 @SmallIvy_SI

See if you can get class credits for an internship. Get ahead in the workforce before graduating. Perfect world, a paid internship to help keep costs down as well.

@dollarrev

While I don’t recommend enlisting in the Army National Guard SOLELY to get out of or avoid student loan debt, IF one is ALREADY so inclined, however: https://www.nationalguard.com/tools/student-loan-repayment-program … Some individual states also have even more generous programs. SPC Johns, #TXARNG ’89-95

@TimJohnsWA

If you are in a STEM degree, consider summer internships and CO-OPs. CO-OPs might go by a different name these days. They consist of taking a semester off to extend an internship. STEM interns can earn $12-$20 per hour. Use that money to avoid debt when you go back to class.

@BigH_29

My son watched us struggle under the weight of st. loans and was determined not to go that route. He chose an inexpensive but well respected program in his field and earned a pile of scholarship money in bowling tournaments of all things. He’s covered most of his tuition himself.

@MyWidowedLife