Debt-Free College Strategies – These Worked for Us

Published by Wendy Nelson on

Debt-Free TargetThere are many debt-free college strategies. This week, I’ve been watching my friend Jocelyn Paonita Pearson, of The Scholarship System, in her free Debt-Free Degree Workshops. She and I are very much on the same wavelength about how to go to college debt free and what’s important in the college search process. If you haven’t had a chance to take advantage of these FREE workshops, you can get on the waitlist for the next time she runs them – REGISTER HERE.

In this post, I will focus on the debt-free college strategies that worked for our family. This Fall, we will send our youngest of 3 girls off to college (well actually she starts in June, more about that later).

With daughter #2 graduating in May, we will have successfully completed two debt-free college educations, with #3 also projected to finish completely debt-free. In fact, our oldest will graduate with her Master’s degree in May, also having gone through grad school completely debt free (tuition and living expenses were completely covered by the school).

I believe it is possible for most families to manage a debt-free college education for their students. It involves careful planning and sometimes difficult choices.

Below are the debt-free college strategies that worked for us.

Select a College Where You Fall Into the Top 25% of Applicants

This was the main strategy for daughter #1. Why should your student fall in the top 25% of applicants? This will give them the best chance at significant Merit Scholarships.

Colleges publish the middle-50% ACT and SAT scores for applicants. If your student falls above that mid-50% range, they will be more likely to receive larger merit scholarships. I am not saying that students in the mid-50% range won’t get merit scholarships. They probably will, but these will be smaller amounts.

What about schools that are test optional? For these schools, it is going to be more challenging to know if your student is in the top 25% of applicants if they don’t submit test scores. The general advice on whether or not to submit test scores at a test-optional college is this:

  • Check the school’s mid-50% test score range
  • If your student falls above the mid-50% range, they should definitely submit test scores
  • If your student falls below the mid-50% range, but would be a competitive candidate based on GPA, class rank, activities, leadership experience, etc., don’t submit test scores. (If GPA and other experiences would not make them competitive against other applicants, it’s probably not even worth applying.) Make sure that your student can submit a very good essay and get some great recommendation letters. Some test-optional schools will also require an interview, so if your student can interview well, his will also help ensure they are a promising candidate.
  • If your student falls within the mid-50% range, it’s a judgement call based on the student’s other qualifications. If your student has a GPA above the median GPA of applicants, a high class rank (at least top 25%), a good resume of extracurricular involvement and leadership, and a transcript filled with the most challenging courses, you could probably go either way. Other parts of the application can shine if your student can write a good essay and get good recommendation letters. There wouldn’t be a strong reason not to submit test scores if the student falls within the mid-50% test score range.

In addition to making admission more certain, what you are really looking for here is a school that will offer your student substantial merit scholarships. This will knock the sticker price of college down. This is especially important if you are what I call a “college search family caught in the middle”, meaning you make too much money for need-based financial aid, but you can’t afford to pay full sticker price for four years. In that scenario, merit scholarships will be one of your best opportunities to make college more affordable.

With daughter #1, we were looking for a private college that would offer enough merit scholarships to knock the tuition down to what would be comparable to our state’s flagship public university. (She wasn’t interested in attending a large public college, so smaller private colleges were our best options.)

She also wanted a college that would challenge her academically. This can be more difficult when you are aiming for schools where your student falls in the top 25% of applicants. However, if you don’t abandon the notion that your student needs to go to a very selective and expensive school in order to be challenged academically, you are much less likely to achieve a debt-free college experience.That’s where Honors Colleges fit in, but before we talk about another debt-free college strategy I have already eluded to that goes hand-in hand with being in the top 25% of applicants.

Look for Colleges That Offer Large Merit Scholarships

Just because your student falls into the top 25% of applicants at a school does not mean they will get large merit scholarships. Schools are all different in whether or not they offer merit scholarships, whether the scholarships are automatic or competitive, and what criteria is needed to win these scholarships. There are really three things to look at to increase your student’s chance of winning large merit scholarships:

  1. Fall in the top 25% of applicants
  2. Select schools that are generous with merit scholarships (if you are a college search family “caught in the middle” like I described above, you especially want to look for schools that are generous with merit scholarship for students without need)
  3. Select schools that list large merit scholarships

One way to do this would be to use a college search website like to narrow in on the first two, and then go college by college searching their websites for merit scholarships. This will take a lot of time. You can save time  by finding all 3 of these through my Merit Scholarship List site, a searchable database of over 11,000 merit scholarships offered directly by colleges. I am offering a special 30-day trial of the site for only $5.

Select a College with an Honors College or Honors Program

I mentioned above that Honors Colleges would be a way to stay within the debt-free college theme while also offering academic challenge for your student. While Honors Colleges or Honors Programs alone are not a strategy for a debt-free college education, there are a few ways this can work in your favor.

  1. Honors Colleges tend to offer really good merit scholarships to top applicants
  2. Honors Colleges/Honors Programs can provide a more rigorous environment when your student is aiming to fall into the top 25% of applicants at a school to get the best merit scholarships.
  3. Many public universities, with lower tuition rates, offer honors programs to attract top applicants away from selective private colleges. Tuition is lower to begin with, and there may still be opportunities for merit scholarships to reduce the price further.
  4. Similar to #3, many regional private colleges offer honors programs to attract top applicants away from the nationally-ranked more competitive private colleges. Regional private colleges tend to also have lower sticker prices and usually offer substantial merit aid to remain competitive with public universities in the area.

My oldest daughter selected a strong regional private university to take advantage of the combination of being in the top 25% of applicants and being admitted to a highly regarded Honors College offering the level of rigor she was seeking.

Her college choice came down to her top two schools. One was a nationally-ranked university with a high sticker price that offered her a good amount of merit aid. The other was the regional private university with a lower sticker price that also offered her substantial merit aid. The merit scholarship at the nationally-ranked school was a few thousand dollars more, but the lower sticker price of the regional university made it cheaper overall. Even though we successfully requested more merit aid at the nationally-ranked school, it still came out several thousand dollars higher. We left the decision to her, but ultimately she decided that the Honors College provided the level of rigor she wanted and justified selecting the school with the lower net price.

Select an In-State Public University

In-State public universities tend to be the most inexpensive 4-year college options. Even with significant merit scholarship at private colleges, it will be difficult to get a cheaper net price.

This was the first strategy we used with daughter #2. Fortunately, we have a very highly regarded state flagship university, University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. It is on the pricier end for in-state public colleges at around $17,000 tuition per year. There are also very few opportunities for merit scholarships.

Since our daughter said she was only interested in “large schools”, we focused the search on University of Illinois, an out-of-state public university, and two private universities with enrollment over 10,000 students. Her career goal was, and still is, to be an elementary or middle-school art teacher. Colleges handle this different ways. Some schools require the student to major in studio art and study Education separately at either the undergraduate or graduate level. Other schools, like University of Illinois , have a specific Art Education program that covers both in one degree program. This made University of Illinois the most appealing option.

She ended up applying to 3 schools. The out-of-state public university did not offer any merit aid and our state does not have a reciprocity agreement so this was full out-of-state tuition. The private university she applied to offered her a decent merit scholarship, but still left the tuition price over $5,000 per year higher than University of Illinois. No arm-twisting was needed as she knew they offered the best program for her anyway.

As I said earlier, tuition was still high compared to other public in-state universities at around $17,000 per year. We were fortunate that she was able to save in other ways which I will talk about next.

Obtain College Credits Prior to College

There are several ways to obtain college credits prior to college. I talked about each in-depth in the post, Earning College Credits in High School.

Our middle daughter was able to use two of the strategies discussed in that post: AP credits and dual credits to save money on college by lowering the total number of credits she needed to obtain while in college.

With AP credits and several dual-credit courses, she was able to go into college with about a whole semester of credit. Some was credit for electives, and some fulfilled core requirements.

Obtaining substantial college credit prior to college can be used by students two ways:

  1. Cutting down on the # of credits needed each semester in college to allow for more time to focus on each course and more time for other things like work, sports, etc.
  2. Cutting down on the total overall time needed in college to graduate early

Take Maximum Course Load Each Semester

Some colleges charge strictly by the credit. For example, if the school charges $500 per credit and your student takes 12 credits, semester tuition is $6,000. At that same rate, if your student takes 18 credits, semester tuition is $9,000. This is a substantial difference in cost! However, if the student obtains all their required credits to graduate from this school, there will be no getting out of paying for each one of those unless other strategies are employed.

Other colleges charge the same tuition amount for a range of credits up to a maximum. These are the colleges this strategy applies to. That maximum is usually 18 credits. If the student can take 18 credits for the same price as 12 credits, it’s in their best interest to do so if they can handle the workload.

Our daughter #2 also used this strategy. University of Illinois Urbana Champaign charges the same amount of tuition starting at 12 credits, with no cap. A student could take 18 or even 21 credits per semester at the same tuition rate. She found that 18 credits, while a lot of work, was doable to achieve during most of her semesters.

Take Lower-Cost Summer Classes

This was another strategy used by daughter #2. Some colleges, like University of Illinois, offer online classes in the Summer at a lower per-credit tuition rate. This allows students to pick up credits they need while not being physically on campus at a lower cost. If they can live at home, work a summer job, and take 1 or 2 online classes, this is a major plus!

This strategy can be especially useful for knocking out those general education courses/core requirements that colleges have. Often these are content areas your student isn’t as thrilled about since it isn’t their major area of study.

Another option to investigate here is taking summer classes through a local community college. These can be either on campus or online. Your student must make sure their college will accept these credits towards their degree program. As long as the college confirms they will accept these credits, this can be a significant cost savings. Again, this is usually used to knock out general education requirements.

One more tip from daughter #2’s experience – Some schools, like University of Illinois, also offer short-term courses during a J-term or winter break term. If the school offers online courses this way, this can also be a cost saver as these should be a lower per-credit tuition rate.

Graduate in Less Than Four Years

If your student can knock even a semester off of their four-year plan, it will result in significant cost savings for you.

Doing this will require a combination of the strategies discussed above. In our daughter #2’s case, she did the following to graduate in 3 years:

  • Selected an in-state public university
  • Obtained college credits in high school
  • Took online summer classes through her college for two summers (two classes one summer, one class another summer)
  • Took one winter break term online class through her college

Look at the potential cost savings that cutting a whole year off of college can give you:

University of Illinois Urbana Champaign – $17,000 tuition average + $11,480 room & board average = $28,480 Savings!

This savings could be even higher at private universities.

Obtain Outside Scholarships

Both daughter #1 and daughter #2 were able to make this strategy work, as high school Seniors, and as college students.

I say this a lot, but it bears repeating often – Your student’s best chance for outside scholarship money is through local scholarships.

Your student’s high school counseling office should maintain a listing of local outside scholarships. Other ways to find these are in the local newspaper when they do press releases about the scholarship application period and online by Googling local organizations. These local scholarships are offered through business, service organizations, community groups and clubs, and community foundations.

Our #1 and #2 daughters both won several local scholarships as high school Seniors with total amounts into the thousands. Additionally, they both won outside scholarships while in college through our local Rotary club. These could be applied for, and won, multiple years while in college and were in the thousands.

Beyond local scholarships, there are hundreds of larger outside scholarships that vary in amount of competition, difficulty of entry and amount of money. These can range from a couple hundred dollars up to thousands. There are many scholarship search websites online where you can find these outside scholarships. My favorite site for this is Cappex, because of the information they provide about each scholarship. I talked about this in depth in the post, How Do You Find Merit Scholarships?

With these larger outside scholarships, it’s really a numbers game – the more your student applies to, the greater the chance of winning any (assuming they are otherwise qualified for the scholarship!). I just read a statistic that said students need to apply to 3-7 scholarships PER WEEK in order to win any!

To learn tons of information about how to find and win outside scholarships, I recommend The Scholarship System. You can sign up to start the online training program for only $1 right now through this link.

For Athletes – Find Schools Offering Major Athletic Scholarships

So far I have only talked about daughters #1 and #2 and the strategies we used to get them through college debt free. Since I am talking about all the debt-free college strategies that worked for our family, I need to touch on what worked for daughter #3.

She has been a school and club volleyball player since 5th grade and was recognized pretty early on as having a lot of potential. She loved the sport enough to want to pursue a college athletic scholarship.

I have several posts that go in-depth on what it takes to get an athletic scholarship:

Athletic Scholarships 101

Getting a Division 1 Athletic Scholarship

Best Resources for Athletic Recruiting

The College Search for Athletes

Daughter #3 has a full-ride athletic scholarship to play Division 1 volleyball. I will be the first to say, it was a lot of work for her to get there. These scholarships don’t come easy. They require thousands of hours of practice to get to that level and lots of time commitments that take priority over school and social activities, not to mention family time and money sacrifices!

Additionally, fulfilling the athletic commitment required by these scholarships becomes like a job during college that varies between part-time and full-time throughout the school year and requires a lot of sacrifices as well. Our daughter will not get to enjoy a “last summer home before college” as she needs to report to college in June for a summer program.

For very talented athletes that have the desire and discipline to play at the college level, this can be an avenue worth pursuing. Because she was granted this amazing opportunity, we do not need to employ any other debt-free college strategies for her at this point. We are very humbled and grateful for that (and will have a backup plan in case something changes).


There are other debt-free college strategies out there for you to explore. In this post, I wanted to focus only on what worked for our family. In a future post, I will describe others.