The total amount of student loan debt collectively hanging over our heads is staggering. Two out of every three college students graduate with outstanding loans, and the effects of student loan debt aren't temporary. According to a recent article on Nerd Wallet, the expected retirement age for millennials is now ten years beyond today's average. Because of the amount of debt Generation Y carries and must somehow repay, we'll most likely be working until age 73.
If the average twenty-something has somewhere around $25,000 of debt to their name, then I must be a highly unique member of the millennial generation. I graduated from Kennesaw State University, a fast-growing school in the suburbs of Atlanta, in 2011. It was the same year that the total amount of student loan debt in the U.S. reached a whopping $1 trillion, but when I graduated, I did so as a completely debt-free individual.
I never accumulated credit card debt, and more importantly, I got through a four-year university without taking out a single student loan. Considering the statistics, coming out of college without a cent in the red sounds like a nearly impossible feat. But my positive net worth stands as proof that it is possible (and no, you don't need a wealthy family or a sugar daddy to make it happen).
Here's how I managed to escape college as a debt-free millennial:
I scored scholarships. When I went off to college, three scholarships that were awarded for academic merit came with me. Two, I received for scoring the highest SAT scores in the county where I attended high school. The third was the HOPE scholarship, which was huge for me. Funded by the Georgia lottery, it was generously awarded to any student who had and maintained a 3.0 GPA or better. It was a really good incentive for keeping my grades up to standard in college. Though I had classes I slacked in, I made sure my GPA stayed well above the cut-off for receiving HOPE, and I eventually graduated with a 3.6.
I stayed in-state and went to a cheap school. Going out-of-state was never an option. The out-of-state fees seemed downright unreasonable, especially considering how many universities there where in Georgia that I could attend. And although I had wanted to attend the University of Georgia, the historic school in Athens was more than three hours from my home and expensive. Kennesaw State University, on the other hand, was cheap and was close enough that I could live at home. Kennesaw State's tutition was also incredibly low. When I started, a semester only cost about $3,000, fees included. My HOPE scholarship covered the tuition, while my other scholarships covered the fees and helped with textbook costs.
I never thought to fund my lifestyle with loans. It never occurred to me that taking out student loans for things other than paying for classes was even an option. I was shocked when I realized some of my friends, who I thought simply came from families with a highly accessible Bank of Mom and Dad, were actually spending the money they received from taking out loans on nights out, clothes and booze. Imagine being in your 30s and still working to pay back -- with interest -- four years or more of partying.
I worked part-time instead. I spent more money than I probably should have in college, but it was money that came in the form of a paycheck, not a sum of money I would eventually have to pay back (again, with interest). I worked part-time, first at a bookstore and then in an office as an administrative assistant, and I slowly learned how to manage my own money. After a few hard lessons, taught by a miserably small dollar amount in my checking account after too many parties, shopping sprees and impulse buys, I gradually learned to want less and to save more.
I chose not to go to graduate school. Being a history major meant I endured endless comments about the fact that I would have to go to grad school to be successful. Deciding to ignore what I secretly agreed with wasn't easy, but in the end I chose to walk away from a Masters degree after I finished my undergrad career. I could not afford to pay for graduate school out of pocket, and I did not believe that my job prospects would be greatly improved with more degrees.
Two and half years later, I believe I made the right choice. I'm still with the company I got hired at three months after graduation, but I've worked my way up a little; I've gotten multiple raises and more responsibility. I'm not working in a museum or teaching college kids about the history of Ireland like I had dreamed about in the past, but I do have a stable job that pays the bills.
I've also been able to work on side hustles I'm passionate about, like writing. And while I may not be teaching kids about Ireland, being debt-free has allowed me to save for an overseas trip, and I will actually be visiting the Emerald Isle next year. I'm able to save over 30 percent of my income and I'm planning on retiring early -- possibly within the next 20 years.
I'm able to do all of this because I made decisions that set me up to earn my degree in exchange for the smallest amount of money possible. Avoiding debt was, and always has been, a top priority. In hindsight, the steps I took in college seem ten times more valuable and worthwhile today. I'm so thankful I am one millennial who defies the statistics and lives without any debt to slow me down.
This story appears in Issue 80 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, available Friday, Dec. 20in the iTunes App store.
Average tuition and fees for in-state student: $9,022 in 2011-12 Increased: 20.5% from a year prior and 98.3% from five years prior The worst could be yet to come for students in California's public universities. If California residents vote against state tax increases in the November elections, the school system will have to come up with money fast to fill the $375 million budget gap that would ensue, says Dianne Klein, a spokeswoman for the University of California's Office of the President, which is the headquarters for the 10 UC campuses. Under that scenario, tuition could rise 20.3% for the second semester of the upcoming academic year. Much of California's growing college-cost burden has been placed on out-of-state students. The 10 most expensive campuses for out-of-state students in the U.S. are all in California, where tuition, fees, room and board in total ran up to roughly $51,000 last year, according to the Chronicle for Higher Education. Klein says that despite the rising costs, overall applications to the UC system are going up; she also says that because of the system's financial aid programs, about half of all UC undergrads pay no tuition.
Average tuition and fees for in-state student: $9,428 in 2011-12 Increased: 16.8% from a year prior and 101.7% from five years prior Since 2008, Arizona's public universities have laid off faculty and staff and eliminated academic programs in order to make ends meet. This year, state funding will total $708 million, compared with nearly $1.1 billion for the 2007-08 academic year, says Katie Paquet, spokeswoman for the Arizona Board of Regents. As tuition costs have risen, the largest universities in the state have rolled out lower-cost ways that students can attain a Bachelor's degree. This fall, Arizona State University will open a new campus in Lake Havasu City, where annual tuition for state residents will cost $6,000, nearly 40% less than at its campus in Tempe. Also, Arizona's largest universities -- ASU, University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University -- are offering students who transfer from community colleges a lower-cost way to complete their Bachelor's degree; in some cases, students will be charged the cost of tuition during their freshman year in community college rather than the tuition the four-year school charges when they enter it. "Our goal is to provide more options to students across the state at varying price points," says Paquet. Separately, for the first time in two decades, Arizona State University and the University of Arizona have frozen tuition for in-state undergraduate students for the upcoming academic year. Tuition for out-of-state students will rise by roughly 3%.
Average tuition and fees for in-state student: $6,808 in 2011-12 Increased: 15.9% from a year prior and 74.2% from five years prior Beyond tuition hikes, Georgia college students are also facing cutbacks to a popular state scholarship program. Last year, the state reduced the amount of money it doled out to students through its merit-based Hope Scholarship, amid concerns that the program was underfunded. The program, which used to cover 100% of tuition costs at the state's public colleges for qualifying students, covered roughly 87% last year; this year, as tuition continues to rise, the scholarship will cover 81% to 85% of costs in the university system. The state is also looking at cutting direct funding to higher education. Georgia Governor Nathan Deal recently proposed a $54 million cut through June 2014, which if enacted would reduce spending over that period to roughly $1.7 billion. A decision is expected early next year. John Millsaps, spokesman for the University System of Georgia, says public institutions have had to shift much of the cost burden onto students as state funding dwindles. Over the past seven years, state funding went from covering 75% of the cost of educating students to 50%, he says.
Average tuition and fees for in-state student: $9,484 in 2011-12 Increased: 15.7% from a year prior and 67.3% from five years prior Unlike most states, Washington doesn't have an individual income tax; instead, it relies on sales taxes for much of its revenue. Income from that source slumped during the recession, leaving the state with less money to go around. To make up for the shortfall, the state granted permissions to its public universities to raise tuition, and students have felt the impact: Six years ago, it cost roughly $5,700 on average for an in-state student to attend a public college in Washington. That's hovering around $10,000 this year. In June, the University of Washington announced a 16% increase in tuition and fees for the upcoming year, following a 20% increase last year. The state is covering just 30% of the cost of educating its students, the lowest share ever, says Norm Arkans, a spokesman for the University of Washington. He says the institution's relatively low tuition and fees provided some leeway to raise costs, but adds that the strategy isn't sustainable in the long term.
Average tuition and fees for in-state student: $6,044 in 2011-12 Increased: 13.7% from a year prior and 65.8% from five years prior Few students have been immune to tuition spikes in Nevada. During the five academic years ending this past spring, Nevada raised tuition and fees at its community colleges by 48% on average, one of the highest increases in the country, according to the College Board. Costs at four-year public colleges rose 66% over the same period. And midway through the last academic year, the state approved an 8% tuition increase for all undergrads, which will kick in this fall. Still, despite the increases, the cost to attend a public college in Nevada remains lower than the national average, says Dan Klaich, chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education.
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