How to Pay for College Without Loans

[Good morning, friends! Today on the blog we’ve got Jason Brown from Margin Matters sharing how to pay for college without loans. After earning his bachelor’s degree and graduating completely debt free, he went back to school 15 years later for a master’s degree and also found ways to graduate with no debt.

If you’re in school, or want to encourage your kids to graduate with the lowest amount of debt possible, check out Jason’s tips and tricks to save money and avoid college debt!]


How I Earned 2 College Degrees Without Loans

Over the past 40+ years… 

  • Gas prices have increased about 300%
  • Gold has risen more than 1,200%, and …
  • College costs have outpaced them both — skyrocketing more than 1,600% higher than they were in 1975 

The exorbitant cost of college has directly led to many students taking out massive loans that are increasingly difficult to pay back. As a result, many young Americans are being crushed by student loan debt, which is now over $1.7 trillion — America’s largest form of debt other than home mortgages. While investing in yourself is usually wise, we must ask at what cost. 

You may have been led to believe that the only way to attend college is to take out big federal loans in your name. (Or to get your parents to take out loans themselves or be a cosigner on yours.) However, I’m living proof of the contrary. Here’s how I earned two degrees with no student debt: 

Getting a Bachelor’s Degree Without Taking Out Loans

Although I had been working since turning 15, there was no college savings, nor were my parents in a financial position to assist me. Therefore, living at home, commuting to school, and continuing to work was my only option to afford a higher education degree. 

While I was an undergraduate student, I worked at a Chick-fil-A. With my parents graciously letting me live at home for free, most of my salary was used on school and transportation. After earning a $1,000 scholarship from Chick-fil-A, I quit to find work closer to campus. I landed a retail job at the mall across the street, joined the staff of the student newspaper, and worked in the school’s athletic department. 

Juggling Jobs and School (and Winning a Scholarship)

As a junior, I was working three jobs and going to school full-time. Even with three jobs, money was not plentiful. After working with the athletic department for nearly three years, I received a full athletic scholarship for my final year of school. To my knowledge, I was the first non-athlete to receive an athletic scholarship. It completely covered my college tuition and books. 

Nearly six years had passed since I first stepped foot on campus, but I finally did it. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree and walked across the stage completely debt free-naïve to the fact of my massive accomplishment. My grades weren’t spectacular, possibly due to working all those jobs, but never did it occur to me to take out student loans. It was not part of my mindset. Perhaps because my parents never modeled or preached that debt was the answer. If you don’t have the cash to pay for it, you can’t do it. That’s what I’ve always thought. What do you do when you live that mantra? You find a way to get the cash. You work hard, become resourceful, and get creative. I recognize that the cost of college has ballooned since my undergrad days and many students feel forced into loans (or feel that debt is a way of life) in order to earn their degrees. Rest assured there is another way! 

How I Graduated from College Debt-Free 

  • Lived at home
  • Worked several jobs (on and off campus)
  • Earned scholarship money
  • Bought used books 

Woohoo! Walking across the stage debt free!

Earning a Master’s Degree Without Student Loans 

When I landed a full-time job with my alma mater Kennesaw State University (KSU), one employment benefit was the opportunity to further my education for free. The school offered a Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) that would cover all tuition costs. My only out-of-pocket expense would be for books. Realizing the regret would be greater if I didn’t go for it, I began the application process. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would even qualify for graduate school or that I would be going back to school-especially at my age. Just the words grad school were very intimidating after being out of college for 15 years. 

Seizing an Opportunity 

Working at KSU during the day and going to grad school at night comprised the next several years of my life. Adding to the challenge was the birth of our first child during my first semester of school. Plugging away taking two classes at a time set me on a track to graduate within three years. To save money, most of my books were purchased in used condition on Amazon or eBay. Additionally, I was fortunate to be awarded two scholarships totaling $1,500 that helped pay for books. 

During my final year of grad school, I was offered a job I could not refuse. Sadly, this meant losing out on any remaining TAP money from KSU, but luckily, only one semester remained to be paid for. In preparation to cough up the nearly $3,000 for my final semester, I was pleasantly surprised to discover my new employer offered a tuition reimbursement program. I couldn’t apply fast enough. 

In 2018 I graduated with a Master of Arts in Professional Writing from KSU-a degree valued at nearly $20,000-completely debt free. 

How I Got My Master’s Degree Without Debt 

  • Worked for the university and received a full tuition waiver
  • Earned scholarship money
  • Qualified for employer tuition reimbursement program (after leaving university job)
  • Bought used books (renting books can now be a cheaper option) 

KSU Graduation with Family, Dec 2018!

Other Ways to Pay for College Besides Loans

Paying for college is a challenge for most. For the graduating class of 2018, the average student loan debt is $29,200 per borrower. There’s not always one clear path to pay for your schooling. You’ll most likely need to pool together funds from multiple resources. As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This is especially true when it comes to student loan debt. In other words, you’re a lot better off devising a plan to avoid student loans from the start. How do you avoid loans when you’re short on rich family members and trust-fund cash? Here are some ideas:

1. Work While You’re in School

This should be the obvious choice. While some students might say, “I don’t want to work because I’d rather focus on my studies,” unfortunately that is not the reality for many of us. A part-time job can help pay for college-related expenses and potentially reduce or eliminate what you need to borrow.

Most on-campus jobs are flexible-allowing you to work around your class schedule. Some campus jobs also offer tuition waivers and pay you a stipend. Finally, there is no shame in taking a gap year and working in order to save money for school. I’d rather work my butt off for a year than have to pay off student loans for the next 20. 

2. Get a Job That Has Employer Tuition Reimbursement

Instead of paying for education on your own, work for an employer that offers assistance. Several companies, such as Chipotle, Disney, Starbucks, Home Depot, UPS, AT&T, Verizon, Best Buy, Publix, Amazon, and Wells Fargo, are willing to help you pay for your education. Additionally, Chick-fil-A’s Remarkable Futures scholarship program is one that I can personally vouch for as a past recipient. Some companies may offer a student aid program that isn’t advertised. Check with your human resources department to find out. 

3. Apply for Scholarships and Grants

There are about $100 million in unclaimed scholarships each year simply because students don’t know they exist. In addition to lack of awareness, it seems people may be intimidated by the application process and think there will be too much competition for the money. No amount of financial aid is too small. You can secure funding to help cover books, housing, and other costs even as a sophomore or junior.

4. Dual-Enroll in High School

This one is huge for cutting college expenses because it allows students to earn college credit for classes taken during high school. These classes are usually taught to a higher standard and credit is issued through a public university. Depending on where you live, the credits earned in this manner can be transferred to state schools. If you happen to have a college near you that offers dual enrollment, you could save a ton of money on school tuition. Dual enrollment courses are often offered completely free or at steep discounts compared with the tuition fees of most colleges. 

Other Tips to Save Money While in College 

The saying, “Live like a college student” doesn’t have to mean eating ramen noodles and rolling pennies. It simply means being creative, resourceful, and wise with your choices. Remember, the key to financial success is being aware of how you’re spending your money. The idea of saving money in college might sound absurd-but it’s totally achievable. The more money you can save during college, the more prepared and confident you’ll be entering the real world. You might be surprised to discover all the ways you can save. Here are some tips to eliminate many of college’s biggest expenses:

1. Attend an In-State School

This single decision will save you tens of thousands! The average tuition at a public, in-state school is $10,230 per year, and the average tuition at a public, out-of-state school is $26,290 per year. That’s an annual difference of more than $16,000 and a four-year difference of a whopping $64,000. Private college rates are even higher.

2. Live at Home

I understand the desire to get away from your family, but living at home is one of the best ways to save-assuming you are attending school near your home. Even if your parents charge you a nominal rent, that’s probably going to save you much more than trying to live on or off campus. Although you’ll have some commuting expenses, you should still experience significant cost savings. 

3. Ditch Your Car 

Most college students don’t need a car mainly because they live on or near campus. Do you know how much it costs for the privilege of owning a car? According to AAA, the average annual cost of car ownership is about $9,000 a year. That’s a massive savings of $36,000 over four years. 

Today’s society offers a plethora of ways to commute. On campus, you can walk, bike, skateboard, scooter, or bum rides. Additionally, many colleges have free buses and shuttles that help students get around campus and even to nearby apartments and shopping centers. 

4. Maximize Campus Amenities 

Many campuses have an array of museums, movie nights and other social events for minimal or no cost. You certainly don’t need to pay $50 a month for a gym membership if your college has a workout facility you can use for free. Perhaps one of the most underappreciated and overlooked buildings is the library. In addition to books, college libraries have computers, videos, software, and more. This is all free to students. Additionally, several college athletic events offer free game tickets to students. Research what your school’s activity and athletic fees cover. You might be surprised! 

5. Ask for Student Discounts

Don’t leave home without your student ID. Many places offer student discounts including restaurants, shops, movie theaters, theme parks, and more. Discounts are available on everything from clothing to computers for those with a valid student ID. For example, Apple and Adobe offer reduced prices on tech, while hundreds of big brands give money off on clothing. Before you pay full price, see if there’s a student discount. 

6. Learn to Cook

Do your best to limit eating meals out. If you bought your school’s meal plan, use it. Student discounts aside, the cost of eating out can add up quickly. Consider investing in a good coffee maker instead of spending money every morning on lattes. It’s almost always cheaper to cook than it is to go out and buy pre-made food. While a dinner for $7 to $10 may sound cheap, it adds up over time. You can probably cook the same meal (and prep for future meals) for about half the price. 

7. Attend Events With Free Food

How do you get starving college students to attend an event? You guessed it, free food! Look for signs, posters, and promotions around your campus. Additionally, events will be announced on the school’s website, social media channels, and student email listservs. These announcements usually promote free food to lure students. You may feel like a scavenger doing this, but if you think about the enormous cost of food, the amount of money you’ll be saving, plus the fact that you’ve probably already paid for this through your tuition and activity fees, it’s a no-brainer. 

8. Earn Your Degree in Four Years

One of the best ways to save money in college is to simply have a solid plan for your classes and degree program. Earning a bachelor’s degree in four years, as opposed to five or six, can save you thousands. Contrary to popular belief, college is not the time to find yourself-it’s too expensive. You should be going to college with a specific purpose. Ensuring that you’re taking the right classes and progressing to earn your degree on time is a great way to save money. Every extra class and semester costs time and money. Better yet, if you can earn college credit while still in high school (see dual enrollment), do it! By knocking out several classes or credits early, you might even be able to graduate early and save money.

Final Thoughts on Spending on Higher Education 

As you can see there are many ways to pay for college and save money while in school. Unfortunately, when it comes to higher education, our culture tells us to borrow a ton of money then spend decades paying it off. Don’t let anyone force you into taking out costly loans to pay for college. There are plenty of less expensive options that can lead to a rewarding career. If you can save money in college, invest it, and become financially independent in your early 30s you will be far ahead of most of your peers.

I hope these suggestions have sparked some ideas that will create a new path allowing you to obtain the educational experience you desire without spending a lifetime in debt. Odds are, with the soaring cost of college, you’ll require more than one tactic to pay for school. 

Yes, You Can Pay for College Without Loans!

I’m here to share that IT IS POSSIBLE to earn a college degree and receive a diploma in the mail instead of bills for student loans. Many different resources exist that can help you pay your way through. If I did it (twice), so can you! Do whatever you can do to either graduate debt free or greatly limit any loans you might incur. Your older self will be forever thankful. Trust me.


Jason Brown is the author of “Margin Matters: How to Live on a Simple Budget & Crush Debt Forever.” The book shares the story of how he and his wife eliminated $75,000 of debt in just three years and provides practical solutions to creating and sticking to a simple budget, eliminating debt permanently, and managing your expenses to create the most margin at any income level. Jason also blogs at Margin Matters and hosts a YouTube Channel.

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  1. Angie May 24, 2021 at 6:32 AM

    Great accomplishment. However, I couldn’t have earned A’s and B’s in college while working full time (or even part time). My parents helped me out.

    Thank God you don’t need a college degree to make a nice living or be successful anymore.

    1. Jason Brown May 24, 2021 at 8:43 AM

      You are 100% right Angie! I will say, that even though I had the financial burden removed to attend college for my master’s I still spent an entire year deciding if I could do it for two reasons: 1) the time commitment; and 2) is it worth it? What would the value of my degree be in the job marketplace? In the end I decided that I would have more regret not at least trying.

      And more to your point Angie, in researching all this ,some of the statistics that I found most interesting were that 41% of recent college graduates work in job not requiring a degree; and that only 27% of college grads actually work a field related to their major.

    2. Joel May 24, 2021 at 10:06 AM

      I never went to college, but that was a bit more common in Australia when I was growing up. It’ll be interesting to see what happens over the next few decades. I don’t have kids (yet) but if/when I do I’ll probably encourage them to continue education in the areas they are interested in, regardless of whether it’s a lucrative career path or not.

      1. Jason Brown May 24, 2021 at 10:40 AM

        Hey Joel,

        I’m with you. College isn’t for everyone. There’s a long list of very successful people who never earned a college degree. And today, we are blessed with a multitude of ways to continue our education without taking the traditional 4-year college route. In researching this blog feature I discovered some interesting statistics that were somewhat surprising to me:

        Nearly 40% of high school graduates will never attend college.

        The United States has the worst college dropout rate (40%) of any developed country. Only 60% of people who start college will finish.

        Only about 30% of Americans have a bachelor’s degree and only 13% have a master’s or doctorate degree.

        Everyone learns differently. It will certainly be interesting to see what the concept of college looks like when my 5-year-old and 1-year-old sons are of age.

      2. Angie May 24, 2021 at 2:27 PM

        I believe in furthering one’s education. You don’t have to go to college to do this. Do you know how many college graduates I know that have never read a book once they leave school? That’s so sad.

        And….just because something is being taught in college doesn’t mean its correct information. You can get a 4 year degree in theology and come out not knowing God. You can get a degree in med school and still not know very little about health (I’ve met many doctors where i had more knowledge on health than they did).

        There is also a liberal agenda at most schools.

        A major reformation is coming in the area of education. It will look radically different in 15-20 years.

  2. Jason Brown May 24, 2021 at 6:52 AM

    Hey Joel, thank you for the opportunity to share my story. I hope some of my ideas help to sparks ideas for others looking to further their education without going into debt!

    Teaser alert – I’m actually working on a book regarding the student loan debt crisis and how to avoid debt while in school. Tentatively titled “It is Possible: How I Earned Two Debt-Free Degrees and How You Can, Too.” Scheduled to be released this fall.

  3. David @ Filled With Money May 24, 2021 at 9:43 PM

    I wish I spent more time applying to scholarships rather than applying and working at jobs. It’s a guaranteed payout vs a risk but the risk has no downsides but has unlimited upsides.

    You can actually increase your pay by applying to a lot of scholarships. That’s one of my biggest regrets when I was in college.

    1. Jason Brown May 25, 2021 at 7:53 AM

      Excellent advice David and this is exactly what I’m going to be preaching to my kids when they get older. When I worked in higher education I was completely astonished at how much scholarship money went unclaimed each year. For example I worked in the continuing and professional education college and we had hundreds of thousands of dollars just sitting in an account for scholarships that was never used. The application requirement was to write a 250 word summary on how you would use the scholarship and how it would help you. Definitely didn’t seem like too big of a time commitment.

  4. Steveark May 26, 2021 at 3:42 PM

    My three millennial kids all went to college for free. Merit based scholarships covered their tuition, fees, books and room and board. In fact they had to turn money back because they were provided too much. And that was with millionaire parents and zero financial need. We found that by picking STEM majors at a public university desperate to hang on to the best and brightest in-state students full scholarships were not that hard to obtain. They worked their way through grad school on their own and graduated without any loans. Only the one who went to medical school years after his four year degree took out student loans for that.

  5. Kalen Bruce May 26, 2021 at 5:40 PM

    This is an awesome read! It seems like so many people think college = debt, but it definitely doesn’t have to. I love how you laid out exactly how you did it. I hope we can see a generation of people with debt-free degrees. Great job, Jason!

  6. Leslie @ May 27, 2021 at 7:45 PM

    My parents supported me in college but I also did many of the things that you mention on this list! Great round up, it brought back college memories of eating hot pockets and cup o noodles to save money! Yes student loans are crippling and it’s so sad that our society normalized them.

  7. Alan May 28, 2021 at 12:38 AM

    College is definitely not a debt anymore. Thanks for sharing this Jason.


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