How to Send Your Child to College Without Student Loans

Paying for College / Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

We sent our oldest child to college last year. After we got her settled and dried our tears, we had the same reaction that a lot of parents have: Wow…that 18 years went fast.

Sending your child to college can not only sneak up on you emotionally, but financially as well. We managed to put a little bit of money in a 529 account over the years (while paying for braces and dance costumes) but it wasn’t nearly enough. In addition, the stock market tanked just when we were about to need it.

Still, it is our plan for both of our kids that they will graduate from college debt-free and we don’t want to have to take on any parental debt to do it. So far, so good. We are paying for our daughter’s college expenses out of our current cash flow and plan to do the same for her brother four years from now.

Here are some of the things I have learned about paying for college without using student loans.

1. If you have a lot of time, start saving now.

This is an obvious suggestion, but as I said, 18 years will go by more quickly than you can ever imagine. Carve as much as possible out of your budget and add in junior’s birthday and Christmas money gifts. Even small amounts of money will start to add up when given enough time.

2. If you have a medium time frame, start a new stream of income.

If you have a couple of years or more before your child heads off to college, it’s a good time to start a side business or find other ways to make extra money. Open a separate account and assign those funds to college savings. Depending on how much you earn and how big of a head start you have, you may be able to bankroll college this way.

This technique has worked very well for our family. My bookkeeping and online earnings are paying for most of my daughter’s college costs because we had a couple of years’ head start.

3. If your kid is packing his or her bags, make sure your child has applied for all the grants and scholarships available to him or her.

Start with the college your child is attending. You will have to fill out a FAFSA form and your child may have to complete some additional scholarship applications as well. Most schools will offer both needs-based and merit-based scholarships.

At my daughter’s college, individual schools within the university have scholarships as well, so if your child has been admitted to a particular school (engineering, education, journalism, etc.) make sure to check with them as well.

And don’t overlook smaller, outside scholarships. If you start doing your research you’ll find all kinds of $250 and $500 scholarships out there. Many of them are local so investigate the organizations your kids are involved in, your place of work, and community groups. Because of their lower dollar amounts, fewer people apply for these scholarships so you child’s odds of earning them are higher.

Other Things That Can Help

Consider an in-state school.

Your public university can be the best cost-fighting tool you have. Many are excellent education buys.

In addition to a very reasonable tuition, our daughter’s school offers a compact that locks in the tuition price for four years. With college costs rising much faster than inflation, that’s a big deal.

(Also think about online college classes and nearby campuses to avoid room and board costs.)

Have your kids help out.

Kids can (and some would argue should) be involved in paying for their college education. The amount of your child’s involvement will depend on your philosophy and financial situation.

Our daughter worked last summer and saved her high school graduation money to use for spending money during her freshman year. She’ll be working at the same job this summer and plans to apply for a campus job next year as well.


If your kid is the next Michael Jordan, you’re in luck! Michael had his education paid for by the University of North Carolina. (He majored in Cultural Geography in case you were wondering.)

But chances are a full athletic scholarship is not in your child’s future. The good news is that scholarships exist for all kinds of things beyond athletics. There are scholarships for academics, leadership, and service, just to name a few.

A large part of our daughter’s tuition is being paid for by scholarships she won for both academics and her school involvement/leadership. Benjamin Kaplan was so successful in funding his Harvard education with scholarships that he wrote a book about How to Go To College Almost for Free.

Most people have strong ideas about choosing and paying for a college education. How about you? Did you pay for your college costs or did your parents? Did you graduate with student loans? What’s your plan for your kids?

29 Replies to “How to Send Your Child to College Without Student Loans”

  1. Great advice! I particularly like the idea of starting a new stream of income. I also read a great tip in a recent Oprah magazine article about explaining to your child that each “A” grade they get at school could mean less to pay for college (because of scholarships!)

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Caroline, I think that’s an excellent point. From the time you enter high school, each grade is so important if you want to earn academic scholarships. In fact, since college applications are submitted early in your senior year, it’s the fresh-soph-jr grades that will be the most important in most cases.

  2. I like the idea of having your kid start to save on their own. Not only does it help out, but it teaches the value of hardwork, something they will learn in college. I remember I worked all summer long just so I can buy the computer I always wanted.

    1. And no doubt you took much more satisfaction from that computer because you worked for it and it was not given to you, Debt Eye.

  3. We will be targeting community college classes while in High School, which the state pays for and will put her at Sophomore level once she graduates. So 1 year of college for free.

    Then, stay home, live with us and go to community college and transfer to a state school.

    Unless she shows some serious aptitude in some way that warrants Ivy League academia, that’s our plan.

    I definitely think the game has changed when it comes to college.


  4. You can never start saving for college too early. I agree that you should have your kids help out. But this doesn’t mean that they need to take out tons of student loans. If they do decide to take out student loans, parents need to walk them through the process and explain the long term consequences. My parents did everything for me and I didn’t know how much debt I got into until after I graduated College. Parents need to teach their kids financial literacy from a young age!

    1. I agree on all counts, Marie. Kids can help by working and being good students. And a big part of the problem with student loans is they’re being taken out my 18 year-olds. It’s hard to appreciate the ramifications of much of anything at that age, let along five (or six) figure debt. Parents are a big part of helping kids navigate that. And of course your advice to start early is the best advice of all. :)

  5. Our family was faced with these choices a few years ago. I ultimately decided on national credit-by-exam options for my students/kids. They started in middle school taking exams for courses we were already studying as part of our homeschool curriculum. Two years of credit were earned before beginning free dual enrollment in their 11th grade year, earning their college degrees early and for far less money. We chose this route because scholarships were iffy and we didn’t qualify for financial aid. Loans were looking like our only option.

    In the process, I learned how to share this information with other families. Many free resources are available on my website, or, for those with an interest, I have local workshops.

    CLEP and DSST are well-respected and accepted at over 2900 colleges nation-wide and our MN public schools have a policy in place to show you exactly what course you are earning credit for by passing a CLEP.

    1. Cheri, that’s amazing. It sounds like they only spent a year or so enrolled in college before earning their degrees? Thanks for sharing this resource.

  6. Two years of credits with CLEP and DSST and two years of on-campus and on-line courses at college (free through dual enrollment).
    College Degree $6,200
    Firm Handshake: $0

    Quite a package to launch with!

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