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PSST! Want to Graduate from College with an Undergraduate Degree and No Debt?

Mark Kantrowitz

August 24, 2011

A recent research report analyzes the characteristics of the 1.7 million undergraduate students who were able to graduate in 2007-08 without any student loan debt. About two fifths of undergraduate students graduate with no debt and three fifths graduate with less than $10,000 in student loan debt.

This analysis yields seven practical tips on what you should do if you want to graduate with an undergraduate degree and little or no debt.

Enroll at an in-state public college. 85% of undergraduate students who graduate with no debt graduated from public colleges, with almost 78% graduating from an in-state public college. State appropriations help public colleges keep tuition low for state residents.

Do not enroll at a for-profit college. Less than 7% of students enrolled in for-profit colleges graduated with no debt, compared with 30% at non-profit colleges and 51% at public colleges.

Enroll in a 2-year or shorter program. Half of students who graduate with no debt graduated from a community college. (A third graduated from a public 4-year college.) 61% of students receiving an Associate’s degree from a public college graduated with no debt. 68% of students receiving a Certificate from a public college graduated with no debt. This compares with slightly more than a third of students receiving a Bachelor’s degree.

Enroll in a low-cost college. 88% of students who graduate with no debt graduated from a college with tuition and fees under $10,000. 57% graduated from a college with a total cost of attendance under $10,000 and 86% graduated from colleges with a total cost of attendance under $20,000.

Spend less on textbooks. Three quarters of students who graduate without debt spent $1,000 or less per year on textbooks. There are many ways of cutting the cost of college textbooks, such as buying used books, buying textbooks online and selling textbooks back to the bookstore at the end of the semester.

Live at home with your parents. Students who live at home with their parents are more likely to graduate without debt than other students. (Better to live at home while enrolled in college than to be forced to live at home after graduating from college because of too much debt.)

Choose your parents wisely. 56% of upper-income undergraduate students graduated with no debt, compared with 36% of low-income students and 45% of middle-income students. Students whose parents have advanced degrees are more likely to graduate without debt, probably because their parents have higher average income. More than two thirds of students who graduated without debt receive help paying for tuition and fees from their parents. A small percentage of students graduated with no federal or private student loan debt because their parents borrowed from the Parent PLUS loan program instead.


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