Published May 18, 2022

Debt-free College

Written by
Charlene Nelson
| The Dakotan

It's graduation time and hundreds of fresh-faced, enthusiastic youth are getting ready to head off to college. College can be an expensive proposition, and it appears that fewer and fewer people are able to afford it. Government reports say that nearly half of all students graduate with student loan debt and the average amount owed is nearly $41,000. It's become so much of a problem that many politicians are proposing a way to forgive student loans.

What most high school and college advisers won't tell your student is that, in most cases, a college loan is a very poor investment. And there really is no need to go into debt for a college education. There are several tracks that students can take to eliminate the need for student loans.

The most obvious help for college students is scholarships. Your student doesn't have to have 4.0 GPA to get a scholarship (although it doesn't hurt).  Most of the bigger scholarships are based on academic performance, including the ACT scores. In North Dakota, a student with a good ACT score can get half or all of their tuition to state universities paid for.

But there are lots of other scholarships that don't require exceptional grades or tests scores. There are scholarships that reward leadership and public service. There are scholarships based on your ethnic or cultural roots. Service clubs like Lions or Rotary Club offer scholarships. Almost every big business you can think of has a scholarship program for employees or children of employees.

Most of these scholarship awards are small: $500-$1000 each. But if your student applies and qualifies for a half dozen or so scholarships, he may have enough to make college affordable for two or three years. Just start Googling. If you're a descendant of Greek immigrants, Google “scholarships for Greek immigrants.” If you like hamburgers, Google “Burger King scholarships.” There are thousands of scholarship opportunities out there, it just takes a little hunting.

Get college credit for free

How does free (or almost free) college credit sound? Start with your student's high school. Most high schools offer Advanced Placement (AP) classes. These classes are free to your student. He will get college credit once he successfully finishes the class and takes the qualifying AP test. Most of the AP classes offered in high school will satisfy some of the core requirements that all college students are required to take. Your student should take as many AP classes as his school offers. It could earn him 15-20 college credits. That's almost two whole semester's-worth of credit for free.

Online courses are another way to get free credits. Dozens of fully accredited universities around the world now offer online courses for free or for a very minimal cost. EdX has more than 160 member universities offering over 3000 courses. Coursera has over 200 universities in their system offering more than 5000 courses. Between these two networks, the potential for college learning is limitless.

Once your student successfully finishes an online course, he has two options:

First, the university may have an online accreditation option that issues college credit accepted at that university. Your student can complete one or two years of classes online before actually attending the university. Then when he does enroll at the university, he only has to come up with the money for the remaining two years of schooling.

But what if your student doesn't want to go to Berkeley or Harvard? Then he should take the second (and more flexible) option. After completing an online course, the student should then take an ACE (American Council on Education) or CLEP (College-Level Examination Program) test. These tests are similar to the AP test that students take to get college credit for high school AP classes. If a student can demonstrate mastery of the subject with the ACE or CLEP test, he will get college credit.

Keep in mind that most universities have limits on the ACE or CLEP credits they will accept. They may limit credit to a list of classes or number of credits allowed for graduation.

Each CLEP test cost $89. ACE tests cost $50-$100 depending on the test. That means that ten CLEP tests will cost about $900. That's about 1/10 the cost of taking those ten classes at a university.

To get the most out of this, your student should start taking these online courses as soon as he starts planning for college and shows some aptitude for the material. It's a great way to fill in some of the idle summertime hours. My son started taking online computer courses through MIT when he was 13 years old. Two years and $150 later he had a certificate in Python programming. (Prices and programs have changed since then.) And the MIT certificate looked awfully good on his college applications.

It's not too early to start working on getting free credit. If your child is in middle school and has ambitions to go to college, start mapping out a plan to take online courses that will get him all the ACE or CLEP credits his chosen university will allow.

And it's not too late. Even if your child has graduated and is headed to college this fall, he still has all summer to take a handful of online courses and get some almost-free credits under his belt before school starts. Get ahead of the curve right now, so that college debt is not a problem four years from now.

Coursera: https://www.coursera.org/
EdX: https://www.edx.org/
CLEP testing: https://clep.collegeboard.org/
ACE credits: https://www.straighterline.com/blog/what-is-ace-credit/
Find out what your college's policy is on ACE or CLEP credits: https://clep.collegeboard.org/clep-college-credit-policy-search

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