As of September 2023, Americans owe a collective $1.78 trillion in student loan debt. That’s more than the total credit card or auto loan debt in the United States.
Several factors have contributed to the student loan debt crisis. One is the rising cost of college tuition. The average cost of tuition and fees at a four-year public university has more than doubled in the past 30 years. Another factor is the increasing number of students who are attending college. Today, more than 20 million students are enrolled in college in the United States.
The student loan debt crisis is having a significant impact on the economy. It’s making it difficult for graduates to buy homes, build wealth through equity, start businesses, get married, or save for retirement. It’s also contributing to the widening wealth gap in the United States.
The average federal student loan debt is $37,388 per borrower, and some students borrow much more. The average in-state tuition for a public four-year college is $10,740, or $27,560 for out-of-state enrollees. Room and board add another $11,950. Private college costs much more: an average of $55,840/year for tuition and room and board. For students who graduate in four years, most will spend $90,760-$223,360 to earn their degrees. Interest on a student loan can double or triple the ultimate cost.
Politicians in Washington, D.C., continue to fight over the issue of student loan forgiveness with no resolution in sight. However, some prospective college students are avoiding the mistakes of past generations by enrolling in programs that cost little to nothing to attend.
Here are five key ways that students can avoid student loan debt while gaining the skills they need for a career.
Choose a Free College
There are several tuition-free college programs across the U.S. These colleges achieve this through student work programs, apprenticeships, or future service obligations. There may still be other fees or expenses for room and board, however
Join the Military
The GI Bill is one of the oldest ways to attend college for free. After serving for at least 36 months, military members become eligible for the full amount of educational benefits. For public schools and community colleges, that means the full price of tuition and fees.
For private colleges, the government will pay up to $27,120 per year. Service members may also be eligible for a monthly housing allowance, book money, and relocation assistance. For tuition not covered by the GI Bill, graduate school admission, international schools, or excess private school tuition, service members should look into the Yellow Ribbon Program.
Take a Boot Camp
There’s a new kind of military-inspired boot camp that drew 100,000 students in 2021. Tech boot camps are programs where students can learn to code, market software, or manage projects. Other programs teach cyber security, AI, or data analytics.
The programs generally last 10-12 weeks, cost $13,584 and include placement assistance. Some also offer scholarships funded by employers who need tech talent. While some companies allow a student to attend free in exchange for a percentage of future earnings or other repayment plans, others warn against these options.
Enroll In Online Courses
There are several ways to study online for free. Schools like the University of the People offer Associate’s, Bachelor’s, and Master’s degree programs in subjects like information technology and business administration. There are also dozens of online programs to study coding, such as Codecademy and Codewars.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are free classes in a wide range of subjects. These courses will not lead to a college degree, but they can be used to gauge interest in a college major or upgrade a skillset for an existing job.
Get Tuition Reimbursement
Some employers offer tuition reimbursement programs to their employees as an incentive to gain new skills. Sites like Indeed allow users to search for jobs with tuition reimbursement.
Attend Community College
Community colleges typically charge much lower tuition than four-year colleges and universities. You can complete your first two years of college at a community college and then transfer to a four-year college to complete your degree, or you can focus on job paths that require an associate’s degree. Trade work pays well and is in demand.
Become an Apprentice
Another path to the skilled trades is through apprenticeship programs. These programs aren’t just tuition-free: they pay wages from the first day. In addition to manufacturing and construction jobs, apprenticeships can also lead to careers in finance, IT, and nursing.
Apply for Scholarships and Grants
Support is available for college through state-sponsored programs, college scholarship foundations, a parent’s employer or professional organizations, and more. Use the U.S. Department of Education’s website to search for opportunities.
Countries such as Germany, Finland, Kenya, Norway, Panama, Luxembourg, and Iceland offer free college, even to international students studying in English. Other countries like India, South Africa, Malaysia, Taiwan, Mexico, and Italy offer public college at much lower rates than the United States. Scholarships are available for studying abroad, and expat students can compare the cost of living in different countries before choosing a program.
An expensive four-year degree isn’t the only option for gaining the skills required for a successful career. Other options may not offer the traditional college experience, but many graduates would gladly trade a few memories in exchange for the down payment on a home or a future without student loan debt.
This article originally appeared on Media Decision.
Jen is the co-founder of Expatsi, a company that helps Americans move abroad. She created the Expatsi Test, an assessment that recommends countries for aspiring emigrants based on lifestyle data. Jen has an MBA from Emory University with concentrations in marketing and innovation. She's written for BusinessWeek, Health, Cooking Light, and Southern Living. Prior to Expatsi, she created Freshfully and Bottle & Bone—two businesses in the local food space—and spoke at TEDx on being brave. She's moving to Mexico in 2024, along with her husband and co-founder Brett, pitbull mix Squiggy, and three rotten cats. How can she help you move abroad?