Saving and Shaving: Debt-Free College

Debt free college, is it possible?  It is- but it won’t be easy! Debt-free college isn’t a matter of having a huge bank account, rich uncle, or perfect SAT scores. Average parents with almost no college savings can send their (large) homeschool families to college debt-free, but it takes planning and exceptional motivation!

Who has time? You have to make time.  As a homeschool parent, you’re in a prime position to dedicate an extra two or three hours per week to your new “job” as a high school guidance counselor and college financial aid planner. If you need an extra nudge, know that those extra three hours per week (150 hours per year) can save you $50,000 or more per child! This might be the most important (and best-paying) part-time job you’ve ever had.

Important Steps to Debt-Free College

Make a commitment to avoid loans.  Not to be glossed over, some may be tempted to think “yeah, we’ll do what we can, but if we have to borrow, we will.” That approach almost always undermines your determination to go hard at a goal. If you absolutely set a conviction to borrow ZERO dollars, you’ll be amazed at how resourceful you can become. Plus, you need to know it’s possible – it is.

Calculate the tuition. For a bachelor’s degree, your teen will earn 120 college credits. Credits cost money, so figure out what the college expects you to pay per credit. If it’s $200 per credit (x120) you’re looking at $24,000. If it’s $500 per credit (x120) you’re looking at $60,000. If it’s $2,000 per credit, you’re looking at one of the most expensive colleges in the country– and there are about 50 in that price range!

Inexpensive tuition does not always equal an inexpensive degree. Saving the most money is usually dependent upon how many credits you can transfer in- keep reading.

Homeschool for college credit. Homeschooling parents can align their teen’s high school courses with college credit opportunities, many of which are free or very low cost. College credit earned in high school costs about $35 per credit – roughly $100 per class. There are more and less expensive options, but by paying for one college credit course each semester of high school, a family may pay only $200-$300 (cash) per year in tuition. The average family who homeschools for college credit will graduate a teen with one year of college already complete. A few very motivated families have graduated teens with two or more years, and a few have aligned their entire high school education to result in a bachelor’s degree at high school graduation. Remember that homeschooling for college credit isn’t successful without a motivated student, too.

Exploit transfer policy to the max. Whether in high school or out, before your teen sets foot on their campus, be sure you’ve shaved off the maximum number of allowable transfer credits. A good number of colleges (about 25% of them) allow you to transfer in 75% of your degree before you start! The majority of colleges (about half) allow you to transfer in half your degree, and the remaining 25% of colleges have tight transfer criteria or don’t allow transfer at all. Schools with tight / limited transfer policy will always require you to spend the most money. While I would encourage you to reconsider your college choice, if you’re determined to attend a limited transfer school anyway, your teen will need to focus on earning everything through scholarships (see below).

Why transfer?  Because whatever the rack rate tuition is for your target college, you can find transfer credit for less money. There are 30 ways to earn college credit on this website, and all are significantly less money than what your target college will charge for tuition. Max out the transfer policy first! Maximizing transfer credit is your superpower.  Before you write a single check, you should have the maximum allowable transfer- only then can you see what you *really* have to pay for.

Rack rate: $100,000 – max transfer (50%) = $50,000 left to pay

Rack rate: $80,000 – max transfer (30%) = $56,000 left to pay

As you can see, the rack rate is part of the math, but it’s not the full picture. Assuming you will take advantage of max transfer (and pay a fraction of the cost), you can sometimes attend a more expensive college for less money. This is before scholarships!

Rack rate:  $80,000 – max transfer (75%) = $20,000 left to pay

Rack rate:  $80,000 – max transfer (90%) = $8,000 left to pay

The trick is finding a way to earn college credit as early as possible (high school), for as cheaply as possible, and max the transfer policy as fully as possible.  Remember that credit earned in high school averages about $35 per credit.  After high school, you can still keep earning transfer credit, and you can use the community college if necessary (averages about $100/credit).  No matter how you slice it, you want to get your “left to pay” amount as low as possible.

The amount you have left to pay is your starting point for funding!

Apply for scholarships. Like any good extremist, I don’t mean applying for “a” scholarship, I mean applying for scholarships like it’s your job. Every week. Every. Single. Week. From now until your teen is walking across the stage and being handed their degree. In short, no matter what your tuition balance after maxing out your transfer, you can probably cover some/most of it with scholarships if you are very aggressive.

Apply for financial aid. I realize that this seems like it should happen “before” you apply for scholarships, but I want you to focus all of your effort on lowering your “left to pay” portion by getting it down to zero or close to it before you’ve ever filled out a single financial aid form. Since high school students are not eligible for federal financial aid anyway, most of the credit earned toward your transfer max happens in high school or before enrollment. In other words, Mom and Dad’s homework starts in high school!

The typical time to apply is October of their senior (12th grade) year. You’ll begin by filling out the FAFSA. It’s an online form that everyone fills out and is used by all colleges. The application is then sent to your selected colleges (assuming you have selected colleges) and a “package” is created by each college.  The package may include scholarships issued by the college based on SAT scores or other academic merits, and it may include a Pell Grant (up to $6,000) based on financial need – but the rest of the “package” is loans! So when people say they don’t qualify for financial aid, they’re wrong- everyone qualifies for student loans (short of having a criminal history).

Refuse the loans.  Believe it or not, student loans are so common, that your college will create a “budget” for your student that not only includes tuition but also their “living expenses” for the year. When they’ve computed this (inflated) total, they’ll happily provide an opportunity to take a student loan to cover all the costs (real or imagined). Refuse the loans! Debt free means no acquiring debt to pay for college, and if you accept the loans, you are taking on debt. You can, however, accept any grants or scholarships that the college has to offer- these do not need to be repaid, they are gifts. You can also participate in a work-study or college-sponsored internship program (instead of a paycheck, the wage goes toward tuition or college credit).

Working. It’s what adults do.  If you’ve resourcefully planned your teen’s high school years, and you’ve maxed out their transfer credit allowance, and are applying for scholarships every week, I hope your balance left to pay is zero, but, if it’s not, it’s time to go to work. Work isn’t a punishment, it’s the entire point of earning a degree- to launch a career!

If your teen is studying to become a chef, they should work weekends in a restaurant.  Future nurses should work weekends as a CNA. Computer specialists should work the help desk, and future anythings can work weekends as temporary anythings. In short, working is for everyone. If you can find a way to tie it into a future career, all the better.  If not, do it anyway. A teen working weekends (15 hours) at minimum wage can contribute almost $5,000 per year toward tuition. A summer working full time (at minimum wage) can generate another $3,000. If your teen chooses carefully, some employers will pay a portion of their tuition too! 

recipeRecipe for Debt-Free College

From the kitchen of Chef Jennifer Cook-DeRosa

5 minutesCommitment
5 minutesTuition calculation
3 yearsHomeschool for College Credit
Method of Preparation


 1.  Blend your commitment and tuition calculation in a large bowl.

2.  Homeschool for college credit while resourcefully planning and correcting for time, talent, and temperament.

3.  Bake for 3 years.

4.  During the final year of baking, apply for scholarships and financial aid. Be sure to refuse the loans, or they’ll ruin your recipe!

5.  Adjust for seasoning to taste with a little bit of hard work.



Executive Director of Homeschooling for College Credit

2 thoughts on “Saving and Shaving: Debt-Free College

  1. Amen, sister! Son will graduate debt-free in May, second son will graduate debt-free in 2023 and our senior in high school daughter says, “there’s no way I’m going in debt”. The secret is exactly what you have said here in this post – our route was planning, planning, planning which included free CLEP tests, free dual-credit courses, scholarships (and our kids did not have straight A or super high ACT scores), part-time jobs, and using community college credits before transferring to universities.

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