How to Put Your Kids through College without Loans: One Family’s Story

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The following is a guest post by Julie Mayfield, who writes at The Family CEO.

We’re trying to do big things financially at our house. In the last 15 months, my husband and I have paid off over $46,000 in non-mortgage debt. We’re proud of that accomplishment, but we’re even prouder that we’ve been able to do it while paying for our daughter’s first two years of college in cash.

Now, you might think we had a big college savings account when we started, but that is far from the truth. We had a very modest amount put away for college, and the 2008 stock market crash cut even that small amount in half.

Still, we were committed to giving our kids the head start of a college education without student loans. Here are the things that have been helpful to us:

An in-state school. Most in-state universities are terrific college buys. We chose a four-year school, but starting at a community college results in even greater savings.

Our daughter’s school also offers a four-year tuition compact, which guarantees that her tuition will stay the same during that time. That has been a big budgeting help. This option sometimes goes by other names at different schools, such as tuition freezes and tuition guarantees.

Earning college credits while in high school. Our daughter was able to complete 18 credit hours while still in high school. These credits will enable her to finish school early, get a double major, or perhaps study abroad for a semester without extending her undergraduate education past four years. Some of her peers got college credits by testing out of some subjects with AP exams.

Scholarships. So far, the scholarships our daughter has been able to get have covered about 75% of the cost of tuition. Her scholarships are academic in nature, but we’ve learned that scholarships exist for all different kinds of students, depending on their interest and high school experiences.

A new source of income. A couple of years before the college expenses began, I started doing some writing online. That turned into a small stream of income that I began setting aside for paying for college.

The amounts weren’t large, but with a couple of years’ head start, we’ve been able to use them to stay one step ahead of college costs. Actually, assigning jobs to different sources of income like this has been a big help to us in other areas too, like paying off debt.

Sharing the load. Not all of the expense of college is falling on us, the parents. In addition to keeping her grades up so she can maintain her scholarships, my daughter has held summer jobs and part-time jobs since she was a freshman in high school. She uses this money to pay for her living expenses outside of room and board. That includes things like clothes, eating out, toiletries, school supplies, and gas.

Parents and students are in a tough position. A college education is more necessary than ever before, but the costs are increasing dramatically and have been for quite some time.  Sometimes it seems that large student loans are the only solution.

But student loan debt – which now stands at over $1 trillion — is a growing problem in the US. In 2010 the amount of student loan debt that Americans held passed up even the amount of their credit card debt.

We’re trying to keep our kids from being part of those numbers. We’re working it out as we go along, but hopefully our experiences will be helpful to someone else.

Your turn: Is a college education part of the plan for your kids? What has worked for you?

In 2006 Julie Mayfield hired herself to save her family money, make extra money, and pay off debt, all while creating a life she loves. She blogs about her experiences at The Family CEO.


  1. Lorien says

    Thanks for this article. I am faced with my daughter starting college in the fall and am searching for ways outside of the box to help put her through college!

  2. Katie says

    While all those tips and tricks sound amazing, they're not all very practical, especially in Minnesota where private colleges far out number 4-year state universities. I DID start out at a community college for 2 years and wrapped up my 4-year degree at a private college. My parents helped out where/when they could, but I did take out student loans for the majority of my education (the latter half, anyway).

    Scholarships are near impossible to qualify for unless you're in the top 5% of your class, a minority, or of severe financial need. None of which I was.

    Alas, here I am at 24 – a college graduate, a homeowner, a dedicated and hardworking employee (in the field in which I got my degree) and a former college student who now pays back her student loans, on time and in full.

    To the parents who are very worrysome about paying for your child's education… don't be. If you have a hardworking and dedicated student, the end result will be a hardworking and dedicated adult. Student loans will get paid and they'll be just fine. If my parents taught me anything, it was to do whatever it is you need to do to get the job done (college) and then work your hind end off to make that education work to it's strongest ability. :)

    • MK says

      I agree. As a parent with one almost done with college and another soon to start, it's daunting. We do what we can to help our kids, but bottom line is we can't borrow for our retirement. So, they will have some debt/loans. The rule of thumb is to not take out more in loans that you can earn your first year in your chosen profession. We try to stick to that. Overall, I'd say we did pretty well on this and yet it's still scary. The economy is still in very tough shape and we hope our kids will be able to find decent jobs and repay their loans in a timely manner so they can move on to whatever is next in their lives. We live frugally and set a good example of what's a priority in life and hope that they learned that lesson from us.

  3. Heather says

    I recently found out that accredited universities in Canada run around the price of community colleges here. Wish I would have know that before I racked up $40,000 in college loans.

  4. Melissa S says

    If 75% is paid for by scholarships that doesn't leave much left over to pay, so while it sounds great, the out of pocket for the parents wasn't really that much.

  5. Michelle says

    No loans are totally doable. I went to a community college for the first 2 years and then went to a state school for the 2nd 2 years.I lived at home the whole time, commuting about 30 miles roundtrip. I had no scholarships and no loans. I worked part time jobs all through school and my parents helped where they could.So it is possible you just need to make choices. No I didn't get the dorm experience but who cares. I got my degree, I graduated on the dean's list. I worked for 4 years and then was a stay at home mom for a while and am now back to work in my field. When I see these people with massive student loan debt I am so happy with the choices I made.

  6. Joy says

    Not a realistic article for my family. They payed off $46K in non-mortgage debt in 15 months. Really? That is more than I made last year! I agree with Katie, because that is the way I did collage too.

    I enjoy the "realistic" approach of PYD, so I will stick to reading that advice.

  7. Diane says

    As a parent of two students in high school, I didn't think this was very applicable either. I agree with Katie about the scholarships available–not much for the typical college student. I know many who are trying to do college in high school and I understand the economics of it, but my personal opinion is that most kids aren't ready for college level courses in 10th grade.

  8. Tamra says

    I recieved the Evans Scholarship and it pays full tuition for 4 years. If your teenager has 2 summers left before Sr. year they still have time to qualify for this scholarship. 4 areas needed to qualify: Family has financial need, maintained a B average, shows outstanding character (ie volunteered somewhere/leadership qualities), and caddied regularly for 2 summers.

    Lots of golf courses around the Twin Cities have caddy programs. You don't need to know how to golf. It's a paid summer job, where you pick the days you want to work (outside, getting exercise, in the sun). I got this scholarship 15 years ago, and it was huge relief…and a great experience. Most kids start caddying around 13 or 14 years old, but if you have a Sophomore, there's still time! I'll be bringing my neice to HillCrest Country Club in St.Paul this Spring to try it out…hope it works out for her too!

  9. JCrn says

    We almost let a free scholarship slip by. College professors with college aged kids should check with human resources to see if their university has a tuition exchange program. Ours did but they aren't always featured or info comes out long before kids are college age. Anyway, these programs can pay for all of undergrad education.

    Basically, a tuition exchange program allows students at one university to go to a participating university in another state-tuition free. We did this. Huge savings! Teachers, look into this. You might have a pleasant surprise.

  10. JCrn says

    Also, motivated students can indeed complete nearly a whole year of college in high school. Ours did but he understood that finances were tight. We didn't pressure him but he wanted to keep loans to a minimum. He waited till 11th and 12th grades to,do this, though. As someone else posted, 10th grade may be early.

    I did want to write a bit about motivation. My father left a very small scholarship after his death, $2000 a year, and many of the applicants are new US citizens. They still struggle with English and homework can take many hours because they need to look up words,etc. even so, many are motivated enough to get stellar grades and scholarships. They really have no choice if they want an education since their parents are often forced to take low paying jobs at first.

    Their work ethic…while admittedly fueled possibly by desperation and great stress…was incredible. But they certainly aren't any brighter than many high school students.

  11. says

    Sounds like you had a plan that worked for you, Katie. Congrats on all of your accomplishments.

    My experience has been different from yours in a couple of ways, however. We found that there are scholarships available for all kinds of students, depending on their strengths and interests. And I would imagine in most states the number of private colleges exceed public schools, but we found the public schools to be a tremendous value.

  12. says

    That's great info, Tamra. I've also been told (haven't confirmed it) that many women's golf scholarships go unclaimed each year. Maybe we should have put a golf club in our daughter's hand instead of tap shoes on her feet when she was young!

  13. says

    JCrn, we found the same thing to be true: that scholarships sometimes require a little digging. Also. several smaller scholarships can equal one, larger one and are easier to come by. My daughter's softball league offers several $500 scholarships each year to graduating seniors. The application process isn't difficult and that amount would pay for a semester of books.

    Glad you guys ran across your scholarship and were able to take advantage of it!

  14. Eric H says

    Thanks for the article. It's far more helpful and realistic than the "My wife, with our excellent over 100K combined income, have saved for our only childs college since 1992 and you can do the same thing too!!" article's that I see. The rest of us don't have that luxury. Some of us have been under-employed or unemployed, but see college for our kids as a better ticket to a higher standard of living so that they don't have to go through what we, as parents without an education, have to go through.

  15. Brandie says

    I love that you are talking about motivation. I think part of the "this isn't realistic" is the attitude behind it. Anything is possible with the right motivation and drive to do it. Thanks for these posts and comments!

  16. Michelle says

    I've been thinking about this already even though my husband and I are in our early 20's and don't have any children yet. We've been reading through Proverbs in our devotions and this verse popped out to me: Proverbs 13:22a – "A good man leaves an inheritance to his children's children." It's really challenged me to be more focused on being careful with how we spend money. This is why I've already been thinking about how to save for college for our children and still have something left for grandchildren. One thing I've learned recently is that many private universities offer some benefits to their staff members as well (not just faculty) of tuition compensation – paying for the staff to go to school on that campus, or providing a portion for their children to go as well to that school or to cover a portion at a comparable school. This is something my husband or I might pursue when we have children and they get to high school age or so. Just thought I would share!

  17. JCrn says

    If amyone has a student pursuing a law degree I did want to note that Indiana's very prestigious Maurer Law School offers full scholarships which are not income based but merit based. This means that those with severe financial need as well as others who may be hard pressed but able to afford college costs can benefit.

    It all depends on a student's achievement. Or as the site notes : " scholarships are primarily based on GPA and LSAT score, especially the latter. About four-fifths of students receive grants, with over a third of these scholarships covering half-tuition or more. According to a current out-of-state student, the university frequently awards out-of-state students scholarships that cut tuition to the in-state sticker price."

    The site info can be found here:

    Hope this helps someone.

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