These 3 College Grads are Debt-Free Because of One Simple Decision

Paying for college
Image provided by Elizabeth Xu
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Priscilla Vasquez wanted to major in psychology. Then, biology. A few classes later, she changed her mind again, to marketing.

For a student at a four-year college, multiple concentration changes means additional semesters to make up for lost credits. And that extra time leads to an even bigger tuition bill.

Vasquez had no idea what she wanted to be when she grew up, but she knew one thing for sure: she needed to survive college without getting buried in student-loan debt.

So instead of starting at a four-year school, she enrolled at her local community college. There, she found a supportive academic environment and a sense of community — and she saved herself thousands of dollars.

Community College: A Money-Smart Education Option

As college costs rise and student debt horror stories lurk around every corner, students are turning to community college to reduce their financial risk.

The average student loan debt for the class of 2015 was $35,000, with research from Edvisors showing that 71% of 2015 graduates had student loans. Just 10 years ago, that rate was 64%.

If you attend a school that costs $50,000 per year (or more), you’re looking at a grim 10 or 20 years of loan payments after graduation. Paying it all off may seem insurmountable. (Trust me, I’ve been there.)

But spending your first year or two of undergrad at community college can add up to major savings.

The average annual tuition fees for community college? A reasonable $3,430, just one-third of the $9,410 annual tuition at an in-state, four-year public school, according to the College Board.

Throw out what you think about how smart people don’t go to community college. The introductory level classes you’ll take at your local school use the same textbooks as those held in huge lecture halls at State U.

And with more than 1,100 community colleges around the nation, there’s bound to be one close to where you grew up.

Here’s why three millennials chose to attend community college, and how it set them up for financial success beyond college.

A Place to Figure Out Career Goals

Paying for college
Priscilla Vasquez/Twitter

Vasquez paid out of pocket for her community college classes, while working part-time jobs and teaching her Model United Nations club’s class on campus. She remembers full-time tuition at Riverside City College costing about $600 per semester when she attended.

Sure, she’s not a typical case. She attended community college from fall 2005 to fall 2011 for the networking and travel opportunities offered by her school’s Model UN team. She walked out with four associate degrees.

“I probably spent a good six, eight months [in community college] where I was full-time, worked the opening shift at Starbucks from 4 [a.m.] until 11, went to class from 1 to 4, had office hours, taught, and graded papers the rest of the night,” Vasquez said.

“I don’t miss those days. I like going home at 5.”

When she transferred to California State University at San Bernardino (CSUSB) as a commuter student, she had enough credits that she only needed to attend for one year — and thanks to grants, she only had to pay tuition for one quarter.

(CSUSB students taking more than six units in the fall 2016 session pay $2,207.37.)

A Welcoming Way to Test Your Education Options

Elizabeth Xu, now a freelance writer in Toledo, Ohio, took a few years off after high school. When she wanted to start college, she decided community college might be the most comfortable method of classroom reintroduction.

A first-generation college student, she started by taking two classes at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She paid about $2,000 per semester once she became a full-time student, but notes that she paid out-of-state tuition throughout her college experience.

After attending WCC for three years and earning an associate’s degree in journalism, she transferred to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor to study psychology. When she got to Michigan, out-of-state tuition was about $19,000 per semester.

“I never paid that,” Xu said. She had mostly worked her way through community college, taking out a few small loans here and there, and earned good grades that led to transfer scholarships.

Xu doesn’t remember how much in loans she had when she graduated in 2012 and started working in education marketing. But she does remember making a concerted effort to pay off her loans within a year of graduating.

“I just paid the $100 a month,” that her loan program required, she said, “and toward the end when I had some savings I paid the rest off.”

When she got married in 2013, she was completely debt-free.

A Safety Net When You Feel Totally Unprepared

Paying for college
Image provided by Caitlin Rose Schuerger

Caitlin Rose Schuerger’s parents didn’t go to college, and she felt unprepared as high-school graduation approached.

“I had taken AP classes, but why didn’t I know?” she recalled, upon realizing she had to apply to college in her senior year. “I was very active in extracurricular activities, I guess my mind wasn’t there.”

Schuerger enrolled at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California, where she earned her Associate of Arts in communications in three years. Once she knew she would transfer to University of California at Berkeley, she took an extra science class to avoid taking it in a huge lecture hall at Berkeley.

Schuerger admitted she took statistics three times at community college to get the credit she needed, because it’s easier to drop a class you’re struggling with and take it again later in community college than at a four-year school with harsher drop deadlines.

“For tuition and books, I probably spent about $3,000 a year,” Schuerger said. She lived at home while attending community college.

Schuerger received a few scholarships when she transferred to UC Berkeley, where annual tuition was about $11,000. She had to take out loans for living expenses, and chose to live off-campus in a small shared apartment rather than pay traditional room and board costs.

She joined a sorority, which was an additional expense but helped fast-track her networking as a transfer student living off campus. She ate dinner at the sorority house a few times each week.

Schuerger graduated in 2009 and went on to earn a master’s degree the next year. Her total student debt came to about $60,000, but in part due to teamwork, it’s all paid off.

Shortly after graduation, Schuerger and a friend challenged each other to save money to put toward their loans, calling it Year of the Loan (YOTL). They still text each other “#YOTL” when they make a savvy money choice — or when their friends who went to law school lament their loans in the $200,000 range.

How to Make the Most of Community College

While it might seem like an easy financial move, it still takes a bit of strategy to maximize the impact of your community college experience.

Make a Plan, and Share It With Others

“I always tell people to join a club,” Vasquez said. “The tough part about community college is that everyone’s a commuter student, and it’s easy to go to campus, do your thing and leave.” Instead, make an effort to participate in student activities and network.

“When it comes time to get letters of recommendation [for transferring], club advisors are handy for that,” she said.

“I used the transfer office like my Bible,” Schuerger said. “I went there right away, found out rates for transferring, and literally mapped it out.”

Planning your community-college course load can help minimize additional courses you may need to take once you transfer.

Be Open to the Experience

“Community college exposed me to older students and different students than you would see in a normal college classroom,” Xu recalls. “As a writer, I think that’s really interesting to be exposed to those people.”

She credits the journalism program at her community college for her eventual career as a freelance writer.

“The traditional college route is a good idea for a lot of people, but for others with financial considerations or not sure what they want to do with their career, I’d recommend it to anyone,” she said.

Brush Aside the Stigma

“There’s still that stigma that it’s not a great start,” Vasquez said, recalling her experience having good grades and attending a Catholic high school. But when she started her postgraduate job hunt, no one questioned her community college years.

“You go into college when you’re already trying to figure out who you are,” she said. “Universities want you to pick out what you’re going to be in four years and for the rest of your life.”

Community college students represent 41% of first-time freshman students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

And Vasquez’s education in using resources wisely in community college has stuck with her.

“I’m definitely more financially conscious than other people,” Vasquez said. As an event coordinator at a tech company, she said the other coordinators poke fun at her frugality. “My events always come in under budget.”

Your Turn: Would you attend community college to save money on your education?

Lisa Rowan is a writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder. Among her degrees is an Associate of Arts from Anne Arundel Community College.