Part 2: 7 Steps To a Debt-Free College Degree

The path to a debt-free college degree begins with being informed. This is Part 2 of a 3-part series highlighting important information that every family should know, the steps to take to a debt-free degree, and how students can find help on their journey.

As we showed you in Part 1, statistics are displaying a discouraging trend for college costs, student loan debt, and career-readiness for graduates. However, with careful planning and application, you can position yourself to graduate debt-free and prepared to take on your career. Here are 7 steps to get you on track:

1. Identify and target your post-high school career goal.

Students who have career direction early on choose programs wisely, finish faster, find more joy, and save thousands of dollars by not making expensive missteps.
Career assessments are a good place to begin to determine the best onramp toward a college or career direction. Assessments help students identify key personality traits, compelling interests, most-enjoyed skills, and core values. It answers the question: What problem do you want to solve? While there are free assessments available online, Career Direct is the one we have chosen to use with all our students at The Virtues Campus. Once students understand their unique design, research and investigation are the next important steps. Internet research is not enough. Students need to put time into meeting with the professionals that are working in that field with informational interviews, job shadows, volunteer experiences in a similar field, and internships.

2. Match your educational pathway to your career goals.

By 2020, 65% of all jobs will require education or training beyond high school. However, not all career fields require applicants to have a 4-year degree. Credentials come in all sizes — 2-year degrees, 4-year degrees, certifications, or on-the-job experience. It is important to do your homework and understand the credentials required to gain employment in your field of interest. For the best advice, talk to hiring professionals in the field you are considering. 

3. Make a money plan.

Don’t settle for an admissions-only financial aid plan. A college “experience” is not worth the cost if it takes a decade to pay off or closes doors after graduation. Work with your family to calculate the total cost of completion. Then have the important conversation that starts with: Who is paying for college? If students must borrow money, a good rule of thumb is to not take out more in loans than what they will earn in their first year of work.

4. Print your degree plan before you begin.

Understand what it takes to complete the degree or training you want, and have it in writing! Without it, many students will spend extra time on campus, which results in higher costs and higher dropout rates (losing focus). Understanding what it takes to complete at the front end encourages students to focus on the completion process.

5. Earn college credits in high school.

Get a head start and earn up to two years of college credits before you set foot on campus. Options include dual enrollment through Post-Secondary Enrollment Option (PSEO), or credit-by exam through Advanced Placement (AP) and the College Level Exam Program (CLEP). The first two years of college are sometimes an overlap of high school courses. Accelerating these years gives students time to include more real-world experiences in their educational years. These experiences are valued by employers!

6. Gain the skills employers are seeking.

With so many graduates on the market, employers look for those who stand out with proven skills and previous experience. A degree is not enough! Identify skills that will help set you apart from others, and sharpen these skills through volunteering or working at a part-time job. Be intentional about creating a portfolio that showcases the value you bring to an employer’s team.

7. Keep parents involved.

We all need a second set of eyes, a sounding board, an opinion, and a different perspective. The financial cost of college is simply too great to not have someone in your corner. Keep parents involved in each step along the way, and make it a team effort!

Up Next: How The Virtues Campus Can Help