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The smartest way to pay for college

I spend a lot of time talking with students about big life decisions they’ll face, and one of the most important is how to pay for college.

At a recent speaking event, I asked 100 students if they believed they could ever pay cash for college. Eighty-seven of them said no. Now, I know this isn’t a scientific research project. But when I asked those same students why they said no, they told me college costs too much. They figured there would be no way to pay for college without taking out student loans.

For those of you who think the same way, it’s time to think again. I want you to see there’s simply no reason for a teen you care about to go into debt for college.

Out-of-control Debt is Weighing Students Down

Here’s a number to get you thinking about the student debt crisis in America: $1.2 trillion. According to, that’s how much school debt Americans owe right now.

How did it get that high? The majority of young people in America have accepted the popular myth that student loans are just part of life. And it’s not just the teens from my little survey who believe this. In 2017, Student Loan Hero reported that the average college student graduates with over $37,000 dollars in student loan debt.

As someone who once racked up $25,000 in student loan debt myself, I can relate to people who borrowed to go to school or who still believe it’s the only way.

Here’s some good news though. There’s a much better way to pay for a college education.

A Better Way

As I said before, most of the students I talked to were doubtful about cash-flowing college. But 13 of them agreed that it is, in fact, possible to go to college debt-free. Let’s talk about how more students are getting it done every year.

There’s money available in many forms to help students go to college without loans. A 2015 study by NerdWallet revealed over $2 billion in grant and scholarship money goes unclaimed every year. All that cash could have put a big dent in the billions owed by so many students nationwide.

What’s stopping the teens in your life from claiming those dollars for themselves? There are literally thousands of college scholarships out there. All it takes is a little research and the willpower to apply.

Finding College Scholarships and Financial Aid

The internet is an awesome resource for scholarship hunting. There are tons of great websites, like, that help students find money for school. However, these resources are only helpful if they’re used. Here’s my advice for students to get the most out of their search for college dollars.

In middle school, students should spend about 30 minutes a day searching for, and applying to get, scholarships. By the time they reach high school, students should spend about an hour each day doing the same. During the summer, high school students should treat the search for scholarship dollars like a part-time job, and plan to put in four hours a day. I know students who did this, and they ended up with more than enough money to pay for school and graduate completely debt-free!

And here’s one more thing to keep in mind when it comes to paying for college — the FAFSA. I know, it sounds weird, but it stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Students have to fill it out every year they go to college. It’s not just used to determine eligibility for student loans. It’s also used to determine eligibility for grants, scholarships, and work-study programs. The earlier applicants complete the FAFSA, the better. Students can begin the process as early as October 1 (for the following school year), though they will need to come back after January to update their income tax information.

Remember, debt is not necessary to get a college degree. There are ways to pay for college without taking student loans, and being in debt for 10 years after graduation. Yes, it takes some research and hard work, but cash-flowing college is possible!

Anthony ONeal

Anthony ONeal

Since 2003, Anthony ONeal has helped thousands of students make good decisions with their money, relationships and education to live a well-balanced life. He’s the National Best-Selling Author of Graduate Survival Guide: 5 Mistakes You Can’t Afford to Make in College, and travels the country spreading his encouraging message to help teens and young adults transition into the real world. You can follow Anthony on Twitter and Instagram @AnthonyONeal and online at or

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