How I Earned Two Degrees Without Student Loan Debt

Editor’s note: This post is part of our Personal Stories series, where our financial coaches share their own financial journey. We hope you enjoy getting to know us a little better and ultimately learn from our mistakes!

OK, so here’s the situation…

One of the biggest worries many young people have today and many parents have for their kids is the burden of student loans. Given its value in the job market, avoiding higher education doesn’t really seem like the best solution for most people. Fortunately, I was able to finish college and law school without having to take any student loans. Here’s how I did it.

“I got this”

Step 1:

The first step was taking AP (advanced placement) classes in high school, which allowed me to get enough college credits to graduate from college a year early. These classes are harder than the regular curriculum, but admissions officers will often look more favorably on lower grades in an AP class than higher grades in the corresponding non-AP class. Even if your child’s high school doesn’t offer AP classes for certain subjects, they may be able to take the AP exam for those subjects and get college credits anyway if they score well enough. This is what I did for history and government.

Step 2:

The second thing I did was to choose schools (in my case, NYU for college and USD for law school) that gave me significant scholarships. This may force your child to attend a lower ranked school that offers a scholarship rather than a higher ranked one that doesn’t, but a study found that students with comparable abilities making this choice earn about the same income either way.

In other words, it’s more about the student’s aptitude and skills than the name on their degree. (Exceptions are for students from lower-income households and business majors since some businesses only recruit from top schools.) Students who don’t qualify for AP classes or scholarships could follow a similar strategy by attending a much lower cost state school or even a community college and then transferring to a more prestigious school, which is where their 4-year degree would be from.

Step 3:

Finally, I worked while in college. I spent a summer selling cutlery in people’s homes (which helped get me my first job in the investment brokerage business), worked for the school’s admissions office, sold advertising for the school paper, and worked as a teacher and proctor for a test prep company. One study found that students who work part-time in school actually do better academically.

At the end of the day

The end result of all this is that I was able to avoid graduating with burdensome student loan payments. (I did technically have a small student loan from undergrad that I applied for by accident but I quickly paid that off.) This made it much easier to avoid other types of debt and save for the future.

If I could turn back time

The only things I might do differently would have been to apply to more colleges (I only applied to NYU early decision) to see where else I could have gotten scholarships to and perhaps to not go to law school at all. While the JD didn’t cost me any money, there was a significant opportunity cost of not earning much for 3.5 years since I never intended to use the degree. That’s a pretty elementary mistake for a former economics major!

If I could tell you just one thing

The one thing I would tell students and parents is to think of education the same way as a consumer purchase or an investment. Focus on value rather than always the “best” or most prestigious option. They may yield the most short-term emotional benefit but they often cost more, both emotionally and financially, in the long run.


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