How to Graduate With Minimal Debt

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The new year is fast approaching, and for many that means getting prepared to embark on a new stage of their life: getting their college degree. Many will start school this January, and more than a few will be seeking out practical advice from those who have been in their shoes before. While this advice abounds, with how to guides ranging from avoiding homesickness to cooking ramen noodles in 52 different ways, many of the most practical and important matters are neglected. Mainly, while there is no shortage of advice on how to get through college without becoming a social outcast, there is a dearth of information on how to ensure that when you graduate you will find yourself in a financially advantageous situation.

The problem is, most college students are accustomed to making poor financial decisions, and this is where they really need advice. I’m not even talking about credit card debt here. I mean, let’s face it, college students are paying up to $1,000 a pop to take some of the same classes they took in high school. They reason that this is still wise, because their degrees can net them a good job when they graduate, but in reality the end result is that the average student these days graduates with nearly $35,000 in student loan debt, not accounting for the money their parents took out on top of that. And, for many, this debt doesn’t net them a good full time job – at least not right away. So they are stuck with enormous debt and no real stream of income to pay it off, leaving America with a workforce that is educated, but broke.

Most students these days have simply concluded that such cases are unavoidable, mainly because they are so normative. But while such cases truly are becoming the norm, they certainly don’t have to be, and so while most are willing to give advice on how to make the college years the best of their lives, my advice to new students would be to ensure that the rest of their lives are just as good as their college years by seriously investigating their options before biting off more than they can chew when it comes to student loans.

Now I could simply say “shop around and don’t pay for an expensive school you can’t afford”, and by doing so I would certainly be offering very sound advice (I speak from experience here). But today I wanted to offer something a little further beyond that. You see, the reason many students are finding themselves in so much debt is simply because they are unaware of alternative options. I, for one, am aware of alternative options however, and I have seen them put to use firsthand to drastically reduce the cost of a college education and allow for a much greater deal of financial mobility in the long haul.

The alternative options I’m speaking of are testing programs that give students the opportunity to prove knowledge they already have and earn college credit for it. These programs, called CLEP and DSST, among others, offer a multitude of tests that, when taken advantage of, can drastically reduce the investment of both time and money that it takes to earn an accredited degree. These tests cost around $80 and can net prospective students anywhere between 3 and 12 credits. To put that into perspective, most state colleges charge a minimum of around $200 per credit, which is already only a fraction of what a credit would cost at a private school!

The basic premise of these programs is actually well known by most students. Most people have taken an AP class, or at least know somebody who has, so we’re aware of the possibility of testing out of classes – we simply never thought about doing it on a large scale. Actually, AP is created by the same company that administrates CLEP (College Level Examination Program), and the basic premise is the same. If a student has acquired knowledge in high school (or anywhere else for that matter), there is no reason for them to reacquire it in college. Therefore, we should allow them to prove their knowledge, earn their credits, and move on.

The possibilities here are endless. There are such a large number of exams available through programs such as CLEP and DSST that it is literally possible to test out of over 75% of a degree in some cases. To give you an example of this, by using such programs my own brother was able to complete his bachelor’s degree from an accredited college in just ten months, for under $10,000, from start to finish!

Of course there are stipulations. Many schools have limitations to the number of exams you can take and which ones apply to which classes. Most schools have a residency requirement, and still require students to take some physical classes. Fortunately, here at we direct you to many online universities with generous residency requirements that are generally ready to accept your CLEP or DSST credits. Let’s use one of these as an example-Liberty University. This university is a fully accredited college that offers a degree in Green & Sustainable Management and will accept every single CLEP or DSST credit you can throw their way. What this means is that if you can earn knowledge elsewhere (from a book or the internet, perhaps), you can transfer a lot of credits to Liberty and save some serious cash!

So, my advice to new college students, and aspiring forestry professionals, is that they do some serious research about the cost of their degrees and alternative methods of earning credit. If you’re looking to earn a degree in Sustainable Management, look into Liberty University, and see how many classes you can test out of. This is an option that is very underutilized (less than 3% of American college students took advantage of credit by examination last year), but there are still several books on the subject that will go into it in greater detail. (At the risk of self promoting, I suggest you give the book One and Done written by my own brother Paul Warburg a look). By doing enough research, students can reduce the cost and time it takes to earn a degree, freeing up their resources to be used on what they really want and enjoy out of life, say spending time out of doors.