From Ketchup-Tasting To Funeral Home Flirting, How Consumerist Readers Paid For College Without Loans

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One day long ago someone made a joke to the effect that if you wanted to pay your way through college you’d have to work as a stripper. While I’m sure stripping is a very lucrative career, there are thousands of other ways to pay for your higher education – and some don’t even require taking out burdensome student loans.

While I did take out student loans to pay for college (and I have the debt to prove it), many of our faithful Consumerist readers didn’t go that route. Today they share their unique and maybe-not-so traditional ways affording their time at university.

Here’s A Novel Idea…Get A Job

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They say “you’ve gotta make money, to spend money,” and that’s also true when it comes to paying for college.

A number of Consumerist readers worked day, night and every hour they could sacrifice between classes in order to finance their education.

Although many college jobs pay low wages, some readers were able to land better-paying gigs; for a student anyway.

Bruce tells us that he never took out a student loan, thanks in part to his rotation of three, somewhat unique jobs.

First he was a greeter at a funeral home. But don’t feel sorry for Bruce. Nope, he tells us the job was “better than minimum wage” and “you’d be surprised how many not so grieving granddaughters and nieces you meet.”

When Bruce wasn’t flirting with the mourning ladies, he could be found selling lawn furniture and above-ground swimming pools near campus. And in the summer he waited tables at a resort earning “fabulous tips” and rubbing elbows with future employers.

While Bruce was making woo at a funeral home, Consumerist reader Carolyn was earning college cash with a similarly morbid at the morgue; at least she was studying toward a biology degree.

“That was in the late ’70s before working in the morgue was so glamorous that they made a lot of shows about it,” she says. “In fact, they had never hired a gal to do that job before and only gave me the job because they couldn’t get anyone else to even apply for it. I stayed five years.”

If working at a funeral home or in a morgue just doesn’t jive with your personality – or your stomach’s queasiness factor – another former student reported working a rather uncommon gig.

Sharon tells us she worked every summer for H.J. Heinz in the quality control labs. Yes, that means she was a ketchup tester.

“It was a great company to work for,” she recalls.

Unlike the others, Penny did need to take out a small loan to help pay for her Ohio University education. But the rest of her expenses were covered by her house-cleaning gig.

But she wasn’t just cleaning any houses, she cleaned for professors of the school. That, she says, turned out to be quite the experience.

“The cleaning jobs were always educational,” she tells Consumerist. “I once knocked [over] a huge potted plant, which in turn knocked over another. I came home with flea bites all over my ankles every other week because one professor couple refused to use any form of ‘chemical’ to free their dog – and the rest of us – from the pests.”

For some college students, a ROTC scholarship is all they’ll need to pay the bills, but Ken supplemented that scholarship with a secret shopper job that put “fun money” in his pocket.

Calling it the “best part-time job ever,” Ken says he was paid to spend other people’s money at movie theaters, bowling alleys, drugstores, and even a sunglass shop.

“It was a hoot,” he recalls.

Perks Of University Employment

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While many students who worked through college also relied on their parents or small student loans, a few were able to find jobs that would pay for their entire education – and they didn’t have to look far.

Rick tells us that he grew up in a city where the high school counselors were more worried about teen pregnancy than helping students achieve their dreams of attending college.

“Once I accepted the fact that I could go to college,” he says. “I did some research and found that many colleges allow employees to go to school for free or at a very large discount.”

Because Rick had little experience in the working world at the time, he set his sights low and began applying for any job at the local college that he had a chance for. And eventually he received a position as an entry-level janitor.

Cleaning toilets and mopping floors might not seem like a glamorous gig, but it paid for the entirety of Rick’s classes.

“Many colleges employ thousands and offer great discounts for classes,” he tells prospective students now. “Become one of those employees, even if it is a shit job it will be worth it.”

Zoe also found out about the perks of working for the university that she attended. As a clerk for the school’s book store, one of the benefits of the union was free courses.

“It took me a while to get my degree, but it was virtually free,” she recalls. “I was a single parent with two children and worked full-time and attended classes by negotiating time off during day with lunch hours at different times of day.”

Dann paid for his undergraduate degree with the help of his parents and a small loan, but when he decided to attend graduate schools he sought out a graduate assistant position within his university.

“Those were the halcyon days of graduate programs and along with my GA position I got FULL tuition reimbursement, health insurance for both me and my wife, a 20-hour a week paid job in my field of study, and a campus parking permit,” he says. “Try landing a deal like that nowadays.”

Making A Commitment

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It’s no secret that students who have served in the military or who made commitments to do so often have the entirety of their college expenses paid for through scholarships or veteran’s benefits.

Several Consumerist readers shared their experience with the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and veterans benefits such as the Post 9/11 GI Bill – which aims to further the education of United States servicemembers and their immediate family members.

Ken, who worked as a secret shopper, says he knew he wanted to serve in the military so he sought out a scholarship through the campus’ ROTC program that trains students to be commissioned officers in the armed forces.

When he wasn’t selected his freshmen year, he took a year off to work.

“That paid for my first year of college,” he says. “Meanwhile, I enrolled in ROTC and then earned a 3-year scholarship.”

Another reader, John, initially relied on federal loans and his parents’ help to pay for his education at Rutgers University. But his junior year he decided to enroll in the Army ROTC and the New Jersey National Guard.

“Things got significantly cheaper,” he says. “The Guard had an agreement with public universities throughout the state for actively drilling members to receive tuition remission. Additionally, ROTC provides a monthly living stipend to cadets who agree to serve a term of service after graduation.”

John went on to serve as an officer in the Guard and after completing his service obligation he’s using the post 9/11 GI Bill to pay for graduate school.

Shanna, who is currently attending Troy University to be a sign language interpreter, is paying for a majority of her college costs through the Alabama GI Dependents’ Scholarship program.

According to College Board, the program offers three years of in-state tuition for spouses and five years for children under the age of 25. The funds exclude room and board.

“Between Pell Grants and living a little more frugally, we should be able to pay for it ourselves,” Shanna says of her family’s plan. “When our son turns 18, he will use the scholarship to attend school.”

Matthew found that enlisting in the Air Force not only allowed him to pay for tuition, but gave him time to see the world and figure out what he truly wanted to study.

“I did 10 years in the Air Force, but a 4-year enlistment in the armed services entitles you to all benefits,” he says. “I came out with an associate degree, and then used my G.I. Bill to cover the costs of a BA in Graphic Design.”

Waiting For The Right Time

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Going to college straight out of high school isn’t right for everyone. In many cases, people will take a few years off to work, save money or gingerly dip their feet into higher education by attending community college first.

RJ started at a local community college where he took classes two nights a week and worked full-time for General Electric. After he saved enough, he went on to Augustana College where he double majored in accounting and business management.

For Jake the road to a degree was a bit longer, although he says he’s been able to pay for 100% of his college out-of-pocket.

“I went to community college at night, taking one or two courses at a time,” he says. “Finally, at age 37, I’ve saved up enough money to attend college full-time and only work part-time, despite living in one of the most expensive metro areas in the U.S.”

Martha knew early on that she would be responsible for funding her college education. To get the best bang for her buck, she says she began attending community college while continuing to work 35 hours a week at a local grocery store.

After two years of that grind she was able to transfer to the college of her choice with the help of part-time jobs and a scholarship. Now she volunteers for the college, helping to fundraise on behalf of the scholarship that made her college experience possible.

Companies Footing The Bill

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A number of large and small companies offer employees the opportunity – and funds – to return to school whether it be to obtain an undergraduate degree or a graduate degree.

These tuition reimbursement programs, some of which require an employee to fulfill so many years with a company, made it possible for several Consumerist readers to realize their college ambitions with little expense of their own.

Working in the information technology industry not only afforded Josh with experience and a clearer direction of where he wanted to be career-wise, it also provided the financial stability to return to college.

“My employer will give me up to $5,250 a year toward tuition and books,” he says. “When I started working for my employer, I had a few semesters of community college under my belt, but I was able to use the tuition reimbursement to go back to school in my 30s. Now I have a BS and am working on an MS.”

Although Anthony mostly relied on scholarships and student loans to pay for his education, he did receive a small portion of his tuition covered by employer reimbursement.

“Only once did I work for a company that did tuition reimbursement and I’ll always be grateful for the 1 year that they paid for,” he recalls.

Employer reimbursement programs can be a monumental help for some prospective students, but they aren’t the only ways to be paid back for obtaining a degree.

Leigh tells us that her husband, who did use a number of student loans to pay for undergraduate and grad school, carefully crafted his classes and internships to make sure he was accepted into the National Health Services Corps loan repayment system.

The program is open to primary care medical, dental, and mental and behavioral health providers who are employed or have accepted an offer of employment at an NHSC-approved site. The program awards those who make a commitment to work for at least two years in an area where there is a shortage of medical professionals with either $50,000 or $30,000 toward their student loans.

NHSC isn’t the only program that will reimburse graduates for their public service. The federal government operates federal student loan forgiveness programs.

The Pay As You Earn program allows borrowers to pay 10% a year of their discretionary income in monthly installments. The unpaid balances for consumers working in the public sector or for nonprofits are then forgiven after 10 years and those working in the private sector after 20 years.

Starting Early To Plan Ahead

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For many parents, the birth of their child is a day of pure, unexplainable joy. But the foray into parenthood also comes with the realization that you’re financially responsible for another human being, and that might include covering the cost of tuition.

Beginning to save while a child is young can often relieve future burdens and uncertainties when it comes to paying for college. Although recent reports have found that while parents are saving they aren’t saving enough.

Still, Dann and his wife opened 529 plans – an education savings plan operated by a state or educational institution designed to help families set aside funds for future college costs – early on in their childrens’ lives.

While his children aren’t yet ready to attend college, they have accumulated a good portion of their expected tuition costs through the plans.

Mike didn’t have a college savings account readily available to cover his tuition, but he did et up an IRA the first year they were available.

An IRA, while a retirement account, allows owners to take out funds for higher education without being deeply penalized.

According to the IRS, consumers can take distributions from their IRAs for qualified higher education expenses without having to pay the 10% additional tax. They may owe income tax on at least part of the amount distributed, but may not have to pay the 10% additional tax.

“Tell your readers I am proof that compound interest will make you wealthier than your peers and allow an early retirement,” he writes to Consumerist.

The Unexpected In Life

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In no circumstances do we think a college-bound consumer should rely on unexpected, and often tragic, life events to pay for college.

But sometimes sad things have to happen in order for good things to occur. Such is the case when a family member dies or when parents divorce.

Ashley’s father passed away unexpectedly before she entered college. While the situation was undoubtedly heartbreaking for her family, her father’s life insurance and past investments made it possible for her to virtually pay for all of her schooling.

“That being said I most definitely cannot recommend hoping for a life insurance payout,” she says. “I did however find ways to make that money go as far as possible and graduated with my bachelor’s completely debt free.”

Stephen didn’t necessarily suffer a loss of a parent in order to pay for college, but his parents’ divorce did take a large chunk of uncertainty in paying for college off his shoulders.

“I was able to get out of college without any debt by having divorced parents,” he writes to Consumerist. “My mother and step-father paid a third of my tuition and books, my father and step-mother paid a third and then I paid a third.”

Because the amount Stephen was responsible to pay was much less than it may have otherwise been, he was able to skip student loans and instead work at a local grocery store.

Relying On The Kindness Of Others And The Future Of Paying For College

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With tuition rising each year and more students relying on federal aid and often costly private student loans, the future of paying for college is uncertain.

The Business Insider recently reported on a rising phenomenon: Crowdfunding college tuition.

A number of enterprising college-bound consumers and their families have begun submitting appeals to the public on sites like in order to raise funds for future college expenses.

GoFundMe reports that the 106,793 educational campaigns currently active on the site brought in a combined $13.14 million in donations.

When Cassie learned that her college would no longer provide her financial aid she decided to turn to the internet for help. Shortly after starting her page she had raising $50,220 from 1,126 donors; enough to pay her tuition for the next two years.

While you might not be able to pay a $20,000 yearly tuition tab by working part-time for $9 an hour anymore, it is possible to come out of college with a degree and little debt.

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