Going to College Debt-Free

Your education can set you up for future financial well-being or put you so deeply in debt that it will take years to dig out. I am here to help you get the motivation you need to get out or stay out of debt.

My name is Sam (Cecilia if we are being official) Fatzinger. My husband and I have 14 children: 12 that I delivered, one adopted, and one five-year-old foster son. We were asked to write A Catholic Guide to Spending Less and Living More (Ave Maria Press, 2021) last year for individuals and families at every stage of life because we are a single income family who paid off our house 12 years ago, my husband just retired at age 57, and we have no debt. Yes, single income family with 14 kids, LIVING DEBT-FREE IN THE DC AREA!!!

This post is for students or families who are trying to figure out how to pay for college without getting in a ton of debt. Whether you choose a four-year university, a community college, a trade school, or some other program, you need to ask yourself, how am I going to pay for this?

Six years ago, we were “discovered” by a reporter who writes for the Washington Post. She found out that our five oldest kids were graduating college debt-free. She wanted to know how it was possible in the Greater Washington Area, so she wrote this article

We have now helped most of our children launch themselves into college the same way they paid for their first car: save, plan, budget. Each of our kids has had the same goal: to get their undergraduate degree and be debt-free at graduation. According to our family rules, they are responsible for any college expenses due after financial aid and scholarships are applied, usually through savings and work-study programs. We don’t help them with tuition, books, or room and board (unless they live at home). Yes, we are super mean.

All our kids (except for #13) were or are being homeschooled through high school, so they have more time to build up that nest egg than many students do. We graduate them from high school at either sixteen or seventeen, depending on how much they have worked ahead. The county we live in has a low credit requirement in order to graduate, so by their senior year they only need an English credit to meet the county requirements. Graduating from high school early is also a plus if you need to spread out your college education over five or six years due to finances, or if your major requires more than four years.

In the fall of their last year of high school, each of our kids fills out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). No matter how much money you make it is advised that you fill out this form. Once you complete the FAFSA form, you will learn how much free money (in the form of a Pell Grant or other aid) you qualify for, based on your family income and other factors. You will also learn how much money you can borrow. The federal government offers two kinds of student loans, subsidized (lower interest rate) and standard (regular interest rates). We want our kids to avoid student loans like the plague. You will also want to research in the library, talk to your guidance counselor, and check with your local politicians for scholarship money. Our kids have all received between $200 and $500 per semester from various state officials.

I suggest that you consider community college. While I don’t feel that college is a must, I do encourage our kids to go to community college for two years. After that, if they want to continue at a four-year university, get a job, go to trade school, start their own business, or try out for Dancing with the Stars, it’s up to them. Community college is much cheaper per credit than a four-year university. We have a nationally recognized community college about twenty minutes down the road from us. In addition to being affordable, this particular community college is linked to all the public universities in our state. Credit received for courses taken at the community college transfers to the state colleges. After attending community college, all of our kids (so far nine) have transferred to a state university, receiving full credit for two years of college. Another plus of community college: if you drop out, very little money has been wasted. And yes, our kids go to public colleges, not Catholic ones. The various public universities our kids have attended have all had Catholic student groups on campus, some better than others. And some of our kids have been more involved with those student groups than others, but all of our kids have kept their faith while in school. If you can afford to go to a Catholic college and you feel the experience is worth the expense, go for it. Our community college costs $7,000 to $8,000 per year. Our kids usually get $5,000 to $7,000 in aid and scholarships annually during their community college days. (They receive more aid when attending a university.)

Depending on the amount they receive, they must come up with $1,000 to $3,000 per year. And since they have all been working throughout high school and have developed good saving habits, this is not an issue. Some go to a college close to home and commute; they get free room and board that way but have commuting costs. Others have chosen to go to a school farther away (living there adds to the expense). They finance this by using their savings, working summer jobs and on-campus jobs during the school year, and utilizing whatever financial aid they have received. For some of our kids, the financial aid package has been enough to cover the entire cost of college. Public universities in our state cost around $10,000 per year for tuition and a similar amount for room and board.

Our kids keep saving once they are in school by buying used books online or renting them from sites such as Amazon, eBay, and Textbooks.com. They also know how to shop for and cook basic, inexpensive meals. They get a junker bike to ride around campus. An old bike purchased at a garage sale for 20 dollars is perfect for this purpose, and if it gets stolen, it’s no big loss.

And now, a word from a Real Live Graduate: our son, Robert Fatzinger, child number seven, age 22: “I think the biggest thing I have to offer is to tell you to not get caught up in the idea of a ‘fun college experience.’ I still had fun going to community college and then transferring to the University of Maryland (UMD). While at times I wish I had been able to go there all four years, the money I saved and the credits I built up while attending community college were well worth it. If you can find a way to get ahead by taking college-level courses while in high school, do it. Take classes at your local community college. The flexibility of community college also allowed me to work between 15 and 30 hours a week throughout my first two years of school. I saved a good bit of money and got help from financial aid, which allowed me to pay for the first year of school at UMD without accumulating much debt. As far as living on your own goes, I did move out for my two years at UMD. The other thing that helped me was having a lot of other activities during college to build my résumé. Companies want to see that you can get good grades while also having a life. This is why I worked, played intramural sports, joined clubs, and volunteered for a lot of charities. The good companies will recognize that you still achieved a good GPA while doing something outside of school. I took on around $20,000 in debt during my last two years of school. The key to keeping your debt down is to save your money and apply for all sorts of scholarships.”

Hopefully this advice has helped you get a plan on what you might want to look for in a college financial plan. It is never too late to start planning on cutting down on your debt. Little by little, dollar by dollar, you can reduce your debt by making smart decisions and cutting back wherever you can.

The Fatzinger Family

Written by the Holy Rukus