Today, Alexandra Black-Paulick advises socially conscious entrepreneurs on their branding and marketing. She's got a podcast, a degree in graphic design and a life in Denver.
Near the start of the decade, however, she cleaned houses.
While scrubbing toilets isn't glamorous, it's one of the reasons she graduated from Montana State University with only $6,000 in student loans.
But Black-Paulick, 29, is a rarity these days because she was able to graduate with very little debt, which she paid off within a year of graduating. She worked with the AmeriCorps program after college, which included $5,000 toward her student loan after the first year. She paid off the remaining $1,000 from her savings.
According to the Pew Research Center, more than half of people ages 18 to 29 with bachelor's degrees have student debt. CNBC reports that 70 percent of college students graduate in debt.
Despite the odds, some students are figuring out how to graduate college with no debt — or with very little. Some work their way through school. Others take advantage of grants and scholarships. Still others have parental help. That's how I did it, with my parents paying half the bill for college.
I grew up in a rural area and my family owned a bit of farm land they leased out during my childhood and then sold to help pay my tuition. Not everyone has assets like an old real estate investment to use to pay for college, even though college is increasingly seen not as a luxury, but a necessity.
But I also earned an academic scholarship that covered half my tuition for a private university for four years. I knew in high school that I needed to perform well, so I worked hard to make sure I did. And I chose a school that gave me money (George Washington University) over one that didn't (Northwestern University). Ultimately, money mattered more than other factors.
And that's one common theme that many students and recent graduates seem to share about graduating college without student load burdens — they made a conscious effort, from the start, to keep their expenses as small as possible so they could graduate college without debt.
Black-Paulick, for example, had a small inheritance of about $10,000 she used for college. But mostly, to cover the rest, she worked, whether it was cleaning houses or working in graphic design on campus. One summer she was a house keeper at a dude ranch in Montana. Her parents covered any extra she needed in college for living expenses like cell phone bills and health insurance.
"My parents and I sat down to go over costs before I left," she says. "We were also working with a college counselor at the time, who helped me get scholarships. "I was terrified of debt because I didn't think I was responsible enough for that," she continues, so she gave herself a limit of taking out no more than $2,000 in student loans per year. "Same with credit cards.
"While Black-Paulick borrowed $6,000 in student loans for study abroad, when I was in college, my study abroad actually saved my parents money. I studied in Israel through a public university there, which cost a fraction of my regular tuition back in the United States. Although my university scholarship didn't apply and I wasn't a citizen of Israel, tuition and room and board were still less than a quarter of the total back home. My parents and I hadn't planned on that bonus, but it's an example of how some creativity can turn into cost savings.
Cain Twyman, 23, may be one of the luckier students. Like me, she applied to school and was granted a major academic scholarship without even asking for it. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) offers the Carolina Covenant program for low-income students, which covers tuition and includes funds for supplies like a new laptop. The program automatically considers all students accepted to the school who apply for financial aid.
She also had on-campus jobs as part of a work-study program for about 15 hours a week, worked during her summers and received Pell Grants, which do not need to be repaid.
Twyman, who now works as a contract research analyst in local government in Chapel Hill, was even able to spend time during college interning in Washington, DC, without debt. She worked at a restaurant near school and was able to continue working for the same company in the DC-metro area during her internship. She stayed with a relative, so she didn't have to pay rent, and she earned a $2,000 scholarship from UNC to help cover some costs during her time in DC.
Meanwhile, her twin sister, who attended the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, within the same public university system, took on debt to pay her way, Twyman says. Her twin's campus didn't offer the same funding that Chapel Hill did."
I know my friends and my sister, they have those loans and it's kind of hard, and it's financially difficult, and it's causing a lot of stress," she says. "That's one added stress that I don't have."