Debt Free: How I Got Three Degrees With No Student Loans

I have three degrees – a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, a master’s degree from Columbia University (technically two, but I don’t really count the MPhil), and a doctoral degree from Columbia University. The sum cost of my education was over $365,000 — a LOT of money — but I managed to come out with absolutely zero student loan debt. I consider myself very lucky and I am grateful for the privilege, knowing that over 75% of students in America have some form of debt. Here are the four main ways that I completed over a decade of post-secondary education with no student loan debt.

Choosing Schools with Good Financial Aid Programs & Hefty Endowments

When I was applying to colleges, I cast my net wide, with the goal of using an admission and financial aid package at one school to help negotiate at another school. Since I had full ride offers to two schools, I used that information to request a bit more financial aid from the schools I ultimately wanted to attend. When applying to graduate schools, I decided to go straight for my PhD in an effort to save money by not having to do a masters degree. I also only considered programs that provided at least some guaranteed funding for all students, and I used the same negotiation strategy — one of the PhD programs I was accepted into offered me five years of funding, while Columbia only offered me two years. I told Columbia I’d love to come but needed five years of funding, and they agreed. I think there’s a misconception that Ivy League schools are expensive, and so people don’t apply to them, but those schools also have incredibly large endowments and thus the ability to provide need-based financial aid and support to students, sometimes more so than smaller private or larger public institutions.

Financial Support From My Parents for College

I consider myself extremely blessed to have parents who highly value education. They willingly sacrificed a lot to pay the expected family contribution after Harvard had given the amount of need-based financial aid that I qualified for, which came out to about $15,000 a year. They also gave me a credit card that I could use to purchase books — and only books — which not only helped offset some of my educational expenses, but also started building my credit at a young age. But my parents also had stipulations that came with their financial support, and if my GPA didn’t meet their requirements, they would (and did for one of my brothers) not pick up the slack.

Working While In School

Even outside of my family’s contribution to my educational expenses, they didn’t allow me to use the credit card for leisure expenses like eating outside of the meal plan, buying clothes, or taking spring break trips with my friends. To earn additional income in college, I participated in research studies, did hair, did paid summer internships, earned some revenue from my YouTube channel, and babysat to earn as much money as I could. During my PhD program, I was a research assistant, teaching assistant, designed websites, blogged, and did hair again to make up the difference between my stipend and what I needed to get by. While saving up for our wedding I even listed my studio apartment on AirBnB to make extra income (or technically, to save money).

By the sixth year of my PhD program, I ran out of funding, so I had two options — take a loan or get a job to make as much as my stipend plus the cost of tuition (around $50,000 for the year). I’ve always believed in living a debt free life so a loan was off the table. On the other hand if I got a 9-5 job, I wouldn’t have enough time on my hands to finish my dissertation. That’s when I decided to grow my blog into a a successful six figure business — the hustle and hard work was out of necessity.

External Funding

Although I went to a college that had need-based financial aid, I also applied to scholarships in my senior year of high school to try and offset some of the costs of my education. I was a National Merit Scholar which came with a few thousand dollars for school. When it was time to pursue my PhD, I applied for external funding even though I was given five years of funding. Most graduate school funding requires that you work as a part-time research assistant or teaching assistant, but when I secured a graduate research fellowship from the National Science Foundation, I didn’t have to do any additional work. This actually freed up significant time that I used to level up my blog — and the work I put in five years ago set me up so that I can now do it full time!

Although not all of these options are available to all students, just know that there IS a possibility of completing your education with less debt and fewer student loans!

To see more of my education journey and how I got three Ivy League degrees without any student loan debt, check out this video:

IF YOU’RE A BLACK WOMAN AND ARE INTERESTED IN DOCTORAL DEGREES, CHECK OUT THE COMMUNITY I CREATED FOR US, COHORT SISTAS.

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Comments

  1. I have my first degree and am really desiring to pursue masters in Financial Mathematics ,but i dont have funds yet though saving up for it….i have picked some tactics here to boost my financial hustle to ensure i enroll for my second degree In my dream field of study,Thank soo much Dr.

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