9 Unusual Ways to Pay for College

Real stories about creative strategies for coming up with cash to cover the cost of a degree.

College is expensive – and it gets more so every year. The average in-state price for tuition, fees, room and board at a four-year public institution in 2014-15 was up 3% from the previous year to $18,943, according to the College Board. The average price for a four-year private nonprofit school rose nearly 4% to $42,419.

More and more families are turning to student loans to fund higher education. Over the past 10 years, student loan debt has climbed from less than $500 billion to more than $1 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. However, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Editor Janet Bodnar has argued for years in Money Smart Kids columns that despite the rising cost of college there are ways to avoid the student-loan debt trap.

In fact, we talked to several people who found some unusual ways to cover some (or all) of the cost of going to college. As a result, many of these people avoided student loans altogether. Here are nine ways they earned or were given cash to help pay for school.

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Play in the pep band. Robin Bartee put her music minor to use while an undergraduate at Western Kentucky University in the mid-1990s. For a couple of years, she played percussion in the pep band at basketball games – a paying gig that enabled her to cover the cost of textbooks. She also had an assortment of scholarships, grants and part-time jobs that helped her pay tuition and living expenses. “I walked away from college without owing any money,” she says.

Participate in clinical studies. Ginger Dean became a human guinea pig while a graduate student at Marymount University in Virginia. She participated in sleep and medical trials at a facility in nearby Baltimore, and was paid $300 to $750 for each session. Dean says that she found the clinical study listings on Craigslist.org. ClinicalTrials.gov, a database run by the National Institutes of Health, lists studies that are actively recruiting participants. Search by location to identify local trials. Or if your university has a medical school or psychology department, check there for studies seeking participants.

Be a caddy. Steven D. raked in the dough working as a caddy at a private country club in a Chicago suburb during the summers while he was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. For every two bags he carried for 18 holes of golf, he earned $80 plus tips. Depending on how many days he worked, he could make up to $10,000 in a summer. Not only was he able to earn money to cover some of the costs of college, he also landed an internship through networking on the golf course. That, and he got to caddy for basketball superstar Michael Jordan.

Teach dance. While her classmates at William & Mary in Virginia earned minimum wage working at restaurants and retail stores during college, Catherine Alford pocketed $15 an hour teaching ballet to three-year-olds. “I used to wear my ballet clothes under my college clothes, rush to the studio between classes and teach the little ones,” she says. She saved her earnings to travel abroad after her junior year to study writing at the University of Cambridge in England.

Work as a camp counselor. When Eric Rosenberg became a counselor-in-training at a Boy Scout camp near Denver, he didn’t realize it would be his ticket to a full ride at the University of Colorado. After he learned about the Boys Scouts of America Denver Area Council’s Madden Merit Scholarship Award, he decided to stick with camp counseling throughout college to receive the funding, which was matched with funds from the university and Wells Fargo. The $15,000 he received each year covered his tuition, room and board until he graduated in 2007. Read about eight other sources of scholarships.

Conduct interviews. While attending UCLA, Jackie Lam spent several weeks interviewing people for a book, Close Calls with the Cops, after responding to a listing on Craigslist.org. Lams says she approached people on the street, sought stories through online chatrooms and posted her own ads on Craigslist. She was paid $10 per story and earned a total of $200 – not a lot but enough to cover some books and living expenses. She also earned cash by participating in clinical studies at a lab on the UCLA campus, and recording books on tape for the school’s office of disabilities.

Clean toilets. Former Kiplinger writer Erin Burt worked her way through Brigham Young University in Utah with an assortment of campus jobs, including one with the custodial crew for the basketball arena and football stadium. She made about $6 an hour in 1997-98. Believe it or not, it was a lot of fun, she says, because “each shift was a bunch of college kids talking, laughing, listening to music – we just happened to be cleaning toilets, washing windows and mopping at the same time.” In addition to earning money to pay for school, she met her husband on the job.

Model for aspiring artists. To get a job on campus at Ricks College (now Brigham Young University-Idaho), Tynley Bean and her classmates had to stand for hours in a job line at the beginning of each term. Given the choice of janitor and art model, Bean chose the latter her freshman year because it sounded easier and had better hours. For $5 an hour, she would sit or lie completely still in a swimsuit. The experience prompted her to become an art major, and she was able to sell her own art while in school to professors, students and even the university’s collection.

Let Uncle Sam foot the bill. After a year of college, Ryan Guina became restless and wanted an adventure, so he joined the U.S. Air Force on a six-year contract. His wanderlust paid off a few years later while still on active duty when he decided to finish his degree. He was able to use the Armed Forces’ Military Tuition Assistance program to cover 100% of the cost of his college tuition. He applied his year of college and military training (for physical education and leadership credits) toward his degree and managed to earn a bachelor’s of science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida within a year and a half by taking courses at a satellite campus and online. His degree, which he earned without taking on any debt, helped him switch careers after he left the Air Force in 2006. "The absence of student loans was a huge blessing, as it took six months to find a job after I left active duty,” Guina says. Learn more about education benefits for members of the military.

Cameron Huddleston
Former Online Editor, Kiplinger.com

Award-winning journalist, speaker, family finance expert, and author of Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk.

Cameron Huddleston wrote the daily "Kip Tips" column for Kiplinger.com. She joined Kiplinger in 2001 after graduating from American University with an MA in economic journalism.