Devising a Plan to Graduate with as Little Debt as Possible

Elizabeth Harris, Social Studies Department Chair at Grassfield High School in Chesapeake, VA, recently wrote us with some ideas for students on course credit, cooperative programs, and scholarships and grants – advice that is particularly geared toward students making their college decisions during this economic downturn. We’re pleased to bring you Harris’ email here:

*    Students can earn college credit through the College Level Examination Program (CLEP) while still in high   school.  While CLEP scores are not accepted at the most selective colleges, they ARE accepted at the vast majority of colleges that students will attend.  A "C" student in an AP class might not pass the AP exam, but would have enough in-depth information to pass the multiple-choice CLEP exam.  These exams are produced by the College Board and are taken online.  In many states, such as Virginia, students can self-schedule these exams at a community college, even if they are not attending that community college.  I had a student last year who went to a Virginia university and managed to get a full year of college credit through CLEP exams:  math, foreign language, English composition, history, and analysis and interpretation of literature (basically a reading comprehension test that uses all the literary terms.) 

We encourage our students to take CLEP exams (about $100 each) as soon as they have finished the last course they plan to take in that subject area if they plan to apply to colleges that accept CLEP exam scores for credit.  One exam in foreign language can earn a student up to 12-14 credits in foreign language at some colleges.  Virtually all of my lower ability (but hard-working) students in AP US History pass the CLEP exams which still earns them credit at universities such as Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth University, Old Dominion University, and George Mason University. (Ed. note: Many colleges and universities accept CLEP test results for credit. Please see the link below.)  A motivated student who has had a good high school class in a subject area can also purchase a prep book and pass the exam.  We highly recommend CLEP exams at our school - particularly in these days when money is so tight. But students should ALWAYS check with the colleges to which they will be applying - credits awarded for CLEP (and AP exams) can change yearly.

More information about CLEP can be found at the following:

         CLEP at The College Board

* Students may also want to check with the colleges on their list to see if they offer cooperative programs or co-op programs. Cooperative education (co-op) is an academic program linking college classroom studies with professional work experience in a field related to a student’s career goals. Co-op programs allow students to alternate study and work semesters, acquiring valuable work experience.

These are not internships. They are structured, evaluated programs which provide an income for the student. Such programs can be the deciding factor for some of our students whose families struggle financially.  And as of now, co-op earnings are not counted as student income by the FAFSA, so students would be eligible for a greater amount of financial aid despite that income. Students may graduate with little or no debt and real world experience.

More information about co-op programs can be found at the following:

            Cooperative Education and Internship Association

            World Association for Cooperative Education 

* Finally, students should be cautioned when accepting generous grants and scholarships for an expensive college to be sure those grants will continue if their financial situation changes or if they fail to earn a certain GPA.  Many is the student who has selected an expensive private college, received scholarships the first year, and then found there was not the same money provided for subsequent years (or lost the scholarship due to lowered grades.)  At that point they have already formed relationships, love their college, and may decide to make up the difference with substantial loans that often cripple their choices later.

There are LOTS of ways to pay for college for hard-working and creative students who are patient enough to devise a real plan to graduate with as little debt as possible.


Born and raised in Pakistan by her American ex-pat parents, Elizabeth Harris lived in Belgium for ten years where she taught English.  She later taught in China and Senegal.  Today she teaches AP European History and AP US History during the day and history and humanities at Tidewater Community College in the evenings.  In 2007 she was the Virginia Region II Teacher of the Year.  But her proudest accomplishment is navigating the waters of college admission to graduation within four years with her two daughters "who are now happily married and employed!” says Harris.




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