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This Is Uncomfortable

How students are trying to avoid college loans

Jana Kasperkevic Aug 28, 2019
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Attending a lower cost trade school, signing up for an income share agreement, finding schools with free tuition, these are some of the ways students are trying to avoid going into debt.
Robert Perry/Getty Images

Student debt can seem inevitable. Today, more than 44 million Americans owe nearly $1.5 trillion in student loans. This debt has been blamed for many things: Americans’ lack of retirement savings, declining rates of home ownership, even the death of marriage

Some state governments and private universities are exploring ways to ease the burden. Schools like the University of Utah and Purdue University are looking at income share agreements, where instead of taking out loans students are expected to pay the school a portion of their income once they land a job. About 20 states are on track to offer free public college, and last year New York University School of Medicine announced that all tuition would be free, effective immediately. After the announcement, applications to the school increased by 47%

Marketplace spoke to three students about their approach to debt-free graduation: an NYU med school student, a computer programmer in training and an aspiring welder.


Name: Travis John
Age: 18
Location: Orange County, California
School: Universal Technical Institute
Cost: $21,000 

Travis John did not go to community college this month as he once thought he would. Instead, as most college freshmen were settling into their dorms, he was starting a welding program at a local trade school.

“I actually was thinking about going to a community college for two years and then transferring to a university,” John said. His plans changed when a representative from Universal Technical Institute, a nationwide, for-profit vocational school, stopped by his high school welding class. “He just broke down all the details about it and I was just like: ‘Yup, that’s what I want to do.’”

The nine-month long welding program at UTI in Rancho Cucamonga, California, will cost John about $21,000, most of which will be covered by a college fund his grandmother opened for him. He’s feeling grateful.

“I’m not going to have to worry about any debt and it’s a lot cheaper than if I were to go to a community college and then transfer to a university.”

When John told his parents about his decision, they were surprised. But to him, it all made sense. “I’m not a school person. So, I’ll go to this trade school for nine months and then I’m done,” he explained. 

He hopes to use his certificate to get a job doing stick welding out in the field, and he’s optimistic about his job prospects.

“I have a huge advantage because all the baby boomers are going to be retiring soon,” he said. He’s probably onto something; according to the American Welding Society, there will be a shortage of more than 450,000 welders by 2022


Asim Zaidi is attending a computer science school in San Francisco that allows students to finance their education through an income share agreement. Photo courtesy of Asim Zaidi

Name: Asim Zaidi
Age: 22
Location: San Francisco, California
School: Make School
Cost: 20% of his future income for five years 

Growing up, Asim Zaidi was always told that getting a college degree was the only way to be financially secure. When he graduated high school, he enrolled in the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

But he discovered college wasn’t all he imagined it to be. Not only did he not enjoy the atmosphere, but he was also getting deeper in debt. After high school, Zaidi continued to live at home. One of four kids and the son of a single mother, he qualified for financial aid, but it wasn’t enough to cover everything. He had to take out about $6,000 in loans his first year. 

With two years of college behind him, Zaidi decided to take a break from school to regroup. That’s when he heard of Make School, a computer science school in San Francisco that allows students to finance their education through income share agreements

While finishing his degree, per the ISA, Zaidi wouldn’t have to pay any tuition. Providing he graduates and gets a job paying at least $60,000, he will spend five years paying 20% of his income back to the school.  

“Twenty percent can seem like a lot,” he said. “At first I was skeptical of it, but then I met tons of alumni of the program in San Francisco.” He spent time with them at their apartments and saw that they were “living comfortably.” 

The only thing Zaidi regrets is that he didn’t hear about Make School sooner.

“I wish I hadn’t wasted those few years in college. I wish I heard about it when I was 18, it would have been so much better,” he said. “It’s a five year thing; I’ll be 27 and debt free. It’s a good deal. I am a huge advocate of the ISA. I think it’s the way education payments should be. You should only pay if you get a good job.”


Not having to worry about paying back thousands of dollars’ worth of student loans has given Margareta Ianosi-Irimie a new sense of freedom. Photo Credit: Jana Kasperkevic for Marketplace

Name: Margareta Ianosi-Irimie
Age: 22
Location: New York, New York
School: New York University School of Medicine
Cost: Free

In August of 2018, Margareta Ianosi-Irimie received the news that she says changed her life. The tuition for her medical school was fully taken care of. 

The announcement was made at the end of the so-called “white coat ceremony,” a rite of passage at some schools as graduates enter the medical profession. The tension was already high, according to Ianosi-Irimie, when Kenneth G. Langone, the founder of Home Depot, took the stage. Langone contributed about $100 million toward the $600 million that the university needed to make the free tuition a reality. 

“Mr. Langone went up to the podium and started speaking and all of a sudden he said some stuff and then the screen turned blue and it said ‘free tuition for all,’” she said. “Everyone was cheering. I don’t think I’ve clapped that long my entire life. I lost my voice after that.”

Her parents were unable to attend, but as soon as she could, she texted them the picture of the blue screen. 

“My dad texted me back four question marks,” she said. “He had no idea what was going on. He thought it was a joke or something. I ended up calling my parents after and the moment I said the words aloud actually started crying.” 

When she was first accepted to NYU School of Medicine, Ianosi-Irimie was ecstatic. How she would pay for school wasn’t at the forefront of her mind, but as med school neared so did the tuition costs. For her undergraduate degree, she attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst on a scholarship that enabled her to graduate without debt. 

Ianosi-Irimie spent last summer helping her dad at his phone repair store in Maine. She and her dad would spend hours every day looking up loans, trying to figure out where to get the money for med school.

Not having to worry about paying back thousands of dollars’ worth of student loans has given Ianosi-Irimie a new sense of freedom. 

“I don’t have to go into a super high-paying specialty just because I know I’m going to have endless loans that I need to pay off,” she said. “I can do something because I really want to do it, and I think that’s how I can best contribute to medicine and help patients.”

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