By Stephanie Alfaro
An ad for AmeriCorps in my history book at Eastside High School set the direction I would take when I graduated. Participation in the program combined with starting out at Greenville Technical College gave me the experience in public service I wanted and allowed me to earn a bachelor’s degree without accruing student debt.
AmeriCorps engages more than 80,000 Americans in intensive service each year at 21,600 sites across the country, including nonprofits, schools, public agencies, and community and faith-based groups. Since 1994, over 1 million AmeriCorps members have contributed more than 1.4 billion hours in service while tackling pressing problems and mobilizing more than 2.3 million volunteers for the organizations they serve.
I was part of the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, which engages 18- to 24-year-olds in service projects with national and state parks, Native American tribes, schools, and other local, state, and federal projects. For 10 months, I traveled to Oregon, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Wisconsin completing projects in education, disaster/recovery, and neighborhood revitalization. In return for my service, I earned a living stipend and an educational award. For today’s participants, the educational award totals $5,815.
Following that initial term of service, I signed up again, this time as an AmeriCorps Vista assisting Habitat for Humanity of Greenville County. Working with Habitat during the day, I enrolled in classes at Greenville Technical College at night, earning a second living stipend and educational award for my Habitat service.
By combining these awards with Greenville Tech’s affordable tuition, several Pell grants, and a part-time job, I was able to pay as I went, completing the first half of a bachelor’s degree. From Greenville Tech, I transferred to the University of South Carolina, and after getting married and having a baby, moved to USC Upstate, graduating in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in nonprofit administration.
My classmates at Eastside High School had plans to attend expensive colleges where debt is often part of the package. The route I took in creating a gap year of service was somewhat unusual, but it allowed me to solidify my career plans as I became the first in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree and to graduate with nothing to pay back.
News outlets have reported recently that college students who borrow to finance their education are graduating with an average debt load of $34,000. This debt can significantly hamper their chances of buying a home, creating lasting consequences.
The biggest factor in my debt-free degree was Greenville Tech. Today, someone taking 12 credit hours and applying lottery tuition assistance will pay $1,071 for a semester. More than 70 percent of the students are receiving some form of financial aid to assist them in reaching their goals.
Often, the subject of student debt comes up among my friends and co-workers, who are working and paying off what they borrowed. I am thankful that I found a way around that problem. I’d like to see more young people avoid the student debt trap by looking at alternatives.
Not everyone wants to take the service route, but there are other possibilities.
Employers including BMW, Michelin, and GE offer scholars programs through which they pay tuition as students work while taking classes.
Two-year colleges such as Greenville Tech offer affordable tuition while providing a strong foundation for those planning to transfer. High school students can take advantage of dual enrollment opportunities with colleges, including Greenville Tech, to take classes at a reduced rate and begin college several classes or even semesters ahead.
The ROTC program pays tuition and textbook costs for students interested in military service.
There are also many scholarships available that can help reduce costs of tuition and books.
Americans assume that going to college means going into debt. It doesn’t have to be that way. It is possible to earn a degree debt-free for those willing to do some research and apply a little creativity.
Earning a bachelor’s degree means higher earnings over the course of a career, and being debt-free gives people like me the chance to use our earnings for today’s needs rather than paying back what we borrowed years ago.
Stephanie Alfaro is a homeowner selection and support coordinator for Habitat for Humanity of Greenville County.