by Caitlin Meadows

Proverbs 22:7 encourages debt-free living.

The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.”

But what about student loan debt? For those wanting to earn a degree, student loans seem like the only real option. However, with the national student loan debt at $1.4 trillion, the number of student loan skeptics are growing, too. This skepticism is growing particularly among Christians who desire to be responsible stewards of their time, minds, futures, and finances.

In my previous article on the subject, I made the following point:

There are many factors that contribute to an individual’s decision to earn a degree with or without student loan debt… However, no matter what contributing factors may be in play, debt is always optional…Acquiring an education does not have to require debt. With prayerful research, patience, and diligence many have earned college degrees without owing a penny upon completion.”

In light of this statement, it seems appropriate to share an example of a debt-free college grad who now has the financial freedom to pursue her calling free from the demands of a lender.

Please allow me to introduce you to my sister-in-law, Mary.

Meet Mary, a debt-free college grad.

Earlier this year, Mary joined the Artios Team to utilize her education and skills in editing (among other things). She quickly became a tremendous asset to the magazine! She is a recent college grad who went about her education differently. After high school graduation, Mary set a clear goal: to earn her college degree debt-free. And that’s exactly what she did.

Mary, give us a brief background about yourself and your college experience.

I’m from west Michigan where I was home schooled along with my five siblings. I graduated high school in 2010, and began earning my college degree that August.

Before even enrolling in a traditional college I took advantage of the option to test out of my general education classes and free electives using two types of standardized tests: CLEP (College Level Examination Program) and DSST Exams. These tests are designed to help students with prior knowledge skip introductory courses. Since these tests are also regionally accredited they are accepted as PLA (prior learning assessment) credits by nearly 3,000 colleges and universities. Most colleges limit the number of PLA credits you can transfer, so I chose to pursue my degree through Thomas Edison State University (TESU) because they have some amazing transfer policies! By the time I enrolled at TESU I had tested out of 87 credits worth of classes, and had a total of 105 credits waiting to transfer to my degree!

How much student loan debt did you accumulate in pursuit of your degree?


Was student loan debt ever an option?

No, never.

Did you receive any other forms of financial aid? Grants? Scholarships?

My parents were gracious enough to help with some of my tuition for the first two years. Besides that, I did not receive any grants or scholarships.

What inspired you to pursue your education debt-free?

I’ve always loved learning, and in high school I thought it’d be awesome attend college and study in a specific field. Since I didn’t know what I wanted to do, the thought of spending enormous amounts of money and getting a loan didn’t seem worth it.

Then, some of our friends told us about a coaching program that helped students earn their degrees faster and without debt. It sounded too good to be true! We set up an interview with a program called CollegePlus (which has since rebranded as Unbound), and I enrolled in August 2010. Since I wasn’t a student at TESU yet, CollegePlus played a crucial role since they knew how many credits TESU would let me transfer and how they would set up my degree plan. Without CollegePlus I wouldn’t have had the knowledge or the resources I needed to begin my education debt-free.

How many hours, on average, did you work while earning your degree?

I was able to work 20 or 30 hours a week while I was in school.

How long did it take you to complete your degree this way?

Six years: August 2010 to December 2016. I finished the coursework on August 31, 2016, but didn’t officially graduate until December 9, 2016.

Do you mind sharing how much (estimate, if necessary) your education cost going about it the way you did?

My degree (including tuition and courses) cost $22,317.

Until now I hadn’t taken the time to figure out what that number actually was, and even I’m surprised! I’m so thankful that God made it possible for me to earn my degree this way. He knew what He was doing, even if I didn’t fully grasp the plan at the time!

Wow! How inspiring to learn that you were able to cash flow that amount instead of owe that much (or more) later! That being said, do you feel that you’ve missed out on the college experience by opting out of dorm living and campus classes?

I’m 100% an introvert, no question about it. I enjoy being alone and getting things done with plenty of peace and quiet. Being educated at home fed my need for solitude and I learned how to work through a lot of problems on my own (although my mom was there help me through tricky stuff like Algebra I). I thought getting my degree through an online university would be a perfect way to feed my introverted self.

This isn’t exactly what happened. Although I didn’t live in a dorm or experience the traditional classroom environment, that didn’t mean I was sequestered away in my room with no human contact. I was living at home so my family was in constant orbit (remember my 5 siblings!), and in 2014 I decided to get a dog which added some high levels of energy to my day. Through CollegePlus and other online classes I met fellow students from all over the country, and we had great discussions on everything from Christian leadership to world literature. I had friends, as well as a church family, and working as a barista gave me plenty of opportunities to meet interesting people and socialize with co-workers. I wasn’t starved for human contact and I still had the quiet I needed to study and write papers (mostly). Sometimes I felt like I was in the “real world” more than I wanted to be!

Since I was working and had a flexible school schedule, it was possible for me to travel! In 2013 my older sister and I went on a Jane Austen themed tour of England. There we met some ladies who would become two of my best friends and the four of us have met up to go on adventures together every year since! In 2014 I took a three-part leadership course and flew out to Colorado for a leadership summit with my instructors and classmates. If I was enrolled in a traditional school I wouldn’t have had the time or the savings to travel.

I wanted my college experience to be as stress free as possible. Living at home and working a normal job made that a reality. Of course I had the usual anxieties about assignments and due dates, but I didn’t have to carry the weight of debt. Even though I didn’t realize it at the time, God was working in my life before I even graduated high school. He was guiding me into a place of good stewardship as He graciously provided opportunities for me to pursue a higher education without debt. Thanks to His leading I was able to work, save, and travel, all while earning my bachelor’s degree!

That sounds incredible! Care to expand upon the leadership summit? Does it relate at all to the leadership emphasis at Artios?

It’s funny how God begins to prepare you for things way in advance. This leadership summit was led by Dr. Jeff Myers of Summit Ministries and was the conclusion to a three-part course that focused on Biblical leadership. The first course tackled what Biblical leadership was and what it looked like. I remember that right away in the first lecture Dr. Myers pointed out that God created us to be leaders and stewards. And since God created us in His image we have a responsibility as leaders to reflect His image to those around us. Up to that point I had always considered myself more of a follower than a leader, but I was suddenly confronted with the realization that God created me to lead and to point others to Him.

For the 2014 leadership summit I did something I didn’t think I would have the courage to do—travel (alone) to Estes Park, Colorado, spend four days with people I met in an online classroom, and learn more about Christian leadership. It was great! We attended lectures, worked on various group projects and challenges, mentored each other, and were encouraged by each other’s stories and journeys. And I got to meet Dr. Myers, which was pretty cool!

I was still extremely quiet and introverted, but seeing my peers embrace their calling to be leaders gave me courage to seriously consider my own leadership potential. And now, here at Artios not only do I get to continue my leadership journey, but I get to use my talents in a way that will edify and encourage other leaders, too.

Debt-Free is an option for everyone.

Whether you’re contemplating earning your own college degree or have a family member who is, going about it like Mary did is a viable option. College does not have to cause anyone to become a slave to the lender. Financial freedom provides the freedom to willingly serve your spheres of influence for God’s glory.