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The best way to avoid crippling student debt? It starts in high school (with these 3 tips)

I’m seeing a lot of news lately about high student debt loads, but not a lot of information about how to avoid it.

According to different reports, the average Canadian university student racks up between $25,000 - $35,000 in debt. High student debt has been linked to anxiety and other mental health problems and it can delay hitting life milestones like moving out of parents’ house, getting married, and starting a family. Student debt is not good for the individual and it’s not good for the Canadian economy.

So what’s the best way for your student to avoid crippling student debt? Of course, one of the best ways is to borrow less – minimize loans though savings from RESPs, summer jobs and other means. But in addition to using personal savings, what are the other, perhaps less obvious, ways that no one—or relatively few—people are talking about?

Careful and early planning.

How early?

Grade 10.

What?! No way.

Yes, way.

The best time to plan for less debt starts in high school. Here’s how…

Tip #1

Avoid paying full price for your education by winning scholarships and awards. Scholarships and awards provide free money, applied directly to a student’s university account, that the student does not have to pay back. They can range from $500 - $100,000. To win scholarships, especially large ones, students generally—although not always—must have 1. solid grades (80+ average) and 2. a significant amount of leadership or meaningful extra-curricular experiences. Your odds are increased if you have demonstrated financial need (usually demonstrated by qualifying for a student loan).

So how do you do this?

Get good grades. Start high school with a solid foundation, in Grade 10 courses. University admission and entrance scholarships will be determined on a student’s Grade 11 and 12 marks.

Your student should also get good grades so they have a solid foundation and are prepared for the academic rigor of university courses. This will help to avoid doing badly/failing a university course, which can set you back in time (taking more than 4 years to get degree & delaying full-time work) and money (paying for an extra course or two in tuition).

Work towards meaningful participation in a few activities. This requires planning extra-curricular activities early and carefully. Students should have at least one truly meaningful leadership experience by January of Grade 12 so it can be used on scholarship applications. Set-up for that experience is done by prioritizing participation in activities in Grades 10 and 11. If your student is just starting to think about how to get a leadership experience in mid-year of Grade 12, it’s often too late.

Be aware that finding and applying for external scholarships and awards (the ones awarded by community groups, organizations, etc.) is a time-consuming task. Students need to put in time to do it properly. However, the potential return on your investment of time may be well worth it. Don’t discount the value of even a relatively small scholarship or award. It would take about 93 hours working in a part-time job to earn the equivalent of a $1000 scholarship. So taking a couple of hours every few months in grade 12 to write applications can really pay off.

Tip #2

Take the correct courses in high school for the university degree program you want. The time to plan for Grade 12 courses is in Grade 10. Don’t know what university program you’ll want in Grade 12? Try to keep your options open by taking sciences. If you need help with a subject, hire a tutor and use free online tools like Khan Academy.

It's important to cover off university pre-requisites while still in high school, because once your student graduates, if they need to make up a course, they will very likely need to pay for it out-of-pocket. Courses like Pre-calculus 12, Academic Math 12, Chemistry 12, or Physics 12 typically cost between $300 - $500 to take at a university. So paying for a few hours of tutoring is often better than taking chances, and perhaps paying $300 - $500 later to make up the class.

Extra tip: Your student should learn solid writing, study, and time management skills in high school. These are the most important skills they’ll need in university. You can be very smart person, but if you don’t know how to adapt your writing, study properly and manage time, you may not do well in university. Conversely, you can be of average intelligence but if you know how to write, study, and manage time, you can do very well in university.

Tip #3

Apply for the right degree program, at the right school, for you. Knowing what to choose, and where, when applying for university takes time and energy to research options properly. But to put it into perspective, you and your student will probably invest approximately $30,000 - $80,000 for a 4 year undergraduate degree, so it makes sense to do your research.

Many universities offer the same kinds of programs so students should know how to comparison shop. Students need to decide on a program relatively early in Grade 12, so the time to research options, take campus tours and do career exploration activities like interest quizzes, information interviews, volunteer/work placements, etc. starts in Grade 10 and continues in Grades 11 and 12. Making an informed decision about the degree program and school you choose will help minimize the chances your student will change/transfer programs. Any time you change degree program or major, and/or fail a course, it increases the odds of lengthening your degree so that you don’t graduate in 4 years. Students who change programs 3 or 4 times may take 5 or even 6 years to graduate, adding significant extra tuition expenses and delaying full-time employment. It’s that extra year or two you want to avoid – that’s one of the main causes of high student debt.

The five + year degree is not unique to Canada. Paul Hemphill, an education consultant in the US said, “Five years is the new 4 year degree.” In Nova Scotia, fewer than 40% of students graduate in 4 years. Fewer than 60% graduate after 5 years. There are many reasons why it’s taking so many students so long to graduate, but one of the reasons goes back to high school. Based on my years of experience working with students, I believe part of the reason why students change programs multiple times (or transfer universities) is because few high school students take the time necessary to choose their university degree program properly and make an informed decision. They don’t know how to research programs to get the information they’re looking for, and they don’t understand the information they need to make a good choice. They also lack a good understanding of why it’s important to choose wisely, and the implications of not doing so.

So now, let’s assume you’ve done everything right in high school and you’ve set yourself up for starting university successfully – you’ve taken the right courses and done well in them, you've done your research and chosen the best degree program for your desired future career area, and won a few scholarships and awards to help pay for some of your tuition and expenses.

Now what?

Now you’ll need to keep the success going in university so you 1. graduate in 4 years, and 2. develop marketable skills so you’re job-ready when you graduate (or are well-prepared to apply for professional studies, if that’s your goal).

I’ll cover that in a future blog.

In the meantime, if you want personal, one-to-one help with education success planning, please contact me to discuss my services.

Happy planning!

About the author

Janet MacDonald is a Scholarship Coach with mycampusGPS Education Consulting. She is a former Canadian university admissions officer. For seven years, she was the coordinator of a scholarship program at a major Canadian university. Janet has helped her student clients win hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships.

You can find her online at, and on LinkedIn.

Learn more about Janet MacDonald by visiting the About Page.

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