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How to finance university without debt

Brenda Bouw
How to finance university without debt

Unless your parents paid for it, or you started cutting lawns at age seven and invested the money wisely, it’s hard to imagine graduating from college or university without some kind of student debt.

A recent Bank of Montreal study says 58 per cent of students will use their own savings to pay for their post-secondary education this year. While 44 per cent will tap Mom and Dad, more students will turn to lenders for money, with 55 per cent saying they will take out a student loan to finance their higher education.

However, there are ways to get through school without being entirely beholden to the bank, the government or your parents.

Experts recommend checking out the wide range of scholarships and grants available for students, and following good, old-fashioned spending priorities in order to start your career with as little debt as possible.

Given the skyrocketing costs of university today, including tuition, rent, food and books, it’s wise to look for ways to cut costs and find where the money is buried.

Free money

The first place to start is scholarships, bursaries and grants. Too often students think they need to have excellent grades to apply for this form of free money.

Not true, according to, a database for students looking for a helping hand.

“There's a scholarship out there for everyone,” the website boasts, encouraging students of all disciplines and backgrounds to consider this route.

A scholarship is usually given to students based on a form of achievement, which can be academic or athletic. Bursaries and grants are usually based on financial need, and require an application to prove that you’d have trouble paying for school on your own.

High-school students are encouraged to treat the scholarship search process like they would any assignment, by researching the various options.

A quick online search serves up a few interesting options, including the Canadian Parking Association scholarship, the "Luckiest Student" scholarship, as well as a list of grants offered by the Canadian government. The site features awards for aboriginal students and nearly two dozen scholarships offered by the Canadian Association of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists (CASLPA), to name a couple of choices.

The Internet is a vast resource, but experts also recommend would-be students speak with guidance counsellors, family and friends and financial aid offices at schools you hope to attend.

“Free money is obviously better than money that has to be repaid,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher at, a website dedicated to resource for students seeking a post-secondary education.

Filling out a scholarship application takes time and thought. ScholarshipsCanada suggests making a list of activities you've been involved with that will help round out your experience in the application, including awards, part-time jobs, volunteer work and school clubs. It also recommends writing a letter to the scholarship administrator to get more information, while also taking the opportunity to get noticed when decision time rolls around.

Kantrowitz says it's important to make your application stand out and advises against common pitfalls. Here's how:

  • Don't be boring. Be distinctive.

  • Write about something of interest to you. This will yield a more passionate and personal essay. The essay should discuss your impact on others and their impact on you.

  • How have you made a difference?

  • Give specific details to back up your statements with evidence.

  • Tailor your application to the sponsor's goals.

  • Weave a tapestry of where you've been, where you are now and where you are headed from the threads of your personal accomplishments.

Common pitfalls to avoid:

  • Missing deadlines.

  • Failing to proofread your essays for spelling, grammar, flow.

  • Failing to follow directions (essay length, number of recommendations).

  • Omitting required information.

  • Applying for awards for which you don't qualify.

  • Clean up your online presence. Google your name. Delete inappropriate posts from your Facebook timeline. Use a professional email address.

  • Scholarship scams. If you have to pay money to get money, it's probably a scam.

It’s better to save than borrow

When scholarships can’t cover it all, experts recommend students get frugal by purchasing used textbooks, taking advantage of student discounts offered by banks and retailers and the most dreaded: cutting back on extracurricular activities.

“Live like a student while you are in school so you don't have to when you graduate,” says Kantrowitz. “You can have fun along the way, but remember the real reason you’re there is to get an education and a job after you graduate.”