Jason Braddock knew he had to foot the bill for his college education, so he went to work. His first job was with his mother and aunt, who worked as custodians. They paid him $5 a night to empty trash cans, pick up paperclips and wash windows. He was 7 years old.
When he was old enough to get a job on his own, Braddock worked a string of gigs that included Taco Bell, Home Depot and his local movie theater. In college, he tutored and worked as a computer tech on campus.
"I just worked my butt off, from 15 ½ all the way through college, in order to pay for it," he says.
His hard work paid off in 2006 when he graduated from the University of Akron in Ohio with bachelor's degrees in math and education – and no student loan debt.
[Discover 10 ways to save on college costs.]
Braddock is among the few college graduates who managed to earn a degree without the help of student loans. Nearly 70 percent of 2011 graduates took out student loans, borrowing an average of $26,220 to finance their degrees, according to U.S. News data.
Undergrads who work their way through college can maximize their efforts by seeking out a job that offers tuition reimbursement. Target, Apple, Home Depot, Starbucks and Verizon Wireless are easy to spot in any college town, and all have tuition assistance programs.
Some companies only offer benefits to full-time employees. Others, such as UPS, extend them to part-time workers, as well. Students qualify for tuition assistance at UPS as soon as they start, and can earn up to $3,000 in assistance per calendar year – $4,000 if they are part-time management.
Another job that will pay your tuition: the military.
James Kendall, 30, financed his bachelor's in criminal justice using the GI Bill, which covers tuition, fees, books and housing. The Michigan native didn't know what he wanted to do after graduating from high school in May 2001, but quickly decided on a path.
"Shortly after I graduated, Sept. 11 happened, and I just felt it was my duty," Kendall says.
He logged five years of active duty service as a Navy Seabee. During that time Kendall served two tours in Iraq and aided relief efforts for two catastrophic natural disasters – the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"When I got out of the military I said, you know, I put five hard years in the military, now I'm going to spend five years going to college and raise my child," he says.
Kendall returned to Michigan in 2007 and earned an associate degree from Muskegon Community College before transferring to Grand Valley State University. With his college and living expenses covered, he focused his attention on his school work and his daughter, who was in kindergarten at the time.
"Other people, they have to work a full-time job and they have to go home and do their studies and, if they have children, it's got to be extremely difficult," he says.
Kendall volunteered in his daughter's classroom when he wasn't attending classes himself. He graduated last month completely debt-free. His experiences in the military gave him a perspective and knowledge that most college students don't have, but he acknowledges the military is not for everyone.
Those who enlist may have their patience tested when they try to use their GI benefits, he says, advising service members to contact their local Veterans Affairs office and the school's financial aid office as early as possible.
"It's not a call on Monday morning expecting to get some answers and then get them a couple hours later," Kendall says. "Don't wait to do things until the last minute because you will end up being disappointed."
Students don't need to enlist or log hours at a part-time job in order to avoid student loans. College choice can play an important role in achieving a debt-free education, too.
[See the 2014 U.S. News Best Value Schools.]
For Ashley Riser, 30, that meant turning down her dream school.