Ken Ilgunas’ Challenge: Graduate College Debt Free

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Photo courtesy of Ken Ilgunas
Ken Ilgunas sitting in front of the van he used to graduate debt free
Photo courtesy of Ken Ilgunas

One Man’s Extreme Methods Provides Tips on How to Earn a Degree Without Racking up Any Student Loan Debts

By Jeremy Hopkins
Western Campus Associate Editor

Ken Ilgunas has a measure of freedom most of us do not feel.  While most college students graduate with some student loan debt, he has none.  This is not simply a financial freedom for him; it is a freedom to explore the world like no other.  He has no pressure to find a job that pays well because he has no debts screaming for payment.  He can live his life at his pace, taking several months to hike the Klondike XL pipeline route, or work on a co-op style organic farm.  He has no “corporate leash” to keep him chained to one job, one spot, thanks to a challenging and spartan regimen that he employed while earning his graduate degree.

Ken on 2012-13 Keystone XL expedition. End of trip in Port Arthur, TX. Photo credit: Woody Welch, photo courtesy of Ken Ilgunas
Ken on 2012-13 Keystone XL expedition. End of trip in Port Arthur, TX. Photo credit: Woody Welch, photo courtesy of Ken Ilgunas


As the cost of colleges is going up, more and more students are finding themselves in debt that rapidly outpaces the hopes of being paid off.  The government is also mentioning that the rates on student loans could go up, potentially even doubling.  This is not helping the futures of students who can easily rack up debts more than they expect before graduation.  Mr.  Ilgunas is no stranger to this, but he changed his life dramatically to succeed in his goal.


This is not to say that he has never experienced debt.  When he completed his undergraduate degree, he had over $32,000 in debt.  Most people would simply look at that figure and be overwhelmed, and not really know how to proceed.  Mr. Ilgunas knew he wanted to eliminate that debt, as quickly as possible.


Mr. Ilgunas managed to save $18,000 in one year towards payng off his debts.  What’s more, he did that working for $9 per hour.


Pause for a second, and reread that.  $18,000 in one year, at just $9 per hour sounds almost impossible.  It is not.  One secret to Mr. Ilgunas’s success is that he lived frugally, cutting out as many non-essential costs as possible.  Another is where he was working: Coldfoot, Alaska.  That was the early experience that changed his view on how to live simply, student debt, and what it means to be poor.  These led him to the grand experiment that culminated in his book: Walden on Wheels.

Coldfoot Camp. Coldfoot, AK. Brooks Range in background. Photo courtesy of Ken Ilgunas
Coldfoot Camp. Coldfoot, AK. Brooks Range in background. Photo courtesy of Ken Ilgunas


Although he has published articles before, this book is his first, and is a memoir of his experiences living out of a van while attending college.  The experience is not one of being homeless; it was very similar to the tiny home revolution that is going on now.  Unlike most tiny homes, however, Ken Ilgunas needed his home to not look like a home.


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Parked in front of Duke Chapel
Photo courtesy of Ken Ilgunas

From 2009 to 2011, he lived in a 1994 Ford Econoline van.  He had purchased a parking permit through Duke University, where he was going for a Master’s degree in Liberal Arts studies. To compare, parking at Tri C is relaxed because we merely pay by the number of hours of classes we take and can park anywhere; Duke – like many other colleges – assigns a spot and charges for a permit to park there.  In Mr. Ilgunas’ case, he got lucky: his assigned parking spot was out of the way and therefore away from curious eyes.    In these years, he reinforced the lessons he learned in Alaska by living simply and creatively, keeping the costs of attending school down.

back seat turned into bed, linens, sleeping bag Photo courtesy of Ken Ilgunas
back seat turned into bed, linens, sleeping bag
Photo courtesy of Ken Ilgunas
storage container, shirts underneath plastic so I don't get spaghetti sauce on them, wastebasket Photo courtesy of Ken Ilgunas
storage container, shirts underneath plastic so I don’t get spaghetti sauce on them, wastebasket
Photo courtesy of Ken Ilgunas



He blogged about his experiences (found under the “Vandwelling” tab on his site, and shared many tips, facts, and challenges about living out of a van.  In his blog, he offers several tips for the college student to reduce the amount of debt a student might incur in an entry dated September 2, 2011.  While it may be unrealistic for every student, there are several things that you can do to keep your costs down.  And the first tip is one Cuyahoga Community College students are doing right now.


1. Pick an affordable school.

Too often are we lured to certain schools for the wrong reasons: successful sports teams, lavish accommodations (gyms, climbing walls, elegant dining options), and, worst of all, prestige. Some of these things are, no doubt, nice, but are they worth an extra $20,000 of student debt? While some colleges are better than others, there are great professors everywhere, and oftentimes the best ones are not at your priciest and most prestigious schools. (I’ve had mediocre professors at Duke and stellar ones at SUNY Buffalo.) I don’t think it’s a terrible idea to go to community college for two years and transfer to a state school to finish up your degree.


There are many benefits to taking classes at a community college.  For starters, the cost of education is much cheaper here than at a state-sponsored or private school.  Mr. Ilgunas spent $1,100 per course in his graduate work, paying roughly $12,000 on tuition alone.  While the cost per credit hour at Tri C has gone up, the cost per credit hour of class is just $101.21 for the Fall 2013 semester.  (View the full tuition fee schedule at  In addition to lower costs for classes, the faculty makes a difference.  Some of the instructors we have at Tri-C have positions elsewhere, be it in the field they are teaching or teaching at another school.  The other benefit I will mention (but certainly not the least) is that every student is what other schools might call a “commuter,” meaning that they do not pay the school for room or board because they live off campus.


There are nine tips he offers on his blog, covering such topics as living off campus, saving money, lower costs, and even eating habits.  One of my favorites happens to be Number 6, which says, simply, “Live in a Van.”  Mr. Ilgunas admits he is being serious about this, but does have a broader reason to suggest this tip.  He really is attempting to spur creativity, asking the student to think outside the box.

Filling up water bottle on campus Photo courtesy of Ken Ilgunas
Filling up water bottle on campus
Photo courtesy of Ken Ilgunas
rice and bean taco night Photo courtesy of Ken Ilgunas
rice and bean taco night
Photo courtesy of Ken Ilgunas

Mr. Ilgunas mentioned that going to school without student debt was not easy, but strongly recommends it.  He cited that the amount of student loans currently outstanding is over $1.1 trillion dollars.  While Annie Lowrey of the New York Times only states a figure of over $1 trillion in an article entitled “Student debt slows growth as young spend less” from May 10 of this year, this figure will only continue to grow, especially if the interest rate on loans goes up.  (For more updates, start here:  But Mr. Ilgunas is emphatic that anything that can be done “to help debtors is crucial.”


One thing that he himself wishes for is a better financial education at the high school level.  When he selected his initial college, he started with about $18,000 in debt.  By the time interest was factored in after graduating from SUNY Buffalo, he owed $35,000.  He admits he placed himself in an ideal situation, though, when he describes the methods he went through to pay it off.  Coldfoot did not realistically allow cell phone access, and the closest store was over 200 miles away.  His room and board were bartered services, both as a back country ranger and as a writer in residence.  To this day, he still works on a bartered residence system, sometimes with participants in the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms organization (, sometimes with friends, and sometimes with strangers.


This lifestyle puts being frugal to shame, and yet it is highly adventurous.  It was in this spirit of adventure that he created a scholarship fund, although he sadly admits that it has fallen to the back burner.  He still is committed to living an adventurous life, not merely a compulsory wealthy life, by embracing a liberal arts education and living life by following his dreams.  It was following his dreams of paying off his debt that he met James and his Suburban, lived in a van while getting his degree, and even hiked the Keystone XL pipeline course.  Following his dreams has caused him to start writing his second book, describing this latest adventure, a few months ago.


While his methods seem extreme, there is a concept at the heart that runs through his experiment.  He firmly believes more people would be happy if they pursued their dreams.  Perhaps he puts it best, in a blog post dated Wednesday, April 22, 2009, when he says:


Before I enrolled in grad school, I decided not to take out loans because I knew that if I allowed myself access to easy money then I would again fall victim to the consumerist trap. I’d be indiscreet with my money; I’d begin to pay for and rely on things that I thought I needed, but really didn’t. And worst of all, I’d lose perspective.


We work because we think we must “make a living.” But “making a living,” now, entails buying impressive vehicles, lavish homes, heat, air-conditioning, and a million other “staples” that are all things that you do not need to live. Yet we believe that 4/5ths of the shit we buy is necessary. This is because we have lost perspective. And in order to pay for these unnecessaries we sign up for years of onerous labor even though the things and comforts may do us more harm than good in the end.


Mr. Ilgunas is not a radical.  While he did spend a week with Occupy Wall Street, and supports the messages they espoused, he noticed during the week he was there that the community was unsustainable, coming apart at the seams, and that there was no clear, concise message from them.  In part, it is possible that many of the “staples” Occupy America pushed for are those unnecessary items he says we have lost perspective on.  He clearly takes pride in his education, and while he might feel that there is some criticism that is deserved when a student develops $50,000 to $80,000 in debt for a liberal arts degree (that is not being used), he is just as quick to point out that those with a liberal arts education have higher acceptance rates into med schools, among other places.


Mr. Ilgunas is not an idle man.  Nor does he sound like he will be slowing down anytime soon.  Right now, he is dealing with some new-found popularity thanks to his story and book being picked up by Yahoo!  In fact, next week he is expecting to be seen on CBS This Morning.  Meanwhile, he still has the van, although I think the next time he spends the night in it will be to reminisce, rather than need.  And there’s still that “great out there” that needs a brave individual to show us we can, in fact, get a college education without the weight of loans over our head.

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