rebelling against low expectations

Graduating College With Zero Debt


Keep sending your stories to brett [at] therebelution [dot] com. Today we have an article from Kris Kandel, a young lady whose seven year battle with Lyme Disease led to some surprising blessings.

We love Kris’s story for two reasons: (1) because it demonstrates how God works all things together for the good of those who love Him and (2) because it is a testimony of thinking outside the box when it comes to college.

No College Debt: My Story and Mission

Life is not fair. It throws things at us that hurt (in my case literally) and changes our course without our even realizing it. I never set out to get my college degree without debt, or to start my own business. These were the blessings that came later.

I got Lyme Disease when I was 16 years old. For the next 7 years I was in pain, nauseous, and often didn’t know what days I would be able to get out of bed. Try going to college like that! Not going to happen. It was hard watching friends leave to exciting campus lives. Being left behind. I decided to take one internet class, just to keep my mind off of illness and the 47 pills I had to take throughout the day. Surprisingly, I actually enjoyed it! So the next semester I took another class.

At the same time I started my photography business. I couldn’t hold a full time job, but I was good with a camera, and could easily take family photos or senior pictures for friends. Editing on my laptop as I lounged in the armchair after a photography session was perfect for my fickle body. I didn’t make much, but it was enough to pay for one course a semester.

Slowly, I accumulated credits from home as I fought my way out of Lyme. By the time I was healthy, I had over 40 credits to my name. After a ton of research I found a school that would let me bring in all these credits (most schools only accept a few outside credits). Score!

Discovering CLEP, DANTES, and Excelsior Exams

Then my Eureka moment: I found out about CLEP – College Level Examination Program, DANTES, and Excelsior Exams. Basically you can study a subject and test out of a class for less than $100!! That’s about 10% of the cost of a typical online course! My small photography business could easily cover the cost of these college credits! Now I could speed up my goals to complete my degree without worrying about paying for $1,000 & $2,000 per course. Amazing!

The most challenging aspect of doing college this way, was that the tests didn’t have official textbooks or study guides. I was on my own to figure out what I needed to know and hope I studied the right angles. At first I was terrified every time I walked into the testing center (plus the fact that one of the centers fingerprinted me as I enter and exited the room – not the most relaxing thing!), but as I started speeding up and taking a test every 4-8 weeks I realized it was perfect. Not only could I test out of more than ½ of my degree, I could do it in just over a year!

With the flexibility of testing out of courses and setting my own schedule I wasn’t locked into a college timeline. I didn’t have to be in a classroom at 8 a.m. on Mondays. This flexibility also allowed me to grow my photography business meeting clients when it worked best in their schedules. With my health back on track, I focused 100% on weddings, working weekends and editing evenings. Studying mornings and early afternoons. It was hard, yes. Lots of work, yes. But on Feb. 24, 2011 I took my final exam and received my Bachelor of Science degree in History – DEBT FREE!!! AND I had a full-grown photography job waiting for me to step into.

“I realized that my story was crazy!”

A few months after graduation people started approaching me about my college experience. How did I do it? How did I know what to study? How do you take a CLEP test? I realized that my story was crazy! Having lived it sometimes it’s hard to see how what a different approach to college it had really been.

I could have avoided so many mistakes if someone had been able to explain a better approach to this type of college education. So I wrote an ebook and started a website ( to encourage students to think differently about what the education system tells them. It’s exciting to see how God is using my story to encourage other students to think about college loans and debt.

Many of my friends graduated from Christian colleges with almost $100,000 in student loans. They want to be missionaries, but the missions won’t accept them until they are debt free. How sad that they are wasting years and strength on paying back a bank instead of doing what God has called them to.

Double digit debt doesn’t have to happen to you! Think differently. Take my story (without the health problems I hope!) and see if it fits your goals. Are you an independent learner? Do you like challenges? Are you willing to put in the self-discipline to study without a teacher? Then you may benefit from testing out of college!

Sometimes life isn’t fair. It throws hard things at us. But looking back I realize that without Lyme I wouldn’t be standing where I am today. A college graduate with zero debt. A business owner. And a student advocate.

Remember that girl who watched her friends go off to college thinking she was left behind? Well, let’s just say God sure has a sense of humor and He knows how to turn things around!

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About the author

Brett Harris

is co-founder of and co-author of Do Hard Things, along with his twin brother, Alex. He is married to his best friend, Ana, who blogs at He is the founder of the Young Writers Workshop — an ongoing coaching program for serious writers.


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  • Wow! stories like this are so encouraging! I am actually doing this same type of thing, going for a debt-free degree by testing out of classes. But we discovered a wonderful Christian program called CollegePlus! that is immensely helpful in guiding me to what resources to use for which tests and what directions to look as I’m deciding on a degree ( it’s a little scary thinking about a college degree when you’re only 15…). I also love their strong Christian focus, which has been a great blessing.
    Anyway, thanks for sharing how God was able to give you victory through these hard things!

  • WOW. This is exciting. I love how you just worked with what was in your hands, Kris, and how by approaching education creatively, were able to accomplish your goal without getting into debt. Thanks for the encouragement to think differently!

  • That’s so awesome you were able to do it while working through Lyme’s! CLEPs are an awesome way to go – at my Christian college I am able to get my Bachelor’s in 21 months (graduating this May at age 19), doing mainly CLEPs and DSSTs. Doing this has enabled me to focus on God’s work for me earlier on in my life. Praise the Lord that you are better, and also have your degree! He is working amazing things through you – thanks for sharing your encouraging story! 🙂

  • Kris! Seeing your name here threw me through a loop as I’m used to seeing it on the Showiteer board! Do you mind if I repost it there?? Our community likes to help celebrate each other’s achievements, and I think some of the younger photographers would be encouraged! 😉

  • I too, was able to graduate college, with a MA in Teaching, 100% debt free. For me, it meant taking a year off in the middle to save up funds for the following semesters, along with working between 50 and 80 hours a week (and living at home), but the hard work definitely paid off! It means that now, just a year and a half after graduating, I can leave for Tanzania to teach at an International Christian school as a missionary to missionary kids…and, like Kris mentioned, be debt free, which is a requirement for missionaries within the mission agency I chose to work under. I am so excited for the years to come, and so grateful that God provided the jobs and the means to provide for my college education (via Liberty University Online if anyone was curious).

  • Thank you so much for sharing my story on your blog today!! It is great to know that all the people commenting have been encouraged!

    @lydia – YES please feel free to share the link with the showiteers. Sooo fun to have your comment here as well, it made my day to see it! What a small world, I just love all those connections!

    @abugail – what a fabulous story you have as well! I think getting a degree debt free is so amazing for people wanting to go out into missions. I’m so pleased that you were able to work hard and avoid debt so you can go and work where you are called!!

  • It’s wonderful to hear how God can work all things for good. I will be checking out the website given about debt free college.

  • Great post! I have a friend with Lyme Disease and this will be very encouraging to her. I also appreciate the information on CLEP. I never knew that existed. I’ll definitely look into it. Thanks so much!

By Brett Harris
rebelling against low expectations

The Rebelution is a teenage rebellion against low expectations—a worldwide campaign to reject apathy, embrace responsibility, and do hard things. Learn More →