Started my undergrad degree at age 24, after working in various bartending and waiter-type jobs, as well as a stint as a car salesman (don’t ask!).
I went to university in Australia, which has a system called the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS). Under this scheme–available to all Australian citizens–your undergraduate degree is paid for by the federal government, and you pay back the money through the taxation system once you graduate. Your HECS repayment is added onto your regular income tax, and appears separately on your tax return. So, essentially, you don’t pay any up-front fees at all. If you do have the money to pay up-front, you get a 25% discount on the fees. Also, the fees themselves are very low compared to US universities.
As far as actual living expenses were concerned, i also received about $400 a month from the government under a program called Austudy, which provides money to students who come from poor families or (in my case) are independent of their parents. Independent status requires that you be at least 23 years old, or offer proof that you are estranged from your parents.
Of course, $400 a month was not enough to live on in Sydney, so i worked also. I worked for a catering company whose main clients were downtown corporate offices. We served lunches to board meetings and other business groups. We also often did private functions at the houses of the companies’ CEOs, MDs, and Board Chairmen. It paid $25 an hour, which was about twice the award wage at the time, and the two guys who owned the business were (and are) really great. The great thing about the high pay rate ws that i didn’t have to work heaps of hours every week to get by, so i could concentrate on my studies.
Now i’m in grad school in the US, and so far i haven’t had to go into debt, although that may change. I’m just starting the fifth year of my PhD. When i was accepted into the program, i got four years of full funding, including both tuition and a stipend. I’ve managed to stretch that out another year by getting a couple of outside fellowships, and by doing some extra research and other work (within the limits of my F1 student visa) on the side. My current funding will run out in May next year. I anticipate that it will take me another year after that to complete my degree, and if i can’t find another fellowship for the final year, i may have to go into some debt.
Since i’ve been a grad student, my mother has helped me out occasionally when i’ve run short of money. Not for living expenses, but for a couple of other things that i couldn’t have otherwise afforded. For example, when my old computer died, she lent me the money for a new one. I’ll pay her back when i have a real job.