12 Ways to Slash the High Cost of Earning a College Degree

Colleges and universities are expensive, but there are many strategies for coping with the costs of higher education.

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Earning a college degree can greatly increase your earning power, but you’ll have a hard time achieving financial success if you graduate with a huge student loan debt.

Not all students fully realize how much their college education will cost, says Brian Martinek, a college funding specialist at Texas Financial Advisory.

“It’s more than just the tuition,” he explained. “Books, housing, meal plan, going out with friends, travel and personal expenses need to be taken into account. Depending on your major, textbooks could cost $1,200 for just one semester. These other costs sneak up on people.”

The national total for student loan debt in the U.S. has reached $1.4 trillion, according to a 2017 report by Experian, the credit reporting company. More than 13 percent of U.S. consumers now have one or more student loans on their credit file, with an average total balance of $34,144.

The price of an education shouldn’t be so high that you enter the workplace overwhelmed by debt, says Eric Tyson, the author of “Personal Finance for Dummies.” In some cases, the benefits of higher education may be outweighed by the cost.

When choosing a college, “people should look at what they’ll get for the money they are spending,” Tyson said. “What will be the payback? As with anything else, you should look for value.”

Fortunately, there are practical ways to reduce the cost of earning a four-year degree. Here are 12 tips for saving money while attending college.

1. Understand what you can afford

Piggy bank with diploma and blackboard.Africa Studio / Shutterstock.com

One way to stay out of debt is to choose a college or university you can afford to attend, says Derek Hagan, a financial planner in Minneapolis. Before you apply to a college, find out what your costs will be and determine if you’ll have the money to pay them. If not, you’ll need to choose another school or come up with a plan for raising the money you need.

“College is the only purchase where we pick the product first and then figure out how to pay for it,” he said. “I would never go test drive a Rolls Royce, fall in love with it, and then go into debt trying to pay for it. Yet, this is how many families choose colleges. They get into the dream school with no plan on paying for it.”

2. Check out in-state colleges

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You can greatly cut your education costs simply by attending a public college or university within your home state, says Tyson. Government-subsidized schools reserve their lowest rates for state residents. Not all public schools may suit your academic needs. Start investigating colleges early to find an institution that offers the educational training you’re looking for.

3. Live at home while attending college

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Most people prefer to leave home when they go to college, but this isn’t always practical, says Tyson. “Part of the value of going to college is being on campus, but there is a cost to doing that.”

Living at home rather than in a college dormitory or apartment can greatly trim your expenses, he says. If it means the difference between graduating deeply in debt or debt-free, living at home probably is your best choice.

4. Attend a community college for two years

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Community colleges no longer suffer from the stigma of being places for students with poor academic skills.

“Starting out at a community college is a great way to save money for the first two years, on average from $6,000 to $8,000 per year compared to the costs of a traditional university,” said LeeAnn Arens, a certified financial planner. By attending a community college you can fulfill your general education requirements and then have them transferred to a four-year institution.

5. Thoroughly research your financial aid options

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The key to federal college aid is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. This is a good place to start if you are from a low-income or even middle-income family.

If you’re willing to do the research, you may find other scholarships and financial aid programs that significantly reduce your college costs, says Tyson. Start investigating your options before you reach your senior year of high school. Taking an aggressive approach to finding student aid will help you make sure that no opportunity is overlooked. Contact your high school guidance counselor for advice on how to get started. Be sure to check out scholarships and financial aid that may be offered by local community organizations, such as service clubs.

6. Explore financial aid programs at private colleges

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Charlie Donaldson, a college funding adviser with College Bound Coaching, says you shouldn’t overlook the financial aid programs offered by private schools. While such schools usually are more expensive than public institutions, many provide substantial financial aid to qualified students who need help covering their expenses, he explains.

“With the way financial aid works, families could end up paying more out of pocket for the seemingly cheaper state schools,” he said. “The expensive private schools often have more money to give away and are more generous at making awards.”

Bottom line: Don’t take the “sticker price” at face value. At many schools, financial aid packages dramatically lower the actual cost.

7. Graduate on time

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These days, it’s common to spend five or more years earning a four-year degree. That often happens when students change their major field of study one or more times before graduation. This makes it necessary to take extra classes, prolonging the college experience.

You’ll graduate sooner if you take a focused approach to education. Research the fields of study that interest you before choosing your major. Your research should include employment prospects.

Not changing majors will certainly help towards keeping costs down,” said Scott W. Cody, a partner at Latitude Financial Group.

8. Get a part-time job

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If you need extra money for college expenses, look for a part-time job that won’t interfere with your studies. A job that requires you to miss classes or cut back on studying will defeat the purpose of attending college.

Jacquelyn Mitchell, a life and health coach, says it helps to find a part-time job that’s related to your major field of study. Such a job can build your professional resume, give you real-world experience and put cash in your pocket, she says.

You may also qualify for employment through the federally funded work-study program. The U.S. Department of Education describes it this way:

Federal Work-Study provides part-time jobs for undergraduate and graduate students with financial need, allowing them to earn money to help pay education expenses. The program encourages community service work and work related to the student’s course of study.

Eligibility for work-study aid is determined through the federal financial aid application (FAFSA). The Education Department urges you to fill out this form early if you hope to get in on the work-study program, because work-study funds are limited.

9. Be a textbook bargain hunter

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Textbooks are pricey. You can try sharing books with other students to cut costs, but you’ll run the risk of not having access to your study material when you need it. Buying used books saves money, and websites like Amazon may offer better deals that your local student bookstore.

Amanda Amezcua, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Debt Reduction Services Inc., said she was able to shave between 20 to 30 percent off the cost of textbooks by purchasing them online as a college student. She resold them online for further savings.

10. Take Advanced Placement courses in high school

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If you have the opportunity to take Advanced Placement (AP) classes while attending high school, they can give you a head start toward earning your college degree. Participating colleges and universities may grant placement and course credit to students who score high on AP examinations.

AP classes also can help you improve your chances of getting admitted to the college of your choice, since they demonstrate your academic abilities, says Tyson.

11. Investigate off-campus living

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Moving into an apartment with several classmates can be “a great way to save money on room and board,” says Debbi King, a personal finance expert. “The monthly cost is much less expensive, and you can cook your meals, which will be much less than what the school will charge for a meal plan.” Just make sure that you take all rental costs into consideration, such as having to come up with the first and last month’s rent and a damage deposit.

12. Become a resident assistant in a dorm

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You may be able to get free or reduced room and board on a college campus by becoming a resident assistant (RA) in a dormitory. Such jobs may not be available to freshmen. As an RA you’ll need to set aside time to provide support and assistance to other students. Often such jobs come with a small paycheck. “It doesn’t take that much time, and it’s good work experience,” said Tyson.

What strategies do you have for cutting the cost of earning a higher degree? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

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