How to Slash the Costs of College

The burden of paying for college continues to cripple many of today’s graduates. An average student in 2013 will walk away from their undergraduate with $35,200 in debt.

If they had the chance, many students say they would have done things differently. Of the 750 students surveyed in a recent poll, 39 percent “” up nearly 15 percent from 2011 “” said they would have saved cash earlier, done a better job researching financial aid or simply spent less when at school.

The struggle to keep up with ballooning student loans and credit card debt isn’t expected to ease up anytime soon. Experts predict debt will continue to pile up as government officials continue to slash sources of financial aid and as tuition keeps on rising.

Despite the high costs, in the long run, a college degree is still a worthwhile investment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the average weekly salary for a bachelor’s degree holder is nearly double that of someone with a high school diploma; $1,066 compared to the $652 take-home pay.

Despite how it may seem, you can still earn a college degree without signing up for a lifetime worth of debt. You just have to be smart about it and think a little outside the box. We’ve suggested ten radical approaches that could substantially reduce your college costs:

  1. Select an in-state public university over a private school. According to the College Board, the average sticker price for the 2011-2012 school year at a private institution was $38,589 and $29,657 for out-of-state public schools. Yet average tuition was just $17,000 for in-state public universities. Students set on going out of state should look to attend school long enough to gain in-state residency. Regulations vary in each state, but most require students to live in-state for one year prior to the first day of enrollment. Registering to vote, renting or owning an apartment or home, and working full-time in the state will increase your chances of getting in-state tuition. Complying with the regulations might be worthwhile. A degree from world-renowned flagship public universities such as Ohio or Penn State can carry just as much clout as a private education “” at half the cost.
  2. Start at a community college and then transfer into a four-year degree program. The average cost of tuition and fees at a community college are less than half the average of public universities and and one tenth the cost of private institutions, according to this report from Breakthrough Collaborative. Many states have programs that make it easy to cover the basics at community college and then transfer to a university for a bachelor’s. The UMass Amherst Community College Connection (UMCCC) provides automatic acceptance into a university for community college students who complete a two-year degree “” a savings worth nearly $40,000 over the course of the UMass degree. Two years at a community college can also help you overcome a mediocre high school record by showing universities that you’re now truly prepared for the rigors of university.
  3. Take AP classes to graduate early. Advanced placement courses provide students with college-level coursework in the high school classroom. Students can earn college credits through paying (and passing) the $89 AP exam. The cost savings can be impressive: high school students in the state of Florida saved an estimated $40 million in tuition and fees in 2010 through AP credits. Students who accumulate enough credits can often graduate a semester or more earlier, which can equate to huge savings.
  4. Choose a college without GenEd Requirement classes. While the majority of universities require some general education courses, students can save some cash by limiting the number they take. Gen ed requirements can be burdensome because they force students to take a wide range of topics “” often consuming the first two years of a degree without satisfying requirements for a specific major. Students can complete some of these introductory courses at community colleges or through AP credit. Wise students should populate their gen ed free schedules with courses for a new major “” working towards two majors in four years rather than just one to double the return on investment.
  5. Live off campus. Students should weigh their living options heavily “” the appeal of the collegial dorm experience might not be worth the often hefty price tag. To sleep in the often cramped quarters, students at universities such as University of California Santa Cruz or Sarah Lawrence College in New York, will pay around $14,000 for dorm living. Many institutions require students to live on-campus during their first years, but there is often a way to skirt the requirement through a request or application process. Students at Texas Tech, for example, can request an exemption from the requirement in order to live off-campus.
  6. Don’t purchase a meal plan, or get the cheapest option. If living on-campus or in a residence hall is a non-negotiable, then you can still consider limiting or opting out of the meal plan. The University of Oregon has six different meal plan options, covering a range of 13-19 meals depending on student eating habits. The price difference of the mini-meal plan and the deluxe is nearly $800 over the course of the year. Many dorms have communal kitchens, and a few trips to a nearby grocer can save money in the long-term.
  7. Rent textbooks or check them out from the library. The 812 percent increase in the cost of college textbooks since 1978 is no small price to pay. The cost of textbooks has outpaced tuition and fees, leaving the average college student to pay an average of $655 on textbooks each year, according to the National Association of College Stores (NACS). Savvy students can avoid these extortionary costs by checking out books at the university or local library or checking one of these sites: Project Gutenberg, Bartleby, or Googlebooks, which often publish free books with expired copyrights. Textbook Revolt, and several other similar sites, allow students to swap textbooks for free.
  8. Don’t take any classes that aren’t counting towards your major. Be wise about the classes you select “” it’s surprising how many students waste classes, without considering the price and opportunity costs of such a decision. You should really only take introductory painting if its earning you a credit closer to your major, not just because it sounds fun. Talk to an academic advisor, plan your coursework early and stay on track. Smart scheduling could have you graduating with two majors instead of one, providing a huge boost to your job prospects.
  9. Renegotiate your financial aid offer. The initial aid offer you receive isn’t a done deal. An appeal process can help you leverage your need to qualify for more aid money. Seek help early from financial aid officers, make the deadlines and remain polite, but persistent “” use this guided to help you navigate the aid conversations.
  10. Take the maximum number of credits allows without tuition increases. Most colleges charge a flat tuition rate for 12-18 credits a semester, but many students only take 15. What a waste! If a student can handle it, take 6 classes each semester and fulfill your major more quickly, or get a second major.

Don’t let a dysfunctionally expensive college system put you in a financial bind at the beginning of your career. Getting a little creative and taking the time to plan is the most effective way to complete a quality education without becoming saddled in debt.

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