Degrees of Frugality: 7 Tips for the College-Bound
It's no secret that affording college tuition and all the related expenses can be a daunting prospect for students and families. According to the College Board in New York, tuition costs in 2010 have increased 6.5% for public universities and 4.4% for private — that's about twice the national inflation rate. Students who are responsible for all or part of these costs are in for a rude awakening regarding debt levels and should prepare themselves for a crash-course in frugal living.
Since graduating from college 18 years ago, I've had the opportunity to work with younger people struggling to pay undergraduate loans, graduate students embarking on a whole new debt load, and my own peers finally making those last loan payments. Though each circumstance is unique, there appears to be a few common strategies that can help contain the financial impact of college. They may not appeal to everyone or always fit in with the idyllic notion of ivy-draped walls or lingering existential exploration, but they can help keep students focused and insulated from some of the worst financial blows. Here are my seven tips for minimizing the costs of college.
1. Get in and get out
The average yearly tuition at a public university is $7,020 and more than $26,000 for private. This is no time to dawdle. Enjoy your college experience, make friends, learn, and broaden your horizons, but do so with intent. More time in college now means more time paying for college (with interest) later. Realize that it's not just tuition that's putting you in the red. Textbooks, housing, lost earnings and lost time invested in actively building your career all impact the bottom line. Beyond getting what you came for (a 4-year degree), get in and get out.
2. Make your adviser your best friend
A college degree is formulaic: By following a predetermined combination of coursework (minding prerequisites and GPA), you're rewarded with a particular number of credits which equal a degree. Done. Your college adviser keeps you on-track for graduation by monitoring your adherence to the formula and informing you of acceptable variables within it. As you meet with him, make certain you have all the information necessary to help him do the job. Take notes, ask questions, follow-up, and double-check the facts. Being an active advisee helps ensure that you don't take courses you don't need or face unnecessary delays on your degree path because of an unforeseen prerequisite. No one's infallible; keep your own spreadsheet of coursework completed and coursework remaining and compare it your official transcripts periodically to ensure accuracy.
3. Don't change majors
College should be a time when you have room to explore interests and some liberty to revise your goals. Use the first two years of your general education coursework to actively explore different fields of study so that you are more certain when the time comes to declare a major. Once declared, realize that any significant change means more coursework, more time and more money.
4. Be a four-season learner
Minimizing the number of calendar years that you devote to college can't be overstated. A well-paced, credit-focused college life that makes room for friends, study and part-time work should be a year-round, uninterrupted endeavor. Summers off-campus disrupt routine and can allow the temptations of life to derail college plans altogether. Summer coursework, though condensed, can give you a head start on credit requirements for the following term with reduced distractions and a quieter campus.
5. Don't discount community colleges
Community colleges may not inspire us to wax nostalgic about our alma mater later in life, but if tuition costs are a real concern, start here. Tuition at community colleges can be significantly lower than even public universities. Explore your options, pay attention to how your credits will transfer, and see if this option might work for you.
6. Avoid the bookstore blues
Getting your textbooks at the campus bookstore may be easier and quicker, but you'll pay for that convenience. Check out Amazon.com or Half.com for deeply discounted prices. With a little planning and legwork, the price of those textbooks each term can be a little less stratospheric.
7. Rethink housing
One of the smartest housing strategies I remember from my own college years came from the sister of dear friend of mine. Before her freshman year, her parents made a trip to the town where she was to attend college and purchased a modest two-bedroom mobile home in a quiet mobile home park. The place cost about $15,000, if I remember correctly. She moved in a few weeks before classes started and rented the spare bedroom to a friend. The rent she charged took care of the utilities and lot fee. This situation, with the expected roommate turnover, lasted the entire four years. Upon graduation, the parents sold the mobile home for a couple thousand more than they paid for it. I've always remembered this approach as keenly efficient and pragmatic — essentially zero housing costs for their daughter and some real-life landlord responsibilities and experience to boot. Lovely.
College shouldn't be all science and no art; there are larger life lessons to learn than money management. But at times, the combination of youth, the first tastes of freedom and the array of choices can all conspire to make college more expensive than necessary. These are just a few ideas that can help reign in those costs and keep students on-track. Grants, work-studies, and careers paths that allow for eventual loan forgiveness are all important avenues to investigate too. Prepared or not, Frugality 101-301 become part of the required coursework for both students and parents during these years.
This is a guest post by Kentin Waits. Kentin has written five guest posts for Wise Bread and been published in Backwoods Home magazine. His writings have been featured in other top blogs such as Consumerist and Lifehacker. He’s currently working on launching his own blog; look for it soon.