7 Practical Ways to Cut or Curb College Costs

By Patricia Gorden Neill - April 23rd, 2013

With college costs going sky high, students and families scramble to find ways to curb or cut college costs. College is one of the best investments you can make in terms of time and money, but it must be done right. Don’t just head off to the Big C daydreaming of fun late night dorm room huddles solving the problems of the world. Kids who do that these days end up deep in student loan debt with a dead-end, minimum wage job. Instead, plan your college career as if you were planning the logistics of a war or political campaign. Know that by using your brains you can cut the cost of your education by thousands of dollars.

If You Don’t Know What You Want, Don’t Go

This may seem harsh advice, but if you don’t know what you want to do when you graduate from college, then don’t go. Wait until you do know what you want to do, then go and do it. If you find your passion and what you’d love to do first, it will make your college career a breeze. You’ll love even the tough courses. If you go without knowing what you want to do, then you’re likely just wasting time and money. The worst case scenario is if you take out student loans to go to college when you aren’t sure of what you want to study or to do after graduation. While millions of kids have done this in past decades, it is a deadly trap today because of increasing tuition costs and a terrible job market. Don’t fall into it.

It won’t kill you if you take some time between high school and college. Instead of college, find a job, go work on a farm, volunteer or start a small business. Find something else to do and learn some skills. Believe me, when you do go to college, you’ll be more than ready for it and you’ll go into it knowing exactly what you want to get out of it.

Seriously Consider Community College or Go Online

Want to save thousands on your college education? Attend a community college at half the cost of a four year institution. The first two years of a bachelor’s degree are spent taking general education courses, liberal arts such as English, composition, history, social studies and math and science. You can take these same courses at a junior college and either get your associate’s degree, or transfer to a four year college to finish up with a bachelor’s. You can do the same with online classes that generally cost far less than on campus and cuts out the commuting cost altogether. The one thing to look into before taking this path is to find out if the community college or online college credits will transfer to the four year school. Current research shows that classes at community college or online classes provide equivalent educational value as a traditional on campus education.

Take CLEP Exams for College Credit

The College Level Examination Program (CLEP) allows you to take exams to earn college credits toward a degree. Over 2,900 colleges and universities accept CLEP credits. While you will have to pay a fee to take each exam, usually around $80, you can earn four to eight college credits if you make a certain grade on the exam. With typical college courses costing $700 to $1500, you can save a huge amount of money by testing on the knowledge you already have. Over 33 CLEP exams exist for five subject areas, including math, science, composition and literature, business, world languages and history and social studies. If you were staying awake in your high school core classes, you could pass CLEP exams and head off to college with 40 college credits already under your belt. See College Board’s CLEP page for more information.

Stick Close to Home

In state tuition at a public college or university is generally far less than out of state tuition. It could be your family is fortunate enough to be able to pay for out of state college costs, but if not, stay in state and close to home to save money. While colleges spend thousands of dollars on fancy marketing to make you think differently, there really isn’t that much difference between a bachelor’s degree in biology from Penn State and one from University of Montana. You save on travel money sticking closer to home ground, you can maybe duck home to do a huge pile of laundry and you’ll be in a familiar region, which pays off in your comfort level. Unless you can come up with a truly compelling reason to go out of state, such as you were awarded a full tuition and room and board scholarship at an out of state school, stay in state and save the money.

Consider a Co-Op Education

Co-op education is a real winner. It’s a joint program between universities and employers. While various schools set up the program differently, they all involve students taking regular classroom courses in their major, say for a semester, then working for an employer in their field for a semester. The benefits for the student are rich: they gain work experience in the real world, they earn money while working and generally they have a job lined up and ready to go when they graduate. For the employer, it’s an opportunity to recruit and train employees, allows more flexible staffing, results in better retention rates among employees and allows evaluation of future full-time employees while they’re on the job as student-employees. Co-op students earn money while they’re in college, allowing them to help pay for their education, usually $11,000 to $18,000 per working semester. These students needn’t rely on student loans as much, freeing them from a significant lifetime drain on their incomes. Best of all, according to the New York Times, 95 percent of co-op students have a job waiting for them when they graduate.

About 400 universities and colleges have co-op programs available for a variety of majors. To name just a few, accounting, architecture and graphic design, art and art history, business and information technology, computer science, biology, chemistry, finance, hospitality and tourism, management, marketing, psychology and all kinds of engineering, including aerospace, chemical, civil, electrical, mechanical, industrial and systems, mining and ocean engineering. While most firmly established for math, science and engineering, some liberal arts majors may apply, including English and communication students, art history and language students. See our article on Co-op education for further information on this fantastic way to go to college and learn hands-on skills in a real world job.

Work during College

Aside from the co-op education and federal work-study programs, college kids can simply find a job and work while they’re going to college. Even at a minimum wage job working 20 hours a week, students with jobs can earn enough to help with college costs and personal expenses. Getting a job can also teach time management, a real world skill absolutely essential in a competitive job market. Students also learn to manage money better if they’re earning it themselves. Another plus is the work experience helps when it comes to finding another job after graduation. Employers might be looking at a host of bachelor degree candidates for the job, but they’ll focus on the ones with work experience first. Learning to budget your money, avoiding credit card use and other money earning and saving tricks all add up to curbing the high cost of college.

Miscellaneous

A variety of ways of earning random cash include selling your blood and plasma, participating in medical and science studies such as working part-time in a sleep lab (by sleeping, no less) and selling your eggs or sperm. If you own a car, start a Designated Driver business where you rake in the cash giving students rides home from bars and nightclubs. Search the Internet for other small business ideas. Never give up on scholarship searches, no matter what year you’re in at college. Just keep looking and applying. Rent your textbooks, buy them used or use the reserve copy in the library. Some students are using social media to beg for financial assistance, with one girl gaining $10,000 toward her $200,000 student loan debt.

Going to college doesn’t have to mean going deeply into debt. Granted, student loan debt is difficult to avoid, but using innovative strategies to curb costs and earn money can keep student debt low if you must take on any at all. Combine all the good ideas you can think of and put them to work. With a modicum of creativity and some hard work, you can get a good college education while avoiding the usual costly college traps.

About the Author

Patricia Gorden NeillPatricia Gorden Neill edited medical and scholarly journals for over 20 years in the ivy-covered halls of the University of Rochester. She is a freelance writer, often covering higher education and the concerns of college age students, and is regularly published on a variety of websites.