Whether you’re headed for college or not, you probably know that the total college student loan debt is more out of control than it has ever been — $1.44 Trillion for American students as of Aug 2017 and rising, and at least 25% of borrowers behind on payments.
So what do you do about it? Is there a way to make college affordable, prevent massive student loan debt, and not becoming part of the statistics — or at least reduce what you will owe after graduation and therefore reducing your total cost of an education?
The short answer is yes, though it’ll take planning, effort and tracking. Below are some ways you can keep your college costs low, and reduce student loan debt before it happens, or how to deal with it afterwards, at minimal cost. If you need more details than the tip provides, click through to the articles and videos to which we’ve linked.
Not all of the tips below will apply to everyone, but there’s some very good college-related or general financial advice on the pages to which we’ve linked.
Personal Finances, Financial Planning Tools
- Set up a 529 Plan for your child. The sooner you do this, the better — and some parents start right after their child is born. These plans are tax-advantaged and approved by the IRS to qualified consumers. Caveat: if your child decides not go to college, some 529 plans may require forfeiting any savings. There are also penalties and taxes to be paid if 529 funds are used for non-college purposes. Note: there are two types of 529 plan – prepaid tuition plan or college savings plans.
- Use a 529 Plan alternative. This includes ESAs (Education Savings Plan), UGMAs (Uniform Gift to Minors Account), UTMAs (Uniform Transfer to Minors Account), Prepaid Tuition Plans, Taxable Accounts. Not all of these are tax-advantaged, but some may offer certain types of flexibility not available to 529 plans.
- Utilize the Million Dollar Baby concept. This uses specific type of life insurance policy with a cash value or a dividend value (depending on policy type) to pay for college and other expenses. Only a licensed insurance agent can discuss the actual policy choices and details (E.g., Whole Life or an IUL/ Indexed Universal Life plan), so it’s possible that the average financial advisor may not know about this option. Note: the same plan can also fund the rest of your child’s life, not just college, and there are no penalties for non-college use.
- After graduation, consider consolidating your student loan debt, especially through Federal Student Aid, if the loan is federal, or a loan consolidator. This may result in a more favorable interest rate, or a more affordable monthly payment until you can afford to pay the loan down faster.
- Utilize education-related tax savings. There may be far more than you are aware of, and any savings in one year can be used to fund college the next year.
- Especially understand the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) so that you maximize education benefits —
something that 1.5 million American families did not do, losing money as a result.
- Fix/ increase your credit score before taking out any education loans, to reduce your interest rate. The better your score, the better the interest rate. If you’re in high school and don’t have a credit score, build it as soon as possible, before applying to college.
- Be prepared and research overall college costs, in order to know how to lower them.
Scholarships, Grants, Student Loans and other Financial Aid
- Always fill out a FAFSA application every college academic year, to ensure that you are considered for your maximum eligible federal financial aid amount, so that you’re not losing out on student aid money. Prioritize federal grants and loans, then school-based loans, and finally 3rd-party loans.
- Prepare for a scholarship search, in order to streamline your activities and focus on only what’s necessary to qualify. Think of this as the “time is money” factor. Any time saved could be applied to additional scholarship searches, other college search activities or earning and saving for college costs.
- Search for as many scholarships as you can for which you qualify – institutional, organizational and 3rd-party.
- Don’t neglect finding an unusual scholarship or three. This might involve making a creative peanut butter sandwich, making a prom dress/ suit out of duct tape, or something less esoteric to qualify.
- Declare independence or emancipate yourself from your parents if your parents won’t or can’t help with tuition, especially if they earn too much. This may help you qualify for financial aid, since eligibility is based on parental income.
- Attend a college with a deferred/ multi-point payment plan. This gives you more time to save/ earn money and pay for college — possibly without taking loans and racking up interest charges. An example is Oklahoma State University’s POP (Payment Option Plan). Check the Web sites of your preferred colleges, or contact the appropriate advisors.
- Manage your student loan, if you take one, by staying on top of it. Track what you borrow, make interest payments while a student, keep up-to-date contact info for the loan servicer, and know what your monthly payments are going to be, such as by using a repayment estimator or at least a basic loan calculator.
- Estimate expected costs with the government’s net price calculator. Net price factors in all college-related costs (tuition, fees, books, room and board, etc.), as well as factors financial aid such as scholarships and grants, and provides an average. This allows you to shop around, and you may find that eligibility for scholarship at even an “expensive” college may minimize your yearly total college cost.
- Take advantage of veteran/ military personnel discounts, especially for college, but also secret non-college discounts. Those deemed “military friendly” by various publications are a good place to start looking.
- Take advantage of family discounts, such as for relatives of staff, faculty, and/or alumni. Some colleges offer these sorts of Legacy Programs, even to grandchildren of alumni. Alternately, certain community organizations offer scholarships to the relatives/ descendants of members, including Freemasons, Daughters of the Revolution, Mayflower Society and many more.
- Get your tuition and other college expenses crowdfunded. This isn’t for everyone, obviously, but some families have successfully utilized crowdfunding sites for these expenses — including some specifically set up for education. The linked article also lists several dozen colleges/ universities with a private crowdfunding platform.
Pay Day and Balancing Budgets
If you don’t have parents who saved college funds or need to supplement what you have saved, there’s nothing more traditional than finding some work before college and during summer break. There are also co-op programs where you might study two semesters and work one. With the Internet widely available for most college students, it’s easier than ever before to start and promote a business or service — whether for students or other consumers. Some lucky students have even sold such businesses soon after graduation. Goodbye student loans. But even if you don’t want to start a long-term business, there are ways to leverage work earnings for college costs.
- Leverage time and compound interest by saving well before college — as early as possible. Of course, this relies on your parents teaching you about saving and investing, hopefully when you’re old enough to start having a paper route, lawn cutting or babysitting gigs. Compound interest is also useful for adult students, provided you… save early.
- Create an overall college budget for *all* expenses. And stick to it. Knowing what you’ll have to spend, what is a priority and what isn’t, and having contingency plans for emergencies makes it easier to keep your overall college costs to a minimum.
- Gain Earned Income Credits by working for a parent’s business. Any money earned can also be applied to college, of course. Caveat:
students must be at least 25 years old.
- Choose a college with a mandatory work-study program. Premise: Do part-time work on or near campus for the college, in return for reduced or even no tuition. Note that needs-based work-study programs are different than mandatory work-study programs, with the former requested when applying for federal aid, and with earnings credit more favorably for financial aid than with a regular job.
- If you’re an adult student working as a professional, check if your employer pays partially or fully for skills upgrade — such as post-bachelor’s certificates, master’s degrees, doctorates and graduate certificates. According to a 2012 survey conducted of 4,500 companies, 76% pay some employees partial or full tuition reimbursement for a college degree.
- Multiple companies also cover some college expenses for non-career employees. Check to see if you work for one of these employers, and if you qualify.
Room and Board Costs
Food, rent, utilities, etc., are a big portion of non-tuition costs — sometimes higher than actual tuition and fees.
- Stay away from fraternities or sororities, as they can end up costing more than campus housing or even off-campus housing, due to incidental costs for membership and special events.
- If possible, stay with a relative or friend. If you’re leaving home for college, maybe there’s someone you know near your destination who is looking for or willing to have a paid boarder — at a reduced cost.
- Stay away from fast food and meals out. Convenience = costly. Instead, visit farmers markets on weekends for occasional deals and make your own food.
- Choose an optimum on-campus meal plan for your dietary needs, or invest in a multipurpose cooker such as the Instant Pot. The latter acts as a slow cooker, oven, soup pot, steamer and more. While a bit pricey compared to the average pan, it’s multifunctional abilities are great when you don’t have a stove.
- Discover cold-brewed coffee (and tea). Aside from filters and ingredients, the most you’ll need appliance-wise is a cheap spice/ coffee grinder (or grind free at the store) and a large container (preferably glass) to make your cold brew. This will save you both from outrageous cafe coffee prices and a coffee maker (both cost and storage).
- Watch these videos to learn how to eat healthy (NSFW words) on a college budget. These videos should give you lots of ideas for both meat-based or vegan/ vegetarian meals.
- To keep food costs down, follow a few simple tips on food purchase and preparation to eat healthy on a college budget.
- Don’t spend money on cookbooks. This Pinterest College Food Budget board will give you tons of ideas on eating well on a budget.
- Share food costs with roommates. If you’re better at cooking than they are, they might be willing to do your portion of clean up or even pay a bit more for groceries.
- Change the way you eat. You might be over-eating, or just not eating properly — which may be negatively affecting your food budget.
Other Non-Tuition Costs: Health and Medical, Transportation, Supplies, etc.
Then of course there’s all other expenses you have for college — or even just if you live in civilized society. If you visit family on weekends, you could always carry home clothes for laundry. Just keep your wardrobe simple.
- Use your parents’ health, dental and car insurance, if available/ applicable — else know what your insurance options are as a college student, including school-specific options, subsidized ACA (Affordable Care Act) options, Medicaid, “catastrophic care,” etc. Consider also health, dental and life insurance plans offered at your college, as well as free medical clinics in the community or on campus. If you are a graduate student at the same college where you completed your undergrad degree, you may also be eligible for some sort of alumni group discount on various insurance policies.
- Buy notebooks, pens, batteries, calculators and other study aids on sale, out of season. If you find a bulk price, check with college friends and roommates to see if they’ll split the cost. The go-to places are Target, Walmart, Amazon, but you might find bargains elsewhere, including electronics supply stores.
- Instead of new text books, go for used books, if they’re still relevant. Or rent them (physical or digital). Better still, choose a suitable school that uses “open” textbooks that are free.
- Use a family plan for cell phones, as they tend to be the cheapest. But if you’re going out of state for college, ask your carrier for a deal on roaming.
- Or use Skype to call free to other Skype users and home lines in some areas. You get the added benefit of video calling when you’re missing your family, and screen sharing – ideal for collaborating with other students.
- If you’ll be in a traditional on-campus program, don’t take your car to college; utilize bike sharing systems, buy a used bike, or walk. It might not be as fast as driving, but you’ll saving on parking, gas, insurance, repairs, etc., and stay fit. Also check your college’s Web site for transportation options. Some campuses offer free private shuttles or reduced-fare passes for public transportation.
- If you still want/ need to drive while in college, consider being a rideshare driver part-time, such as for Uber or Lyft, and earn money to cover auto costs and maybe even some college costs.
- Get a Netflix or Hulu subscription, or find the best Cable TV option. With so much free content online, you may not need it. If you can’t do without, but you don’t need a full plan, check the Web site of your favorite channels for special Internet-only rates that require no cable provider. And pretty much every college will have free wifi for students available somewhere on campus — if not everywhere — including dorms. Some dorms may even offer students basic cable.
Making Your College and Location Choices
- Find a college with fixed tuition or flat tuition. A number of colleges have guaranteed yearly tuition for incoming students for a specific number of years.
- Attend a tuition–free college. While some of these have a mandatory work-study program (mentioned above), there are other criteria that may apply.
- Attend a college that has had a decline in tuition and/or net price.
- Start at a good community college where you either qualify for free tuition or which you can afford, complete an associate’s degree, then transfer to a great four-year college.
- Study in another country, such as Germany, where even non-Germans can get free tuition. Several other European countries also offer free or reduced tuition to non-resident students.
- Leverage dual citizenship, which can further increase the number of countries where you might be able to get free or reduced tuition.
- Go to an in-state public college — especially close to home, to eliminate/ reduce room and board costs. But if you are planning on going out of state, considering moving a year or more before college. While it’s not that easy to achieve, considering you probably don’t know where you’ll be accepted, consider that in-state tuition (for residents) is always cheaper for public colleges and universities than out-of-state tuition.
Making Your Program Choices
- Know what you want and build your own custom ranking of colleges with Money Magazine’s Web-based tool, to help in your college search. Entering a college major and then switching one or more times may result in taking courses that are useless towards your ultimate degree program, thereby increasing your overall college costs. The same goes for transferring to another college (except from a community college to a 4-year college). If you plan ahead, consider careers, and choose a major to stick with, you can keep your education costs down.
- Leverage Advance Placement/ Dual Enrollment/ Dual Credit options. Take advantage of community colleges that allow qualified high school students to earn dual credit for college courses, typically for free. Not only do you save on tuition, you graduate faster. (May not be available in every state.)
- Study in a high-need field in which some colleges cover your tuition/ fees as well as pay a stipend. These are often the same fields for which loan forgiveness (below) may be available. Similar opportunities may be available for under-represented students in certain geographic areas.
- Eliminate the college commute. Take an affordable online bachelor’s degree program whose costs save you money over on-campus costs, including parking, gasoline, auto wear and tear, and possibly a reduction in car insurance. Note: some colleges charge extra technology fees that actually increase tuition, but you might still save in auto expenses.
- Take free online courses/ MOOCs while in high school, through a college’s edX or Coursera.org offering. Some of these programs offer a certificate of completion which have a nominal, but may reduce the cost of completing the same course for credit, if you attend that university. Moreover, take courses in advance gives your brain more time to absorb concepts and reduces the chances of having to repeat a course — thereby minimizing tuition costs.
- Take a major leading to a high-paying career, such as in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), which also includes nursing and medicine. While you may not save on education up front, the typically high ROI (Return on Investment) in entry-level and mid-term salaries means you’ll more likely be able to pay down your student loan faster.
- Leverage skills shortages and loan forgiveness options. Find a program for specific disciplines with a shortage of skilled workers, such as in teaching, nursing, public safety or military placement. Some schools have a loan forgiveness option for graduates willing to be placed in jobs after graduation in geographic areas of need — sometimes outside of the USA.