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There's no way to get around it: College is costly. Depending on the school, it can cost you, as a student or parent, anywhere from $7,000 (public school) to $26,000 (private school) per year in tuition and fees. That doesn't include room and board, and those dorm accommodations, apartments, pizzas, and occasional beers really add up. Worse still, these expenses lead many new graduates to commence their shiny new adult lives with hefty credit-card debt.
Fortunately, the sticker price of college is just that -- a sticker price. There are lots of ways that you can reduce your ultimate tab. Below are just a few.
- Aggressively seek scholarships. Plenty of them sit waiting for applicants, and they don't all target valedictorians. Some are for vegetarians, some for students skilled in woodworking, or who've volunteered a lot, who play particular instruments, or come from a particular ethnic background. You can search for scholarships easily online, at sites such as fastweb.com, scholarships.com, and others.
- Aggressively seek financial aid. Many students these days can get a big chunk of their tuition costs waived, thanks to generous financial aid. Besides outright grants from schools, there are loan programs that can help, too, charging reasonable interest rates. A student might want to apply to many schools, in order to see which ones offer the compelling financial aid packages and seem to be the better bargains.
- Choose a less expensive college. It's true that many of the top colleges, such as Ivy League establishments, cost many pretty pennies, but many excellent schools are relative bargains. Consider that while Harvard, ranked first on U.S. News & World Report's 2011 list of top schools, charges more than $38,000 for tuition and fees, that number is just $25,000 for out-of-staters at the University of North Carolina (ranked 30) and under $5,000 at Brigham Young (ranked 75). If you live in-state, Berkeley costs less than $11,000 and the University of Maryland less than $9,000. Many inexpensive state schools offer an excellent education.
- Put off college for one or two years. This might seem drastic, but it's actually a compelling option. If your student delays college a bit, he or she can work to save money for school, while parents can also build up the college coffers. Alternatively, let the parents add to college savings for an extra year, while the prospective student enjoys what's called a "gap year," volunteering or pursuing some passion that can make him or her a more attractive applicant and even a more studious student.
- Work during college. It's best if students focus mainly on learning while in college, but a modest part-time job on the side needn't detract too much from that, and can pay for many daily expenses, such as eating out or entertainment. For more financially pressured students, a part-time job at the library or cafeteria or tutoring might pay for essentials such as books.
- Look into being a resident advisor. At some schools, students can secure a free room for the year (or some other benefits) by being a counselor to fellow students.
- Be frugal with living expenses. Eliminate having a car at school, for instance, and say goodbye to the hefty cost of gas, repairs, and insurance. It's unlikely that any student would want to go without a cell phone, but you can opt for a low-frills plan. Developing frugal habits while still young can set students up to build rich retirements for themselves later. Students should also be extremely careful with credit cards, charging only necessities. Otherwise, they could be paying the price for their extravagance for the next decade or longer. Credit-card debt is one of the biggest threats to our financial security.
There are lots of other possibilities, especially if you get creative. Whether you're thinking inside or outside the box, a college education doesn't have to cost as much as you fear it will.