4 Nearly Painless Ways to Save on College Costs

If the idea of putting yourself into indentured servitude in order to obtain a college degree galls you, you should know there are alternatives to those gargantuan levels of debt many are incurring these days. A $35,000 debt load upon graduation is no small thing, so anything you can do to chip away at the burden that 70% of your college-graduate peers are taking on will put you ahead of the game.

With that in mind, here are four fairly straightforward methods to slash your college bills down to the bone, meaning you'll likely begin your post-graduate career virtually debt-free.

1. Start your college career at a community college, then transfer to a 4-year institution. Community colleges offer great educational value, costing thousands less per year than a typical four-year school, while giving students an excellent skill set and knowledge base. In fact, recent research shows that some two-year degrees enabled graduates to score higher salaries than their four-year-diploma-wielding counterparts.

If your goal is to attain a bachelor's degree, however, you can save a bundle by putting in the first two years at the community college level. For the 2010-2011 school year, two-year colleges averaged just under $9,000 per year, while four-year institutions charged an average of $22,000.

Know the rules before you sign up. Choose a major that fits in with a college transfer program, and find out whether the four-year school of your choice will accept your community college credits. You won't save much money if you wind up having to take several courses over again after you transfer.

2. Pick a state school over a private institution. The average yearly costs at a private college, at over $32,000, is more than double that for a public four-year school, which averaged just under $16,000 annually for the 2010-2011 academic year. If you can't find a college in your state that has the curriculum you desire, don't fret. Most states have academic reciprocity programs, which allow out-of-state students to attend schools in neighboring states without paying the higher costs.

Currently, there are the following programs to choose from: Southern Region, Midwestern Region, Western Region, and New England. Check out the details of each at NASFAA.org.

3. Save on textbooks. These necessities of college life are expensive, but you don't always have to buy new books at your college's onsite bookstore. Take that syllabus and book list and sit down at your computer -- and start shopping.

Websites that cater to college students and their textbook-acquisition needs abound these days, and I'm not just talking about Amazon and Alibris. Ebay, half.com, and sites that specialize in book rentals can help take a big bite out of that huge textbook bill -- without your having to endure downtime while your out-of-stock books are back-ordered. Check out a passel of good hits on Mashable.

4. Use your student discount. Flourishing your student ID can net you discounts of up to 20%, depending upon the store or vendor . Many major clothing retailers, such as J. Crew and Banana Republic, offer discounts of 15%, while food vendors like Pizza Hut and Papa John's give students a deal that varies from one location to another. Many local businesses will give you a break on price, as well. Many specials are unadvertised, so get into the habit of asking about a particular store or business's policy beforehand.

Taking advantage of these cost-saving measures will cost you some time and effort, but the payoff is stellar: When you toss your cap into the air on graduation day, you'll be celebrating not only the attainment of your degree, but the fact that you also got the best value for your education dollars.

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