How to Get a College Degree for Less

College Debt Destroyer - Main Image

Our eBook has all the tips you need to keep education costs low.

College is expensive, and the price is only going up. Thirty years ago, students were paying $15,000 a year for a private university, and $3,200 for a state school. Fast forward to today and those costs have spiked: $35,000 for private schools and $10,000 for public ones.

And yes, those numbers are adjusted for inflation.

A college degree is a great way to jumpstart a career, but as the data show, getting one is pricey. This means that deciding where to go involves a lot more than just looking at rankings and student-to-teacher ratios.

Unfortunately, the financial side of things is pretty complex. There are ways to stretch a dollar, but they take some know-how, which usually begins with a lot of questions. What’s the difference between federal and private student loans? Where do you apply for scholarships? How do you get a work-study position? Is it possible to qualify for in-state tuition if you currently live out of state?

We talked to the experts and put together a comprehensive guide. Here’s what you’ll learn:

  • The cost of in-state tuition in all 50 states (including yours!)
  • How to apply for scholarships
  • How to apply for state schools with reciprocity
  • How to establish residency for in-state tuition
  • How to reduce costs by starting at a community college and transferring
  • How to balance work and school
  • The differences between community, for-profit, public, and private colleges

Ready to get started? Download our eBook or read it below!


Table of contents

Introduction

Congratulations! If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you or someone you care about is interested in getting a college degree. Maybe you’re just finishing high school and are trying to figure out how to pay for your education, or perhaps you’ve taken a few (or more) years off and are interested in going back. Regardless, deciding to pursue a college degree may be one of the most important investments you ever make. However, if you’re like most Americans, you may be worried about whether or not you can afford the upfront cost of applying and going to school.

You’ve probably heard people say that college has been getting more and more expensive. Although we wish we could tell you otherwise, this perception is pretty spot-on. The cost of earning a degree has risen significantly since our parents were in school, and it continues to increase.

According to a 2017 College Board report, in the 1987-88 academic year, tuition and fees only cost an average of $15,160 for private nonprofit 4-year universities and $3,190 for public 4-year universities. Thirty years later, in the 2017-18 academic year, 4-year degrees have skyrocketed to an average $34,740 at private nonprofit institutions and to an average $9,970 at public ones. That’s a $19,580 increase at private schools and a $6,780 increase at public ones, and since these values are projected as 2017 dollars, they already account for inflation.

You can probably also deduce that as tuition increases, so does student debt. As of the end of 2016, the New York Federal Reserve reported that total student loan debt in the U.S. had risen to $1.6 trillion, a 170% increase over the prior 10 years. The Institute on College Access & Success’s 2017 report on student debt found that between 43 and 77 of 2016 4-year-college graduates finished their degrees with debt, and that debt ranged from an average of $19,975 for college grads in Utah to an average of $36,367 for New Hampshire graduates.

If you’re overwhelmed by the prospect of paying for college – or even of paying for stuff you need to live while enrolled in school, like rent and food – fear not! There are plenty of options you can use to pursue the degree that’s right for you without ending up in lifelong debt, and we’re here to help you navigate them.


Community College, State School, and Private School: What’s the difference?

Before you spend time and money on applying to and enrolling in a higher education program, it’s important to think about what kind of school is right for the career you want to pursue. You may have heard people talk about different types of schools or degrees, but do you know the difference between a 2-year and a 4-year degree? Between a community college, a private university, and a for-profit school?

Public vs. private schools

It is important to understand how different types of schools are funded, which often relates directly to the amount of money you have to pay to earn a degree from them. Colleges and universities are broadly categorized as public or private.

Public

Public colleges and universities receive funding from state and local governments, so they usually charge a different amount for students who live in their state or region than for students who don’t. Because of this, the published and net costs for public schools in your state and region will usually be less than private schools.

Private

Private schools do not receive funding from any government entity.  They can be nonprofit schools, which means they’re run by a nonprofit organization like a foundation or religious group. They can also be for-profit, which means that they are profit-driven businesses.

If you are considering a degree at a for-profit school, be sure to do your research first. On average, as reported by the New York Federal Reserve, students getting 4-year degrees from for-profits are significantly more likely to default on, miss payments on, their loans, which can have major financial consequences on your credit score and, in turn, your ability to do things like buy a house or take out any other loans. Be sure the check out the section below on what to look for in addition to costs before picking the right school for you.

Four-year colleges and universities

Generally, students who graduate from 4-year institutions earn bachelor’s degrees in arts (e.g., political science, literature, and music) or sciences (e.g., physics, geology, and engineering).

Students at these colleges and universities tend to have started their coursework right after high school, and most live on campus for at least one year of their coursework.

Two-year colleges

Two-year colleges are also known as community or junior colleges, and students graduate from them with associate degrees. Some students earn degrees from these institutions that are sufficient for their chosen career paths, such as nursing, while others may start at a community college before transferring to a 4-year university. If you’re considering starting a 4-year degree at a 2-year college to save money, be sure to check out the section on this later on in this e-book.

There are some key social differences between 2-year and 4-year schools that you may want to consider before choosing one over the other. For example, many community colleges are commuter schools, meaning that students live off campus, and the student population tends to include people who aren’t just between the ages of 18 and 22.

Note that 2-year colleges are different from career, vocational or trade schools. These schools can be public or private (though many tend to be for-profit). While career schools also tend to offer programs in under 2 years, they do not offer the associate’s or bachelor’s degrees typical of other colleges.  Instead, students focus on skills for specific professions, like cosmetology or welding. We won’t focus on career schools here, but know that they’re an option.

A note about online courses and degree programs

As you’re considering your college options, you may run across programs that offer entire or partial degrees through “distance learning” or online coursework. While these courses may seem appealing for your work schedule, budget or location preferences, keep in mind that online learning is not for everyone, and you should understand the pros and cons of taking online classes to set your own expectations before embarking down that path.

It is also important to ensure that online courses and programs are accredited and eligible for federal aid that will go toward your desired degree.

A note about gainful employment requirements and for-profit degree accountability

You may have heard people talk about sham for-profit degree programs that cost a lot of money but seem to lead to more unbearable student debt than student success. One way to ensure you’re not enrolling in a degree that will be a certifiably bad investment is to see if it qualifies for federal aid (which we’ll talk about in a later section). If a degree program is not eligible for federal aid, it probably means that they don’t pass federal standards for gainful employment (GE).

Passed in 2015, the federal GE regulation aims to make for-profit degree programs accountable for their graduates’ outcomes by setting minimum standards for graduates’ debt-to-income ratios. That is if the average annual loan payment for graduates is below 8% of their total income and below 20% of their take-home income, they are considered to meet these GE requirements.


College Cost Breakdown

Types of costs

When thinking about how much college will cost you, there are lots of factors to remember. We’ve created a handy chart (on the following page) to help you understand the difference between tuition, fees, room, board, and other expenses you can anticipate:

Published costs vs. net costs

It’s important to remember that there are two different costs you should keep in mind: published costs and net costs.

The tuition and fees we’ll talk about in the next section constitute part of the published costs, or what many people refer to as the “sticker price.” This is the amount that universities advertise their costs to be for all students. These costs may also include room and board, depending on the school’s policies on whether or not you have to live on campus.  (We’ll cover how to knock those published costs down with scholarships, grants and other cost-savings in a later section.)

Net costs, on the other hand, are the total costs you should expect to pay once you’ve taken out the scholarships and grants you’ve been awarded and added in any additional costs, like travel and equipment.

The good news is that you don’t need to take out your calculator to figure out what your net cost would be at the school of your choice. Every school that receives federal student aid money is required by law to have a net price calculator on its website. This calculator will help you figure out what you can expect to pay for a year of school based on your financial circumstances and any scholarships or grants you’ve gotten.

2017-18 Tuition & Fees

Below, we’ll show you how much the published costs were for public and private colleges and universities by state.

Remember, we’re just talking about tuition and fees here, and not room and board or other costs of living. Why? Those vary a lot by your location, your school, and your personal situation. Some schools require students to live on campus for a set number of years, so students who attend them have to factor in room and board. Other schools don’t even have on-campus housing, so you may choose to live on your own in a house or apartment, or with family or friends who live near your school to save money (we’ll get to that in the section on cost savings later on!).

2017-18 Tuition & Fees for Public Institutions by State

As mentioned above, most public institutions have different published costs for people who live in the same state or region and those who don’t.

Across all public schools nationwide, tuition and fees for the 2017-18 school year cost $3,570 for in-region students at public 2-year schools, $9,970 for in-state students at public 4-year universities, and $25,620 for out-of-state students at public 4-year universities.

2017-18 Tuition and Fees for Private Institutions

Because private schools’ tuition and fees are the same regardless of where you live, we won’t break them down by state.

As we talked about in the previous section, there are two main types of private schools: nonprofits and for-profits.

For the 2017-18 academic year, nonprofit 4-year universities charged an average of $34,740 for tuition and fees, while for-profits charged an average of $16,000 during the 2016-17 academic year.

Looking beyond costs: Making the right decision for you

If you’re not certain which school or even which type of school is best for you financially, there are lots of tools out there to help you sort through your options. The U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard tool can help you search for colleges based on various factors, like the school type (e.g., private or public), degree programs offered (i.e., 2-year or 4-year), location, and size.

On that note, it is incredibly important to consider more than just the cost of going to college.  The College Scorecard also lets you compare schools based on other financial factors, like students’ average annual costs, graduation and retention rates (which speaks to how long and therefore how much money it takes most people to finish their degrees), salaries after graduation, and student ability to pay down their debt.


Expert Advice: William Wells

The applicant should know three things:

1)  What is the net cost (total cost of attendance minus total grant aid) going to be, and will that remain consistent all four years?  (The number of children in undergraduate college at the same time can vary from year to year, and has a significant impact on the Expected Family Contribution.)

http://financialaid.wfu.edu/net-price-calculator/

http://financialaid.wfu.edu/cost-of-attendance/

2)  How much of the need-based financial aid will be loan and work-study, and what will the monthly loan repayments be after graduation?  

http://www.finaid.org/calculators/loanpayments.phtml

3) Does the family have sufficient savings and current income to afford the net cost?  (If not, then the applicant needs to understand the long-term consequences of additional borrowing, which will accrue interest from the time the loan is disbursed.)

http://financialaid.wfu.edu/supplemental-loans-from-private-vendors/

http://financialaid.wfu.edu/need-based-financial-aid/types-of-aid/federal-plus-loan/

Expert Advice: Dr. Cliff A. Robb

When thinking about a specific institution, it’s important to consider what it is that draws you there. Is it about a tradition connection? A family connection? A name-recognition connection? Or is it about an end goal or a career you have in mind? Having that feeling of what the end goal is is an important challenge because that’s going to impact the hours you’re enrolled and the time and money it takes to get to graduation. If you’re going to college and exploring to find out what you’re going to do, that’s okay, but it’s going to take more money to do that. Not everyone has that luxury, and as expensive as college is, it’s important to think about that [when applying to and selecting your school].

[Always] be thinking about what the future opportunities are for you. Go in mindful of why you’re borrowing, what you really need, and how it will impact you down the road. What does the job market look like given the major you’re interested in? What are your living situation goals? Where do you want to live, and what’s the cost of living for that? Borrowing decisions should match that.

A lot of people don’t think about long-term goals in the context of borrowing. They go in and sit down with a financial aid official…. And I’m not discrediting financial aid officers! There’s no fault to them; they’re doing what they can. And they’ll often tell you what they’re willing to give you, not what a reasonable amount is to take on given your situation. [It’s important to think] about the debt that loans will amount to in the long-run, and how that will impact things like [your] ability to buy a house or car or travel or whatever else [you] may want for themselves. That’s tough. To think about five or 10 years in the future, which probably feels kind of hazy.


Financial planning before you get to school: How can you pay for college?

 

Now that we’ve gone through the types of colleges out there and what to expect when looking at their published prices, you may feel pretty overwhelmed or even intimidated. If you’re thinking that there’s no way anyone has tens of thousands of dollars a year lying around to spend on school, you’re right. Very few people do.

Luckily, you have options to help you fund your education and lower college costs.

Apply for scholarships, grants, and fellowships

Scholarships, grants, and fellowships are all generally types of financial assistance that you do not have to pay back after school. That’s right – they’re basically free money, which, depending on who’s giving it to you, can go toward anything from your tuition to your living expenses. You’ve probably heard about people getting “full rides,” or all-expenses-paid scholarships, to schools for either good grades or athletic accomplishments, but you don’t have to be a straight-A student or the next Steph Curry to get a scholarship. Below, we’ll talk about the different avenues you can use to find scholarships you qualify for.

As a general note, though, always make sure you understand scholarship requirements before accepting them. Will they require you to live on campus? Will you have to pick a specific major or participate in a specific type of activity to keep them? Can they cover costs of living or just tuition?

Explore the financial aid and resources at your schools of interest

Many colleges and universities have their own scholarships and grants. As the University of Michigan’s Assistant Director for Financial Wellness Kristin Bhaumik notes: “[Our students are] automatically considered for merit-based scholarships [without applying for them]. It’s important to remember that not every school does it that way, though, so it’s important to make sure you look into the process at your particular institution and [consider other outside options] when conducting a scholarship search.”

It’s key to figure out whether they consider you for merit-based scholarships automatically when you apply to go there, or if you need to figure out what opportunities they offer and submit scholarship applications in addition to admission applications.

Apply for scholarships, grants, and fellowships from outside of your school

If you’ve already applied for scholarships and grants through your university, there are plenty of other options outside of your school. Consider the following sources for additional scholarship, grant, and fellowship opportunities:

Federal Grants

Each year, the U.S. Department of Education awards over $120 billion in grants, work-study funds, and loans to more than 13 million students. While we won’t cover work-study or loans here, it is important to remember that they offer scholarship and grant money, too!

You can find an overview of the grants available through the Department of Education and other federal partners and how to apply for them on the Federal Student Aid website. In general, look into whether you qualify for opportunities like the following:

  • Federal Pell Grants
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG)
  • Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants
  • Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants
  • Educational and Training Vouchers for current and former foster care youth
  • Aid for serving in the military or for being the spouse or child of a veteran

Websites

Websites can help you sift through large numbers of scholarships for the ones that actually qualify for. Remember to seek out scholarships geared toward people with your experiences and interests. For example, some scholarships are focused on specific fields of study or are set aside for students who are returning to school after having taken several years off of school.

Learn more about searching for scholarships at pages like these:

  • Federal Student Aid’s scholarships overview page
  • College Board’s scholarships overview page

Search the following sites based on your interests, background and other factors:

  • U.S. Department of Labor’s free scholarship search tool
  • College Board’s free scholarship search tool

Always be aware of and try to avoid scholarship scams, especially when you’re searching online for opportunities. It’s important to remember that you should never have to pay to access information about a scholarship!

National organizations, local organizations, and professional associations

Bhaumik talks about thinking about searching online for scholarships, but also about thinking more closely to home: “We talk about thinking broadly and thinking creatively. The College Board has a wonderful [scholarship] search tool out there, but we talk about looking around in your own locality – your own network of family and friends, organizations you may be affiliated with.”

Local foundations, non-profit organizations, religious or community organizations, and businesses may have scholarship opportunities for which you’re eligible. Think about organizations you or your family and friends are affiliated with, and get in touch with them to see what they have available.

National organizations like Rotary and Kiwanis may have local chapters through which you can apply for standard scholarship opportunities that are available anywhere, or they may have special programs just for your region.

Professional associations for the field or major you hope to enter may also be able to help you financially.

While many of these organizations may offer funds for smaller amounts than what you’ll need to pay for all of college, remember that these can add up, and that even a few hundred dollars here and there is way better than nothing.

Pay out of pocket

If you can afford to pay cash for at least part of your college tuition or other expenses as you go, that is hands-down your best bet to minimizing debt.

Even if you don’t have several tens of thousands lying around to go toward your education, you can save a little at a time in advance – which adds up! – through 529 plans, and you can plan to work at least part-time to offset your costs of living.

529 plans

A 529 plan, or a “qualified tuition plan,” is a type of savings plan specifically designed for saving for college. Every state, including Washington, D.C., sponsors at least one 529-plan option. There are two main types: college savings plans and pre-paid tuition plans.

College savings plans are savings accounts set up for a specific student. You or someone in your family can set one up for you at any time before you go to college. The account holder can pick different investment options for the account, and the funds within it can only be redeemed at any institution for “qualified higher education expenses,” which include tuition, room and board, mandatory fees, books, and other required equipment. You also get a tax break because earnings in these plans are not taxable as long as they’re redeemed for educational expenses.

Pre-paid tuition plans allow you to buy tuition credits at eligible public and private schools for future enrollment in those schools. The price you pay is generally the current tuition price for that school, and it’s locked in, meaning that even if tuition increases before you get there, your pre-paid price. As we saw earlier, the price of education keeps increasing, so if you can afford to buy a credit here or there in advance of getting to school, this could save you a lot of money in the long run.

There are some other key differences in these plans, so if you want to start one, make sure you understand what you’re signing up for and pick the best one for you.

Take out loans

If you don’t have the cash to pay for school up front, and if scholarships don’t quite cut it, either, loans are a great resources that you can use to pay for everything from tuition to rent to travel expenses. Loans are money that you borrow for school and have to pay back – usually with interest. While it may be intimidating to think about borrowing as much money as you’ll need to pay for school, and to navigate the world of loan types, interest, and repayment, don’t worry – we’ll walk you through it!

We’re going to talk mainly about federal loans, which are public loans made by the U.S. government, but first, let’s go over the difference between public and private loans.

What’s the difference between private and public loans?

The main differences between public and private loans are who pays for them and, in turn, what they expect you to pay them in return for loaning you money (i.e., interest). Public loans are paid for by government entities. The most common public loans are from the U.S. Department of Education, but we’ll get to that in the coming sections. Private loans are made by institutions  that are not affiliated with the government. They may be private non-profit organizations (e.g., philanthropies or foundations) or for-profit organizations (e.g., banks or loan companies).

This handy chart from the Federal Student Aid website explains these differences:

Robb offers some insight into how you may want to think about the differences between public and private loans: “A lot of people have to turn to private loans when public loans don’t cover everything, but it’s important that they fully grasp what that means for them in the long-term. Whereas subsidized federal student loans have favorable rates and give you a nice timeline to pay them back, repayment structures for private loans may not be as gentle. You see a variety of interest rates and payback timelines. While neither public nor private loans go away, the terms of public loans are fairly favorable for consumers. In the private market, you have to be a lot more savvy with what you’re giving, and you have to be cognizant that you’re stacking more debt on top of other debt, and you can end up with some heavier future payments.”

Why should I take out loans?

Your college education is probably one of the most important investments you’ll ever make. Most people don’t have the money in their bank accounts to pay for college outright, so loans offer a way for you to get the degree – and, ultimately, the life – you want.

What kinds of federal loans are available?

The Federal Student Aid website has several website pages and quick overviews to help you understand different federal loan types. There are three main types for undergraduate students:

  • Direct Subsidized Loans: loans for eligible undergraduate students who demonstrate financial need.
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans: loans for eligible undergraduate, graduate, and professional students, regardless of financial need.
  • Federal Perkins Loan Program: a school-based loan program for undergraduates and graduate students with exceptional financial need.

Each of these has different eligibility requirements, interest rates, and maximum loan amounts per year, so be sure to explore the Federal Student Aid website or talk to your school’s financial aid office to make sure you understand.

How do I know if I’m eligible for federal loans?

There’s a handy tool called the FAFSA4caster on the Federal Student Aid website that can help you get a pretty good indication of whether or not you’ll be eligible for federal student aid.

How can I apply for federal loans?

The good news is that you use the same form every year to apply for federal loans, regardless of which school you go to (well, unless your school doesn’t qualify for federal aid). It’s called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, and it’s the only way to get federal loan money. It may be intimidating to fill out the first time, but the instructions on the FAFSA website make it much easier.

And remember—you should never pay to fill out the FAFSA form.

How much money should I take out in loans?

Responsible borrowing is key when assessing your financial aid package. Remember that when you take out a loan, you’re entering into a legally binding contract to pay that loan back in full, and you do not have to accept all of the loans offered to you. Take the time to do the following to borrow responsibly:

  • Budget out what you will actually need for the college costs outlined earlier (tuition, room and board, etc.).
  • Figure out what your anticipated salary will be after you graduate (if you want to search by occupation, check out the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook).
  • Calculate what your estimated monthly loan repayment will be after graduation given the amount you’re taking out (you can estimate your loan repayment using the Federal Student Aid website’s Repayment Estimator tool).

Loans usually come with interest rates, so be sure to understand what those rates are and when they start to add up for the loans you take out. That is, are the federal subsidized loans, which don’t start to accrue interest until after you’ve finished school, or are they unsubsidized loans, meaning that you start to rack up interest as soon as you take them out? The answers to these questions combined with your estimated budget will help you determine what’s right for you.

While entering into a legal contract to borrow more money than you’ve ever made before can be scary, just remember: if you are smart about borrowing the right loans in the right amounts, you’re setting yourself up to be just fine. (And if you’re still freaking out about it, check out this video from the Federal Student Aid website on responsible borrowing.)

Are there any special programs to help me pay back my loans?

Yes! There are – ESPECIALLY if you’ve taken out federal loans.

First, when you’re figuring out how to start repaying your loans after you graduate, make sure you understand the different repayment plan options that suit your loan type, loan amount, and income level. The plans range from the Standard Repayment Plan, which has a fixed payback for a set amount of time, to a number of plans that vary over time based either on a set amount increase or your income and other circumstances.

Second, if you have a bunch of different loan sources, you can use Direct Consolidation Loans, which allow you to combine all of your eligible federal student loans into a single loan with a single loan servicer. This will save you from having multiple payments to multiple entities per month.

Third, check to see if you’re eligible for any of the federal loan repayment programs:

  • The federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. If you work for a qualifying employer (generally, if you work for the government or a non-profit) and make 120 months (that’s 10 years straight) of federal loan repayments on a qualified loan repayment plan, the rest of your federal student loan debt is 100% forgiven. That’s right: whatever you have left to pay is essentially paid for you by the government.
  • The Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program offers up to $17,500 on some types of loans after five consecutive years of full-time teaching in certain districts. See the website for specifics and qualifying posts.
  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers repayment programs for people who pursue specific professions or programs.
  • Indian Health Service
  • National Institutes of Health
  • National Health Service Corps

Finally, note that some employers may offer you loan repayment as part of your benefits for working for them after graduation. Keep that in mind when applying to work for different companies and organizations, and keep it in mind as a potential part of your salary negotiation for your first job – or any job – after you graduate.

Apply to public schools in other states with reciprocity

In some states, there are reciprocity programs through which you can get in-state tuition at another state’s public universities. To find out if a school you’re interested in attending has reciprocity with your state, that school’s website will be your best bet. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators also lists some state and regional financial aid discounts on their site. You can even search by state to see what financial aid programs exist in your state.

Establish residency in a state to attend a public university at the in-state tuition rate

If you want to go to a state school in a state other than the one in which you live, and if that school does not have reciprocity with your state, you do have the option to move to the state of the other school and establish residency to be eligible for in-state tuition. This isn’t usually an easy process, but it is possible.

The requirements for what constitutes “residency” vary by state and sometimes by school. According to FinAid, in general, if you’re a dependent student (i.e., your parents provide for you financially), one of your parents has to be a resident of that state for a set amount of time. In most states, they must have been residents for a year, although that amount varies. If you’re an independent student, you have to have been a resident of that state for a set period of time (usually around a year) before you qualify for in-state tuition. For more information about this, check with the school of your choice to see what they require.

Start at community college before transferring to a 4-year institution

If you really want to get a bachelor’s degree but have no idea how you could possibly pay for it, enrolling in community college for 2 years before transferring to a 4-year college can help you cut the cost of a bachelor’s degree significantly.

Robb agrees: “Students and families should be very open to alternative models that are different from the traditional viewpoint. [They should consider the concept of:] Do you really need to go to X university and do a 4-year degree? Or can you go to a 2-year school and transition to a 4-year model? The option to go to a community college and flesh out that core coursework like math and language and science before matriculating to a bigger university at a higher cost can save a ton of money.”

Do you live in a state, city, or region with free or significantly reduced-price community college?

These places exist! Starting with the class of 2016, for instance, Chicago started its Star Scholarship program, through which public high school graduates with at least a 3.0 GPA and completion-ready math and English scores can go to any of the city’s community colleges at no cost – with tuition and books provided for free.

As of June 2017, Tennessee has extended their free community college program to serve not only students graduating from high school, but every adult who does not already have a degree. Several other states (New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Indiana, Montana, Minnesota, Kentucky, Nevada Washington, Alabama, and Arkansas) and specific regions or cities (including Detroit; Pittsburgh; New Haven; Kalamazoo, MI; Oakland, CA; and Tulsa, OK) have either started to offer free community college or are working on plans to do so for select students.

Are there transfer pathways at local community colleges specifically for students like you who are interested in that path?

Even in states where community college is not free for everyone, there are programs specifically for students to enroll in 2-year institutions to save money before finishing 4-year degrees at other schools. For example, in Ohio’s Preferred Pathway program at Columbus State Community College, where students start for 2 years before transferring to one of 9 public and private universities to complete bachelor’s degrees, 76% of students took on 0 debt in the 2015-16 academic year.

Live with friends or family off campus to curb room and board costs

If you have the ability to live with family or friends, consider this option to save money on cost-of-living expenses like room and board or rent. It adds up quickly to be living rent-free or nearly rent-free, and it can be a highly effective way to free up resources to go toward other things, like paying for more tuition out-of-pocket and taking out fewer loans.

Save money on textbooks by borrowing them, renting them, or buying them used

Depending on your course load and program of study, textbooks can add up. Save money by checking them out of the library instead of buying them. It may take a little more time to get your book lists from professors early enough to locate them at your school’s library or request them through inter-library loan, but your bank account will thank you every semester.

You can also rent books for the semester at much lower prices than buying them. A quick Google search will give you a whole array of possibilities from sites like Amazon, Chegg, or CampusBooks.

Alternatively, if you need to buy your books, consider looking outside of your campus bookstore to online marketplaces like Amazon, Chegg, Barnes & Noble, or CampusBooks to ensure that you’re getting the best deal possible on new or used copies.


While you’re there: What resources do you have to help you maintain financial well-being?

Your school’s financial aid office

Your school’s financial aid office is there to help you and your family with everything from applying for aid to budgeting for your day-to-day life. Bhaumik says that the two main conversations her office has with students can be separated into two broad categories: maintaining financial wellness by minimizing costs with good choices and by being financially savvy:

“We do a lot of counseling around budgeting, reasonable lifestyle expectations while students are in school, and techniques to minimize expenses [and] maximize student experience from a budgeting perspective. I think that the education piece of it has to be part of the conversation when we’re talking about costs for higher education. A lot of our energy is dedicated to educating students on those types of costs as wellThe financing education perspective… is a different stream of conversation. We work with families to understand and talk about all of the resources they can explore to get assistance for their education. We start with conversations about the federal aid application and any institutional aid applications. We talk about special circumstances that may impact a family’s ability to pay. We talk about scholarships and scholarship searches. We believe in small scholarships and believe that they can add up, and loans can be an important resource for families that otherwise don’t have resources to pay for education. That pivots us back to the education conversation – reasonable expectation of what it’s going to cost you as a student.”

In addition to meeting with financial aid advisors, William Wells, the Director of Financial Aid at Wake Forest University, recommends that students become familiar with the financial literacy tools on his office’s website, too.

Federal Student Aid website

The Federal Student Aid website includes a number of resources that are worth exploring, including pages dedicated to lowering the cost of college, defining the types of financial aid, tips for filling out the FAFSA form, and suggestions for finding scholarships, among many others.


Conclusion

To recap, here’s what you can do to start destroying college debt:

  • If you’re thinking about going to college, start saving now!
  • Think about what you want out of your education in the long run before deciding which school to attend. Cater your college search to those goals.
  • Understand the full cost of college beyond just tuition, then budget and borrow responsibly.
  • Remember that you have resources at your disposal to help you along the way! No one is an expert at this stuff when they first start school, so leverage everything from your school’s financial aid office to the internet to get the answers you need.

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About The Experts

Kristin Bhaumik

Assistant Director for Special Programs and Adjunct Lecturer at University of Michigan.

Dr. Cliff A. Robb

Currently the Associate Professor and Faculty Director of Consumer Finance & Financial Planning at The School of Human Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

William Wells – Director of Financial Aid, Wake Forest University

With 40 years of financial aid experience, Bill Wells has served as Director of Financial Aid at Wake Forest for twenty years. Bill is a 1974 graduate of Wake Forest and holds graduate degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


References

The Institute for College Access and Success: https://ticas.org/sites/default/files/pub_files/classof2016.pdf

Career Search: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/prepare-for-college/careers/search and https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/

College Board: https://trends.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/2017-trends-in-college-pricing_1.pdf

U.S. Department of Education: https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/

Federal Student Aid: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/prepare-for-college/choosing-schools/types#publicprivate

The Brookings Institution: https://www.brookings.edu/research/who-should-take-online-courses/

The Chronicle of Higher Education: http://www.chronicle.com/article/Beyond-the-College-Earnings/239013

The Institute for College Access and Success: https://ticas.org/sites/default/files/pub_files/classof2016.pdf

New York Federal Reserve: https://www.newyorkfed.org/press/pressbriefings/household-borrowingstudent-loans-homeownership and http://libertystreeteconomics.newyorkfed.org/2017/11/who-ismore-likely-to-default-on-student-loans.html

U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission: https://www.sec.gov/reportspubs/investorpublications/investorpubsintro529htm.html

Federal Student Aid: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/loans/federal-vs-private

NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/06/11/532003646/free-community-college-for-all

Federal Student Aid: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/about/data-center/school/ge

U.S. Department of Education: https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/fact-sheet-obamaadministration-increases-accountability-low-performing-profit-institutions

Federal Student Aid: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/loans/interest-rates

Federal Student Aid: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/loans/subsidized-unsubsidized

Federal Student Aid: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/repay-loans/understand/plans

Standard Repayment Plan: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/repay-loans/understand/plans/standard

Indian Health Service: https://www.ihs.gov/loanrepayment/

National Institutes of Health: https://www.lrp.nih.gov/

Health Resources and Services Administration: https://www.nhsc.hrsa.gov/

Federal Student Aid: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/repay-loans/forgiveness-cancellation/public-service

Federal Student Aid: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/repay-loans/forgiveness-cancellation/teacher