Cutting College Costs: A Freshman's Primer

by David Weedmark ; Updated November 03, 2017
Cutting College Costs: A Freshman's Primer

Reducing Your College Expenses, Beyond Ramen Noodles

For most students, going to college will be the first time you get to experience being out on your own. You'll have the freedom to select your own courses and choose your own schedule. If you're moving away from home, you'll also be free of most – though perhaps not all – of your parents' household rules. However, going to college and being independent also means more financial responsibilities. Tuition, housing, books, meals and other expenses can top $60,000 each year.

If you or your parents aren't paying for school now, you will most probably be paying for it when you graduate. Getting a part-time job while you study is one way to chip away at the cost of college. However, each hour you work will mean an hour less for studying and focusing on your grades. Fortunately, there are many ways you can save money and cut down the cost of going to school by doing some research beforehand.

Skip the Expensive Classes for a Year

By far, the biggest savings in a post-secondary education can be the tuition. The average cost of first-year tuition for a private college is about $50,000. The average tuition at a public community college is half that amount. If you live in California, the cost of tuition is even less. In 2017, it’s about $1,000, and because of legislation that was recently passed, it will probably even be free in the 2018-2019 school year.

With a four-year degree, this means a community college could save you $100,000 or more. Depending on what you want to do after you graduate – like buy a house! – the savings may be worth skipping the ivy league name on your diploma.

Even if you plan to attend a private college, it may be worthwhile skip it for your first year and take your freshman courses at a local public college. Once you have taken the introductory courses and gained some confidence in your academic lifestyle, you can then apply for a transfer to a more expensive school if you choose. Before doing this, of course, you’ll want to make sure that the school you plan to attend for your subsequent years will accept your community college credits.

Bank on Grants and Scholarships

Free money is a great way to finance an education. Before deciding on which school you want to go to, check out the college’s available grants and scholarships. More than half of the students at Harvard College, for example, receive some type of aid, with grants that average $50,000 each year. If your family earns less than $65,000, you may not have to pay anything at all. Those with family incomes below $150,000 usually pay only 10 percent of their income towards their Harvard tuition.

In addition to grants and scholarships from schools, you should also look for those available from your state and the federal government, as well as private organizations. There are scholarships for having great grades, financial need or being good at sports. You don’t have to be the school’s basketball or football star to apply for a scholarship. Are you good at playing chess or ping pong? There are scholarships for those too.

You can find most of these from the financial aid office of the schools you are applying to, as well as your high school counselor. Your church or local community organizations may also offer grants and scholarships to students based on need or merit. If you have a part-time job, find out if your employer has a student aid program. Other benefits include: no credit checks, no cosigners, flexible payments based on income and no fee for paying off your federal student loan early. To apply for a federal student loan, go to studentaid.ed.gov.

Study Those Student Loans

There can be a world of difference between student loans. Before applying for a loan through a bank, look at what you may be able to get from the Federal Student Loan program. Unlike bank loans, federal loans don’t start accruing interest until you have finished school, giving you one less bill to worry about until after you graduate. Interest rates on Federal Student Loans are fixed and are usually lower than private loans. And, if you are in financial need, you will probably qualify for a subsidized student loan, which means the government will pay some of the interest for you.

If you are applying for a private loan, make sure you compare the interest rates and repayment plans that may be available to you. When comparing one loan to another, the most important thing to look at is the APR, or annual percentage rate. The APR should include the interest rate being charged for the loan as well as any fees you may need to pay. Be careful though and read the fine print. Some lending institutions may have fees over and above what is included in the APR.

Audit Your Housing Options

Another benefit of going to a local public college is that you may have the option to stay at home, saving you the cost of rent. If you have to move to go to school, take a good look at the housing options, which could save you hundreds of dollars each month. Living in a dorm on-campus is certainly convenient, but if you can share the cost of rent with other students, getting an apartment or renting a house could save you a bundle by the end of the year.

Don’t limit your housing search to the campus area, which can often be expensive. Compare the cost of a bus pass and living a few miles from campus – preferably near a main bus route or subway line. Spending an extra twenty minutes getting to school may seem like a waste of time, but it doesn’t have to be. It may be hard to believe now, but sitting on a bus is a good way to relax when you're overloaded with assignments. It's also a great time to catch up on your readings.

Research Your Textbook Options

As every college student soon finds out, textbooks are ridiculously expensive, often running between $60 to $100 (or even more) per book. A good way to cut down on this cost is to buy used textbooks instead of the new ones. You may be able to find them at a local bookstore that specializes in used textbooks. If not, you can usually find them from other students.

When you're finished with your books, sell them to the next generation of students to reduce your net cost to practically nothing.

This money saving tip comes with a catch though. Many textbooks are published as new editions every year, with new content and different page numbers. Some profs will insist on using the most recent edition, while others are more accommodating. Before paying money for a used edition, find out which edition your class will be using first.

Trust Your Mom (or Dad, or Uncle, of Aunt, or ...)

If you don’t know how to yet, spend some time with your mom or a family member or friend to pick up a few new skills. Knowing how to cook for yourself can cut your food budget considerably, plus give you a healthier menu than what’s available at the local pizza joint. If you don’t have access to a stove in the dorm, learn how to make use of the microwave. Potatoes, pasta and rice can all be cooked in the microwave and each cost about the same as those beloved ramen noodles many of your classmates will be consuming.

If you are living on campus, ask about the meal plans that are available from the cafeteria. If you do get a meal plan, use it for every meal you can.

While you’re talking to mom, find out what laundry detergent she uses and ask her why you need to separate whites from colors. This will prevent you from having to buy a new wardrobe.

About the Author

A published author and professional speaker, David Weedmark has advised businesses and governments on technology, media and marketing for more than 20 years. He has taught computer science at Algonquin College, has started three successful businesses, and has written hundreds of articles for newspapers and magazines throughout Canada and the United States.