7 Ways to Reduce College Debt and Cut College Costs by (Tens of) Thousands of Dollars

Indentured Student - CartoonCredit: DonkeyHotey: http://www.flickr.com/photos/47422005@N04/6304808136

Ah, it’s the time of year again. College acceptance letters are in full swing and students all over the country are shrieking for joy are crying in disappointment. It’s a time when students are dreaming of a starting college in a few months. The hallowed halls. The lovely traditions. The lifelong friendships. The wonderful faculty… 

Screeeech. That’s the sound of the needle going across the record of the movie sound track when reality sets in about college costs. College is one of the most (if not the most) expensive investments that students and parents will make in their lifetimes. If you are relying on loans to see the dream through, college debt can be astronomical. Everyone is looking for ways to reduce college costs. With a little creativity and a lot of persistence, there are many things that you can do to shave significant money off of the tuition bill.

RELATED: Cut College Costs While In High School: Two Programs that Really Work

Start by thinking about the advertised tuition cost as the sticker price, much like the sticker price on a car. You wouldn’t pay full price for a car, would you? Don’t pay full price for tuition. You’d be amazed at the different costs that students pay for their college education, even when they are in the same income bracket. Reduce your college costs with these money saving ideas.

Belkin Slim 15.4" Notebook Polyester Backpack, Black/Light Gray
Amazon Price: $49.99 Too low to display Buy Now
(price as of Jun 10, 2015)

1. Negotiate Your Financial Award Package

When students are accepted to multiple colleges and receive multiple award packages, plain and simple, play the colleges against each other. Insist that the college offering less aid beat the aid packages of colleges offering more aid. You want more internal grants or scholarships, not loans. Your goal is to create a package where you are paying the least amount out of pocket and taking out the least amount of loans. Colleges are facing stiff competition for students. Every student counts. Use this to your advantage. Remember that honey attracts more flies than vinegar so always be very nice, firm, but nice, when talking with the aid officers. While negotiating your financial aid package may not work at all schools, you’d be silly not to try. It could save you thousands and seriously save you from a lot of college debt.

2. Return the Portion of the School Loan You Don’t Need

Many times the college loan that you obtained is for an amount greater than you need once the grants, scholarships and out-of-pockets costs are applied to tuition. That left over loan amount does not go back to the loan company. Instead, colleges refund this money directly to the student. Students will often use this money to buy books (see below) or other school necessities like a computer. Sometimes the money is used for not so scholarly endeavors, like buying college gear or entertainment. Either way, you will be racking up college debt and paying interest on that loan. Don’t let that $20 sweatshirt turn into a $1000 sweatshirt. Find a more cost-effective way to buy books and return the unused portion of your loans to the loan company and save thousands of dollars in future interest payments.

3. Cut College Costs and Save on Books

After tuition and room and board (if you will be living on campus), books will be the single most expensive thing to buy. It’s also a huge money making racket. Every semester or year at most, textbooks “update” to a new edition, changing a few words so that you’ll have to buy the latest one. Faculty looking to sell their books make their books required reading, forcing students to purchase them. Books now come bundled with unwanted and little used study guides and DVD extras that pump up the price. Depending on the courses, books can cost $1500-2000 a semester. Grand larceny! Don’t pay that much for books that you won’t use after the course. There are alternate ways to get cheap college textbooks. Colleges hope you won’t use them because paying full price at the college bookstore nets them more money.

  • Rent Your Textbooks: Online textbook rental companies can save you thousands overBoringCredit: addedentry: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8494076@N03/2291494640 the course of your college career. Chegg, eBay half.com, even companies like Barnes & Noble who run many campus bookstores offer book rental programs. You can rent your books for at least half the price of buying them and return them at the end of the semester.
  • eBay: Always check out online auction sites to see if your book is for sale. You may not be able to find every book you need, but by combining options you can save a significant amount of money.
  • Borrow Your Books from the College Library: College libraries tend to have generous borrowing privileges. If your college library will allow you to renew a few times during the semester use this old school method and snap up your textbook(s) FAST if your library has them. They usually have at least one copy that can be borrowed. Early bird definitely gets the worm here. Do this a few times and you have essentially gotten your textbook(s) for FREE and saved yourself some unnecessary college debt.
  • Don’t Sell Your Books Back to College Bookstore: The bookstore will literally give you pennies on the dollar for your two hundred dollar textbook. Sell your book online or directly and get a better return.

4. Living On Campus? Demand a Lower Cost Meal Plan

College meal plans are straight up money makers. Take the cost of providing the meals, double UC Berkeley DormitoryCredit: prayitno: http://www.flickr.com/photos/34128007@N04/4329791030it and that’s the price students pay. Most colleges make new students who are living on campus purchase the most expensive meal plan. Usually the three meal a day plan. The rationale is that it is the student’s first time away from home and it’s a way to insure that they are getting enough nutrition. Baloney (no pun intended. Maybe).

Tell the college that you insist on purchasing a lower cost meal plan or you will move off campus. Moving off campus means that the college will also lose the revenue generated from housing, and they don’t want that. If you are told no, go up the chain to the president if necessary. This may not work at all colleges, but it works often enough to try. You may be known as the pain in the neck student or parent, but it’s better to be that with thousands of dollars in your pocket than the nice student or parent building up more college debt.

5. Why Live on Campus at All? Commute!

There is some research that indicates that students who live on campus tend to fare better academically. There is no question that living on campus makes it easier to get connected and be active and involved. All things being equal I would advocate for every student to live on campus if they could. But you have to ask yourself, is it worth going into major debt over? After four years, you’ll spend tens of thousands of dollars on housing and meal plans. That’s some serious college debt potential. Yes, it is more difficult for students who commute to be as active on campus or as connected. But that is only because it takes more effort. I have known many commuter students who were just as, if not more involved in college than their residential counterparts. As long as you know in advance that it may not be as easy, and you make a plan (and stick to it) to become involved, your time as a commuter in college will be as rich as those who live on campus. Plus you’ll save thousands of dollars a year.

College Care Package - All American Favorites Snack Pack
Amazon Price: $46.97 Buy Now
(price as of Jun 10, 2015)

Some schools have a residency requirement, meaning they make students live on campus for a certain number of years. It’s for the good of the student so that s/he can achieve more academically, make connections and get involved, blah, blah, blah. Don’t believe the hype. It is first and foremost a way to guarantee revenue. If you want to attend a college that has this requirement but you’d rather commute, insist that you receive a waiver or you’ll attend another college. With college competition being as fierce as it is, especially at the smaller colleges, you have a good chance of being granted the exception. If your child lives too far to commute from home, make sure that living off campus will actually be cheaper. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it is not.

6. Graduate Early

Why not graduate early and literally save yourselves tens of thousands of dollars in tuition costs? The typical four-year college degree requires about 120 credits. That averages 15 credits a semester for eight semesters, or four years. Students pay one amount for a full-time credit load, usually starting at 12 credits. Most colleges allow you to take more than the 15 credit per semester average. Add a few more credits per semester and you could easily graduate a semester early, saving thousands of dollars and reducing your college debt.

RELATED: Two Ways to Graduate College Early and Save Thousands on College Costs

7. Attend a Community College First

Times are a-changin’ and community colleges are meeting the needs of cash strapped parentsBad Credit History?Credit: natloans: http://www.flickr.com/photos/53500715@N08/5792929304 and students by providing an excellent education at a tremendous value. Attend a community college for two years, receive your associates degree, transfer to a four year school, cut college costs and literally save tens of thousands of dollars. Let’s compare. A small liberal arts college near me charges $30,000 a year for tuition. The local community college charges $6000 a year. By attending the community college first and then transferring to the liberal arts college, you’d save more than $48,000 (remember, the cost of tuition will most likely rise over the four years).

You could save even MORE money if your state provides tuition assistance to attend community college. For instance, the state of New Jersey has a NJ STARS program that provides free tuition to students (New Jersey Residents) in the top 15% of their class who attend a New Jersey community college. The program also provides a scholarship to students who complete their associates degree and transfer to a four year college in New Jersey to complete their bachelor’s degree. Just add up the potential savings. Yes there are tradeoffs such as losing the opportunity to be the valedictorian of your four year school (that honor is only given to students who spent their entire college career at a single four year school), or making friends at your new four year school later than others. Is it worth it? That’s a $48,000 or more question.

Paying for college can be stressful. College tuition rates keep increasing and it can be easy to feel as if there is some fleecing going on. Use these money saving techniques to cut college costs, reduce your college debt and keep the fleece on your own back.