Decide to stay out of debt before you start school

student debtCredit: flikr

The cost of college tuition has been going up at a crazy rate recently and many young people are worried about how they’ll be able to afford higher education.  You can take out a bunch of loans, but since there is no way to guarantee that you’ll get a job after graduation, the prospect of acquiring a lot of debt before you turn 25 is pretty daunting.

A better plan is to try to get your degree without going into debt.  Here are some ideas of cost-cutting tactics that I did, and some that my friends did.

Go slow, and pay as you go

This isn’t really cheaper, but it does keep you from going into debt.  It involves either working and taking a smaller course load, or working for a few months, then being a full-time student for a few months.  There used to be a lot of people who would work in the canneries or on the fishing boats in Alaska during the season, save up a bunch of money, then come back and take classes.  I’m not sure if this particular avenue is still available, but the idea of working many hours or several jobs can apply even if you don’t leave your home town.  An ideal situation would be to find a job in your intended field, or close to it, and get some experience as you get your education.

If you want your degree bad enough, you won’t mind that it takes longer.  When I was an undergraduate, I knew a man that was working towards a degree in agriculture.  The problem was, he was a full time farmer and could only afford the time to take classes during the winter.  The reality that his bachelor’s degree would take 12-15 years was irrelevant; he was doing what he loved, and learning how to do it better, nothing else mattered.

Apply for scholarships

Why not?  It takes some time, true, but if you get a few thousand it can make a big difference in your finances.  Also look into financial aid and student work programs.

Stay home

Apartments and dorm rooms are expensive. If your parents are willing and able to provide you with room and board, you’ll save a lot of money by taking advantage of it.  The UW suggests that students budget almost $11,000 for room and board, if not living at home.   I know, living with your parents is really the last thing you want to do, but this idea fits well with the next one:

Choose an in-state school

When you compare in-state vs out-of-state tuition, the difference is phenomenal.  Is that school across the country really worth paying three times as much tuition (UW 2013 tuition costs[1])?  Unless your field of study is something incredibly specialized, chances are you will be just as marketable after completing your degree at your state’s preeminent schools.

Get the basics at a community college

This is more than a cost saving tip, it’s an educational tip.  Community colleges are quite a bit less expensive, and most of the credits transfer directly to a university.  So, take your pick, you can take English 101 for $100 a credit, or for $440 a credit (2013 rates for North Seattle Community College[2] and University of Washington[3]).  Which one sounds better to you?  And the educational bonus?  Smaller classes at a community college mean you’re likely to have better access to a professor if you need help.  When I was at UW, they actually recommended that you take your required classes at a CC if you thought you might have trouble.

Have work pay for it

It’s pretty hard these days to find a job that will reimburse you for taking classes, but many schools allow their employees to take classes for free, or at a greatly reduced rate.  In Washington State, working at one state school entitles you to take free classes at any of the state schools[4].  You pay a small registration fee, and maybe some other small fees, but substantially less than the actual costs.  You are limited to classes with space available, but I managed to talk my way into a few key courses by going to the professor and explaining how important the class was to me.  Instructors like enthusiasm.

Leave home

If you have to go to that school across the country, move there and get a job before you apply.  You’ll get residency after a year and once you’re no longer claimed as a dependent on your parents’ taxes you may qualify for a reduced rate.  Another tip someone told me:  check the residency requirements at the community college.  You may be able to start taking a few classes at resident rates without waiting a full year.

Don’t screw up

If you fail a class, not only do you mess up your academic record, you pay a lot of money to do it.  Don’t take more credits than you can reasonably handle, and don’t be afraid to withdraw if you find you’ve overstretched yourself.  Paying for the same class twice is a real budget-buster.  And embarrassing.

Assorted other stuff

Save on books by shopping used and buying online when possible.  To get the best deals you need to start looking as soon as you know what the books are – the good deals go pretty quickly.  If a class uses the same book every year, try to get one from a friend, or stalk the prices online and buy when it’s the cheapest.  If possible, check out the book from the library for the semester.  Take advantage of free internet access at the library and free showers at the athletic center.  Find out when the movie nights are at the dorms for free entertainment, or find free walking and biking trails.  Volunteering is always fun too.

These ideas are not independent; mix and match to find ways to reduce your costs and make your education a bit more affordable.  Avoid debt as much as possible, even if it means taking a little longer to complete your education.  Better to spend a couple extra years learning instead of 10 extra years paying off loans.