4 Ways to Drastically Cut Your College Costs and Avoid (or Minimize) Student Loans

May 29, 2014

The best way to deal with student debt is to never accumulate it to begin with – if you’re already deep in debt, we’ve got tons of advice in this blog to help you pay off your loans faster. But if you’re just starting school or heading back to school, today we look at the best way to avoid student debt. College is one of the best ways to ensure you have the career you want and a brighter financial future, but if you amass an overwhelming pile of debt to do so, you can risk it all. Instead, college should be done as cheaply as possible.

Tuition increases and college costs

Combat rising college costs by cutting corners on costs
Image source: Maryland GovPics via Flickr Creative Commons

#1 Opt for Dual Enrollment Over A/P Courses

Juniors and seniors have a couple of different options for their last years of high school. First is that you can put a whole lot of time and effort into A/P courses, take the test, hope for a high score and then hope that your college gives you credit for the course. Some colleges will allow you to use the credit as it’s intended, while others will use it to fulfill a pre-requisite to get into a more challenging class and still others may utilize it for an elective. Instead, consider dual enrollment. Many school systems will foot the bill for high school juniors and seniors to enroll at a local state university and take college courses. Done right, you may be able to bank a full year of credits on the school system’s dime to cut your college costs.

#2 Don’t Live or Eat on Campus

Room, board and meal plans are one of the most costly aspects of college. Room and board runs about $10,000 at most colleges – public or private – give or take a few hundred bucks here or there. For a nine month school year, that’s over $1,000 a month. Living at home is the cheapest option and (hopefully) your parents will let you bunk for free. If your school isn’t close to home, look for another relative that may take you in. The next best is to get a cheap apartment and share it with several others. Piling two to a room in an apartment is just as comfortable as a dorm room. And eating ramen in your own place is cheaper than the meal plan, and then you can brown bag it for lunch.

#3 Go to a Community College as Long as Possible

State schools are cheaper than private universities and cheaper still is to start out at community college for your core courses. Find out which community college is in the same university system as your target state institution and take as many courses as you can there. You can check out your course of study for your major and run through as much of the cheaper course roster as you can. You can talk to the admissions counselors and professors in the department of your major to make sure you are on track and taking appropriate classes. Community colleges are much cheaper than state schools and drastically cheaper than private institutions. Take advantage.

#4 Work, work, work (then work some more)

You may prefer not to work while in college because you know you’ll be working the rest of your life (at least until retirement). This take-it-easy attitude is not the smartest strategy for your future financial well-being. You should be working now while in high school, part time after school and full time in the summer. While in school, part time work is manageable, as is full time work in the summer. Paying cash for as much of your college expenses as possible is wise even if it cuts into what you consider your “college experience.” Partying, hanging out with friends and a sense of fraternity is great, but not graduating deep in debt is even better.

#5 Take the school that offers you the very best deal

You may have a specific school in mind either because you’ve dreamed of it since you were a kid, because your parents or grandparents went there or because of a prestige factor. But, in fact, there are likely a great many schools that can get you to the degree you need for the career you want just as well as your school of choice. Graduating deep in debt is not what you want. Even if you’re going to be raking in the big bucks within a few years, a major amount of student loans will put a damper on your finances. Instead, consider taking the school that offers you the best financial aid package and hopefully that will have you taking out no loans or very little. This is what’s best for your finances in both the short and long-term.

One of the best things you can do for yourself if you have to borrow to finance school is to keep a close eye on how much you’re borrowing. Sign up for Tuition.io’s free student loan tool to always know how much you owe and how much this translates to in monthly payments. It’s amazing how much this information will convince you that minimizing debt is the best-case scenario for you.