A college education is necessary these days to land a good paying job. More advanced skills are needed in the work place as technology takes over the more manual jobs of the past. However, the cost of your education can be extremely high and the loans can follow you around for years. A public four year college for an in-state student is, on average, $9,400 per year. Tuition at the same school for an out-of-state student jumps to $23,900! That's a range of $37,600 - $95,600 for your degree! Thankfully there are ways to mitigate these costs and reduce your debt load.
Saving for College
Like many things in the financial world, time is one of your greatest assets. Start saving for college as early as possible. Now, if you are reading this and you are a senior in high school you don't have much time, but don't let that discourage you. Review your monthly budget and find a way to save where you can. Even $100 per month will help.
If you are reading this page as a parent or guardian of a someone preparing for college it would be worth your while to check out college 529 Savings Plans. These are great plans where you can invest money for your child's college and, when the time comes, they can withdraw the necessary funds tax free (assuming they are for school purposes). Typically, each state has their own plan and you can select which state's plan you want to invest in, even if you don't live in that state. Finally, your student's eligibility for financial aid won't be affected as long as they remain the beneficiary and you (the parent or guardian) remain the account owner.
Ways to Pay
Despite your best attempts and any savings provided by family members, you may find that you still need additional funds to cover the cost of college. The good news is, there is money available for those willing to put in the work and find it.
Financial Aid (FAFSA) - A very common form of financial aid for many students. You can visit there website and fill out a free applications. Not all applicants will be awarded aid as your income level, or that of your parents, and the cost of the school you will be attending are taken into consideration.
Scholarships - Free money! Sounds too good to be true, but if you qualify there are many organizations giving away money for students who attend colleges. Are you left handed? Studying a foreign language? Plan on majoring in underwater photography? There are scholarships for all of these. Check out more scholarships here. Be sure to ask your school's guidance counselor if they know of any other scholarships you should apply for.
Veteran Funds - If you or your family served in the military you may be entitled to funds from a veteran's organization.
Work Study - This is a good deal for many students. You work for your school, which pays an hourly salary that goes towards your tuition. The benefit of a work study program is that the school is flexible with your class schedule.
Grants - Grants are similar to scholarships in that they don't need to be paid back. One common type of grant is the Federal Pell Grant. You apply when you fill out FAFSA application for financial aid.
Part Time Work - While you are in school try and pick up a few hours per week working. Even if you can only work weekends, every amount you are able to earn can help you pay for classes.
Get Creative - Spend some time on Google. If you are pursuing a unique degree or have an unusual skill there may be money available for you. Also check out private student loan lenders to see if you can take advantage of better rates or terms. Take anything you can to reduce the amount of debt you incur for your degree.
Extra Costs to Consider
Most students preparing for college know that tuition isn't cheap, but there are other costs to consider before beginning your freshman year.
- Books - No joke, books can be one of the most expensive things you will buy in your college career. I remember purchasing a business law book during my freshman year for $350 and that isn't even the most expensive book in the store! Before going to the bookstore, check out Amazon.com, Ebay and Chegg.com to see if you can find a used copy or rent the book for the semester. I personally like Chegg because they usually send a little surprise when you order books and return shipping is included.
- Rent + Utilities - If you are moving to attend college you need to consider rent, utilities and other living costs. If you plan on staying at the dorms be sure to review requirements for meal plans, this can increase your costs very fast.
- Health + Medical Expenses - Many schools require students to maintain a minimum level of health insurance while attending school. If you don't have insurance through family or work you will need to sign up with a school plan.
Making a Plan
Planning for your college education in advance can really help you save time and money. By your senior year, at the latest, begin thinking seriously about the below topics:
School Choice - This goes without saying, but carefully consider which school you would like to attend. Consider the pros and cons of attending a school that is in-state versus out-of-state. This decision could greatly impact the cost of your education.
Living Arrangements - If you stay in-state and live close enough to home will you stay with mom and dad for a few more years or find your own apartment? It might seem like you can't wait to be out on your own, but the financial burden you remove by living at home shouldn't be ignored. If you do decide to go out-of-state, will you be able to live with other relative or will you stay in the dorms?
Costs and a Budget - Spend some time thinking about your expenses for college. Besides tuition and books think about food and living costs as well as entertainment and any debts you currently owe. Create a budget that works for you and stick to it!
Selecting a Degree - This will be important in determining which school you want to attend. Some schools have better reputations than others in certain areas. An important factor not to overlook is what your future earnings potential will be with your desired degree. If you discover that your highest career earnings may only be $50,000 per year, you need to carefully consider if going to a school that will put you $250,000 in debt is a good idea. Could you get the same degree from a less expensive school?
Going to college is a fun and exciting adventure that is (hopefully) educational. You should commit to making time to properly prepare and do what you can today to reduce your future student loan debt load. As of 2016 about 40 million Americans held college debt. If you can find a way to not be a part of this group you will graduate with an education and a great advantage in that you will be debt free.