How Will You Pay for College?

Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series by Jenna Ashley Robinson in which she gives advice about important college decisions.

So, you’ve decided to go to college. Can you afford it?

Your first step in paying for college should be to recognize that you need a plan. It will require time, research, and a dedication to a budget. In my case, I left that step up to my parents, which was a mistake. Not taking on an active role (or even understanding the financing plan) meant that I borrowed more money than I really needed and spent money foolishly.

The first part of your plan is to determine how much money you’ll need for each year of college. You should add up all your expected expenses: tuition, student fees, room and board, books, and incidentals. Colleges and universities list tuition and fees on their Web sites. In most cases, university housing and dining services also have Web pages. If you plan to spend a semester abroad (or even a summer), consult the school’s study-abroad office to include estimated prices in your budget.

Then, examine your possible sources of money to pay for college. These can include:

Next, choose which of these sources you’ll use to pay for college. As George Leef has explained before, going to college guarantees a lot of expenses, but does not guarantee compensating rewards. Since you can’t be certain of future earnings, look to scholarships, savings, family contributions, work-study and current income to pay for college before you mortgage your future. (I’ll address sources for loans and scholarships more in a future article.)

Lastly, spend your money wisely. Education is costly, but there are many ways to trim costs—from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand:

  • Look beyond the U.S. News rankings. You can get a great education without going to an expensive school. Apply to colleges with good programs in your chosen department, not just top-ranked (and often expensive) schools. If you haven’t yet chosen a department, you should pick a school that has a variety of fields to choose from. For the serious student, almost any respectable school can provide you with a good education. (For additional rankings, click here.)
  • Take Advanced Placement courses in high school. Taking five AP courses—and scoring well on the exams—can help you graduate a semester earlier. Not only will you save tuition money, you’ll also enter the job market with fewer competitors graduating at the same time.
  • Don’t apply to too many colleges. When I was a high school senior, I applied to seven universities. Looking back, I think that was probably too many. I should have known that I wouldn’t get past my dream school’s waiting list. And, although it’s a good school, I also should have refrained from applying to the University of Florida, since I knew I didn’t want to move to Gainesville. The average college application fee is around $25. (Some colleges charge up to $60, while others don’t have an application fee at all.) Trimming your list of applications could save several hundred dollars. Better yet, you may be able to have some fees waived.
  • Start at a community college. If you don’t know what you want to study, take your first semester’s worth (or year’s worth) of general education courses at a community college. Almost all universities require the basics: introductory courses in mathematics, natural sciences, English, and social sciences. Taking those classes at a less expensive community college can help you discover which fields you enjoy before you decide on a four-year college.
  • Live in the dorms. At most schools, dorm living is cheap. The price includes water, power, and often Internet access (which will cost extra in most apartments). Live in the dorms for at least two years. If possible, choose a dormitory that organizes rooms in suites rather than halls. With a smaller number of students sharing bathrooms and other facilities, it gives you more privacy at the same low cost.
  • Save even more by living at home. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the average price of room and board at 4-year public universities in North Carolina was $5,253.00 per year for 2002-2003. At a private university, the price averaged $6,169.00. Living at home for even one year offers substantial savings. Staying there for all four years could save nearly $25,000.
  • Always buy used books. According to a 2008 Student Watch Survey, students spend an average of $702 on required course materials a year. Buying used can help trim expenses each semester. Private bookstores located off campus usually offer better prices than the official campus bookstore. To save even more money, sell back any books that aren’t in your major and that you won’t use in the future. The money you earn can offset the costs of next semester’s books. Buying online at sources like Amazon or is also an option.
  • Don’t join a fraternity or sorority. There are some benefits to Greek life: camaraderie, opportunities for community service, automatic study groups, and intramural teams. However, the price is high. Don’t use student loan money to pay for fraternity or sorority dues. If Greek life is a must, pay for it with money earned working part-time.
  • Avoid the party scene. (Or at least practice moderation.) University life already offers a lot of bells and whistles covered by your tuition and student fees: access to gymnasiums, Olympic-sized pools, intra-mural sports, computer labs, free newspapers, and athletic tickets. Take advantage of those things instead of splurging on concerts, partying, and fashion.
  • Always take a full load of classes. Figure out how many hours are required to graduate. Divide that number by 8 semesters. Take at least that number of hours every semester, in order to graduate on time. In most cases, it will be between 15 and 17 hours (although it will be fewer if you have AP credits!)
  • Don’t forget to claim your tax credits! There are two tax credits available to help you offset the costs of higher education by reducing the amount of your income tax. They are the Hope credit and the lifetime learning credit, also referred to as education credits.

By following this advice, you’ll be able to get a great education without breaking the bank.