The average tuition for a four-year US public college will cost you a steep $10,000 per year according to The College Board, while private colleges may charge a budget-busting $30,000-plus annually. And graduate programs cost up to double those amounts, depending on the type of graduate-level program.
Unfortunately, that's only the beginning. Once you tack on course fees, textbooks, travel and personal expenses that can add up to thousands of dollars in extra costs, you may begin to think college is unaffordable.
But don't throw away your dreams of a diploma just yet. Even though higher education isn't getting any less expensive, here are plenty of steps you can take now to drastically slash your college costs over the next few years:
1. Buy or Rent Textbooks Online
The average college student spends more than $1,000 every year buying books and supplies for class according to The College Board. While many still choose to purchase books at their on-campus book store -- which, despite being convenient, tends to have high markups and fewer low-price used books -- there are three great alternatives available for buying books online:
E-Books: Websites like Cengage.com offer e-books that can be downloaded to your computer for up to 40% off the cost of the physical book, while Bartelby.com offers e-books for free.
Used Books: Purchase textbooks in good condition from Amazon.com or similar online stores for a fraction of the cost of new ones. A pre-owned textbook may have its past owner's margin notes included, but they probably won't hurt your learning experience or test scores.
Rented Books: Chegg.com and Campusbookrentals.com offer rentals and charge based on how long you need it. Chegg says students can save up to 90% by renting over buying textbooks.
2. Use Campus Computers and Printers
If you've already paid thousands in tuition expenses and other fees for higher education, why not take advantage of the technology that the school offers for free?
Make use of expensive software programs typically installed on campus machines such as Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Suite and video editing software instead of buying it and loading it on your own computer to complete assignments.
If your school doesn't charge expensive fees by the page, use on-campus computers to print your 20-page reports. One new ink cartridge for your own computer will set you back $30, and you're sure to go through several of them in a year.
3. Load Up on Courses Each and Every Semester
If you're only taking a 12 credit hour course load (approximately 4 full classes) for the semester, you may not be saving as much as you could on tuition.
Bulk Savings: Many universities charge the same tuition for a 12-hour semester course load as an 18-hour semester course load, which would give you 50% more class for the same price. If the average public university charges $5,000 for tuition per semester, that means you'd pay $139 less for each credit hour if you took an 18-hour course load instead of a 12-hour load during the semester.
Summer Savings: During the summer, take advantage of your community college's general education courses that offer transferable credit to your four-year school. You can take and eliminate many of your major's prerequisite courses over the summer for thousands of dollars less.
Early-Graduate Savings: Loading up on college courses will allow you to finish school sooner, saving you hundreds on travel expenses (which costs the average student more than $1,000 per year says The College Board) and more than $5,000 to $15,000 in tuition if you manage to graduate a semester early. An early graduation will also give you an early start towards a great career.
4. Schedule Classes More Carefully (For Commuting Students)
While you're adding a couple more classes to your course load, it would be wise to put some thought into how you set up your course schedule.
If you're not living on campus, scheduling courses as close together as possible will save you a ton on fuel expenses. Small breaks in between classes are nice, but having four-hour stretches or having class every other day will create a lot of unnecessary back and forth driving between home and school.
Another idea is to look for once-a-week classes. These classes are usually designed for working-adults who can only attend class in the evening, but they also work for anyone looking to take fewer trips to and from school. The gasoline savings will add up quickly.
5. Work Study
If it's still difficult to make ends meet after cutting expenses down to the bone, you'll need to find a way to increase your income stream. Looking for a traditional job that works with your schedule may be ideal, but another great option for students is to fill out a FAFSA form to see if they're eligible for the Federal Work Study Program (FWSP).
If you demonstrate financial need, your college may allow you to participate in the FWSP. Under the program, you will work for your college and be paid up to an allotted amount (to be determined by your college's financial aid office) per semester. Unlike a normal job, income received under the Work Study program doesn't count against the amount of financial aid you may receive in the future.
Added Benefit: The experience will also help add credential to your resume and sharpen your skills.
You may not be able to control every cost that your school passes on to you, but just a few lifestyle changes and some careful planning can go a long way in shaving thousands off the cost of higher education. And the less you have to pay in college expenses, the less you'll have to worry about student loan debt after graduation.
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