Strategies for an affordable college education

As you gaze at your newborn or newly adopted son or daughter, one of these thoughts may run through your head:

  • “Will I be able to afford to put you through school?”
  • Am I required to put you through school?
  • “Right now it’s all I can do to pay for Pampers and child care. I’ll worry about college later.”

Time has a way of sneaking up on us. Seemingly overnight, that gurgling infant morphs into a 12th-grader looking at college or vocational education.

According to The College Board, tuition and fees (but not housing) at U.S. colleges in academic year 2014-15 ranged from $9,139 (state residents at public college) to $22,958 (out-of-state residents at public universities) to $31,231 (private colleges).

Can’t afford to pay out of pocket? You’re not alone. That’s why I think parents should craft not a college plan but rather a college strategya collection of tactics that, taken together, will reduce or even eliminate the need to borrow.

The recent “How America Pays For College” report from Sallie Mae notes that parents are covering 38 percent of college costs (mostly through current income and savings), while students are paying for 27 percent with savings, income and loans. Scholarships, grants and gifts account for the rest.

Strategic planning

Some students reported cost-cutting tactics like choosing less-expensive schools, living at home, seeking scholarships/grants, reducing personal spending and working at least during school breaks (70 percent worked year-round).

These choices could be part of your own family’s college strategy. So could one or more of these:

  • Enlist the relatives. When auntie or grandpa asks for gift ideas, request the money be put into savings vs. spent on a toy. Don’t most kids already have enough toys?
  • Seek “dual enrollment” programs. Some states let motivated students attend community college while in high school.
  • Take Advanced Placement classes and pass AP exams for credit. The $91 exam fee may be lowered if you can demonstrate need.
  • Check out “top scholar” programs. Alaska students who graduate in the top 10 percent get free tuition at the state university. Other states have similar programs.
  • Get an education from your rich uncle, i.e., join the military. (Not for everyone, obviously.)
  • Become a resident assistant to save on dorm fees. (Again, not for everyone.)
  • Google “colleges with free tuition.” Maybe one would be a good fit.
  • Graduate early! Take summer classes or extra ones during the school year. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities has a list of three-year degree programs.
  • Work it off through college loan forgiveness programs from the National Health Services Corps, Teach for America, the U.S. military or AmeriCorps.
  • Pay by the month. Some colleges let you make regular payments. Scholarships plus savings plus work-study plus whatever family contributes could get you through, 30 days at a time. (Again: Supportive relatives might give you $50 — or $500 — in cash on your birthday or at Christmas. It adds up.)

An affordable college education

Have this family discussion early on, not in the middle of 12th grade. I’d bet my paycheck for this piece that some of you 20- and 30-something readers wish you’d had that conversation before signing for all those student loans.

After all, young people are shouldering much of the debt. One-third of students borrowed last year, with federal loans averaging $8,454 (up from $7,788 in 2014) and private loans $12,102 (quite an increase from last year’s $9,375).

Run sample numbers through a student loan repayment calculator with your teen. Yes, this seems far away. But try to imagine life with student loans and a starter salary — or maybe no salary for a while, if you graduate into a sluggish economy. (That alone is good cause to open an online savings account and start saving like crazy!)

This advice may fall on semi-stopped ears. After all, young people are 10 feet tall and bulletproof. Clearly they’ll get excellent jobs — scratch that, “dream” jobs — before the ink dries on their diplomas.

May that happen! But create a multifaceted college strategy even if you are convinced your Baby Einstein will get multiple degrees on full scholarship.

Best-case scenario: Those scholarships materialize, a relative leaves a huge educational bequest, the family cat’s YouTube channel brings in millions or you hit the lottery.

Worst-case scenario: None of the above happens, but the college strategy gets your kid through without undue (or any) loans. Which, come to think of it, is also a best-case scenario.

How did you save for your own education and/or will you save for a child’s? Share your tips and challenges in the comments!

More about...Education, Planning

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There are 53 comments to "Strategies for an affordable college education".

  1. Maggie says 31 July 2015 at 04:23

    These are great tips! I would also add, if you are divorced and your decree does not specify, to start honest and productive conversations with your former spouse and child(ren) as soon as possible. Every state has different laws and you may end up with the unpleasant surprise (as we did) that the court system might expect parents to pay 100% of costs. If you are splitting up, please hash out college tuition and spending in your agreement to save yourself an unhappy surprise later!

    • slccom says 31 July 2015 at 11:44

      Or you can end up with the situation my mother-in-law pulled, lying to her daughter that her ex-husband was refusing to pay for her college. A few years ago “Betty” got a copy of the divorce agreement and saw that her mother was required to pay for college. “Betty” resented her father, who is a saint on earth, for decades because of those lies. I believe that she is transfering her resentment to the one who deserves it.

  2. Tina in NJ says 31 July 2015 at 04:46

    My son will graduate with about $30,000 in student loans. He is currently working 3 jobs, but that money is going to his car lease and credit cards. He has rich tastes and no perspective. We consciously had him get loans because this is his education, not ours. He needs some skin in the game. I nearly freaked when he came home with an iPad and a credit card his freshman year, but he has to learn from experience. Now that the end (of college) is near, Mom and Dad are starting to get smart again.

  3. Philip says 31 July 2015 at 05:22

    A strategy not mentioned that my wife and I have been using for years…

    Don’t wait until you have a child to begin saving for their college. To the extent you can afford to do so (without sacrificing other, more important goals like saving for retirement), go ahead and open up a 529 plan today and begin funding it aggressively — before you have the expenses of Pampers and child care! Simply make yourself or your spouse the beneficiary, and once your child is finally born and receives a Social Security number, change the beneficiary to him/her.

    By the time our first born opens his eyes for the first time, we’ll have almost 10 years of contributions and bull market growth under our belts.

    • Donna Freedman says 31 July 2015 at 12:25

      Save before they’re born — I like that!

    • Jon says 04 August 2015 at 14:26

      That is exactly what we did, started a 529 account with bi-monthly contributions and 2% quarterly contributions from our 529 credit card. Recently my wife decided to pursue her Master’s Degree which will increase our income by $40k a year. The degree is going to cost half of that so the ROI is immediate. While trying to figure out how to pay for it without dipping into savings I remembered the 529 can be used for any higher education for anyone in the family, there’s enough to cover it 100%.

      I’m pulling the money out per semester and putting it into a savings account but charging it to a 0% for 21 months and whatever is remaining will get transferred to another 0% for 15 months (with no transfer fee if the Chase card is still offered then), otherwise if there is any balance remaining I’ll use the 529 money sitting in savings to pay it off.

  4. JoeM says 31 July 2015 at 05:56

    As someone that attended a private out of state university whose yearly cost is now over $50,000/year (was high, but not quite high when I was enrolled) and is also getting a second degree at a $95/credit hour community college, the difference really is negligible.

    Is there a difference in amenities, campus life, and all the fun stuff that goes with living on campus? Sure. Is it worth $45,000/year more? No.

    At both schools, there’s lazy druggies and idiots in your 100-200 level classes just scraping by doing the minimum. At both schools, once you hit your higher level major classes, it’s just the people who really want to be there. Evening classes at a local CC are particularly impressive – the one person who got a better grade than me in my class is the 30 year old mother of three who also works full-time. It’s incredible the amount people in those evening classes juggle.

    I’d push my kids for AP, dual enrollment, and first two (or more) years at a local community college. Many community colleges in my state have agreements with the state universities to even get 2.5-3 years of classes at the community college and the last year at the university, depending on the major. For the social aspect, go visit your friends on a weekend up to the big state school to make some dumb choices.

    • Kate says 31 July 2015 at 11:41

      JoeM, I couldn’t agree more. Community College is no longer the “Grade 13” that people used to sneer at. Both of the kids went to the local community college and I was completely satisfied with the education they received (and I teach at the CC level!). I would just caution people to make sure their local state university will accept the credits. The better the student’s grades, the more credits are accepted, as a rule.

      • Donna Freedman says 31 July 2015 at 12:39

        I had one year of college before life intervened. In my late 40s I decided to go back. North Seattle Community College is where I began, and I’m thankful that I did.

        It give me a chance to ease back into higher ed: smaller classes where the teachers actually recognized me, affordable tuition/fees, a financial aid department that walked me through the process of applying for help. I had some GREAT instructors there, too.

        Even more important was the existence of a scholarship to the University of Washington available ONLY to students transferring from community colleges. Applied and got one. With that three-year deal plus grants, smaller scholarships and work-study I wound up getting my education for free.

        The article does include a link to the “MatchMaker” tool, which helps you determine whether community college credits will transfer. Agree that families should consider this option, especially if dual enrollment is possible.

      • JoeM says 01 August 2015 at 06:21

        The transfer/articulation agreements can be difficult to understand at times, so I definitely recommend talking to an adviser if necessary to make sure all your credits carry over.

        When I sign up for three classes (11 credits) and the total cost is $1,000-1,200, I just laugh in comparison to my old school’s tuition. Luckily I’m in a position to pay for the second degree out of pocket while aggressively paying off my first degree’s student loans.

    • Carla says 31 July 2015 at 14:05

      I agree with you regarding CC and evening classes. I am going for dual enrollment at my local CC and state university. Why pay big bucks for basic classes? I love the diversity (age, experiences, etc) that I get at my CC – I don’t feel like the lone “older” student. Older students and veterans tend to offer the most dynamic perspective, especially in my liberal arts classes. I had one class where we had veterans from Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and Iraq/Afghanistan. It was a great learning experience for me.

  5. lmoot says 31 July 2015 at 07:22

    I was a lazy kid and so I didn’t go after any scholarships (huge regret). Strangely enough I got accepted by every school I applied to. My family paid for my education which was the best gift they could have ever given me, but I wish for their sake that they pushed for the methods listed here. I live near a great community college that I could have gone to for 2 years, though I took a couple AP classes in high school. I would have qualified for certain scholarships but missed the deadline/ didn’t know about it. My family was just happy I was going to school because initially I didn’t want to start right away.

    Another one is going to school (or back to school) through your employer. Both full time jobs I’ve had offered free or deeply discounted/ tuition reimbursement. And pssssst….you don’t have to go to college right out of high school. Wait until you’ve discovered WHY you want to go. College is an expensive way to find yourself. I’d rather find myself by earning money and experience as a way to figure out what I want to do with my life.

  6. Kayla @ Femme Frugality says 31 July 2015 at 07:48

    I’m so lucky that I graduated with very few student loans. My parents helped me pay for college tuition, I got scholarships, and I worked my way through school. I usually took 18 credit hours/semester and worked 30-40 hours/week. It was tough at times, but I’m so glad I didn’t graduate with too much student loan debt.

  7. Jennifer B says 31 July 2015 at 08:10

    You missed a big one! Choose an in-state public school over an out of state or private school. The difference in cost is remarkable, and the in-state school might be close enough to enable you to live at home which would also cut your housing costs.

    • Donna Freedman says 31 July 2015 at 12:30

      Well, I alluded to it (choosing less-expensive schools and the in-state vs. out-of-state or private college fees) but you’re right: I should have been more specific.

    • HKR says 31 July 2015 at 15:04

      I would caution people not to make this assumption; you have to actually look at the numbers for each school and your particular situation. For example, comparing my state’s university to the private school I went to, which are twenty minutes apart: Room & Board for the state school is $20,650 for a resident of the state, while room/board at the private school is $29,800. If this is the only number you look at, it seems like the state school wins hands down. However, this particular private school gives a $5,000/year discount to Every student that participates in its campus involvement program, attending essentially one qualified activity per week, which range from viewing art galleries, to volunteering, watching movies in the auditorium, playing intramural sports or attending inter-school games. That still leaves a $4,800/year difference, but even outside the involvement discount, the private school averages a higher rate of scholarships per student, so for many the private school rate comes out equal to or less than the state’s. And again, it’s important to look at not just general rates, but also what each school is willing to offer you specifically; I was offered just $5,000/year in scholarships at the state school (meaning tuition, room, & board for a bachelors would have cost me $60k), but my 4yrs bachelors + 2yrs masters at the private school cost me $30k total (including books and misc fees). Moral of the story, don’t assume anything

      • stellamarina says 31 July 2015 at 18:37

        I have never heard of a discount for involvement in exta college programs before…..what a fabulous idea and shows that the college really is interested in the wider education of the student.

    • getagrip says 03 August 2015 at 10:57

      Each of my children had an out of state private school the were interested in provide enough in grants and four year scholarship as to make the cost of the private and in state public schools comparable. Gee, think that was an accident? Additionally neighboring states offered in-state prices as compared to our state where their public school tuition and fees were higher.

      So don’t be too quick to dismiss out of state or private schools out of hand if that is what you really want as long as you realize the comparison is likely a full price comparison to your in-state schools.

  8. Jason says 31 July 2015 at 08:25

    The strategy I am using for my son’s post-secondary education is broken into 3 parts:
    – 25% (about $10k) will come from me through RESP savings and so far I am on target
    – 25% (about $10k) will come from his mom (most likely through RESPs too)
    – 0-25% (up to $10k) will come from scholarships / awards / bursaries
    – 25-50% (up to $20k) will come from my son working during college/university/tech school

    To enable my son to earn his portion of his education costs, we are giving his lots of swim lessons so that he can be a lifeguard throughout his studies. They make good money and he can do it all year round. It gives him the chance to earn money, contribute directly to his education (so he tries harder and values it more), and build skills and confidence.

    In the end, I hope he can graduate with minimal or no student loans. Then he can avoid the burdensome load of student loans and have a bright and successful start to life.

    • Short arms long pockets says 05 August 2015 at 13:02

      Those numbers are per year – right?

  9. Doug says 31 July 2015 at 08:43

    I am not a huge fan of the AP classes. Probably because my tainted experience working that much harder so that I ‘might’ get some college credit. I only took two AP classes in the ’80’s in HS. I think I scored 3’s on both exams, so no credit for me at the institution I started at.

    I am more of the mindset of just take the classes at the local JC / CC and get the dual credit. Period. I know that it is an option locally. I have witnessed it and experienced it with my oldest son. Probably an easier class and ‘guaranteed’ credit. That is, you get the credit if you do the work and pass the class, but the credit is not just based on one exam.

    So I have an older son who has completed his degree with measurable college debt from a sexy, private school. Thankfully, he can live with his mom for two more years and aggressively pay off his share of the loans. And BTW, I put way more $$ into it than he did. Not worth the investment in hind sight. But it was cool and sexy at the time. We were star struck. Not a completely bad experience, but a pretty poor ROI.

    I have two more young sons. While we have some $$ saved for them, the plan will be much different. It will be community college and state school for undergrad (at least that is what I will help with). I will encourage high performance which may help them pursue advanced degrees on someone else’s dime, like maybe getting advanced degrees paid for by research assistantship positions, etc. ROTC / Military options will be encouraged (maybe highly encouraged) to help fund school pursuits. These will not be forced or oversold though. Those are great options for the right folks, but not for everyone.

    On the subject of state schools vs. private schools, I can tell you that in my industry – Civil Engineering (as in most, I suspect), success is achieved much less by where the diploma comes from, and more from what you do with it. Do you work hard, add value, give more than you are paid for, etc. Are you likeable? I think the old saying should go something more like this… “It’s not just what you know or even who you know, but who you know AND what they think about you.” I started at the private school and ended up at the public school. I work side by side with alum from many schools. The source of the diploma has very little to do with who does a great job. That probably comes more from internal drive and good parenting than it does from Cambridge or Palo Alto.

    I do think the name brand school probably pays off in a few industries, such as MBA from Ivy League / Stanford, etc. Especially if pursuing something like banking on Wall Street. But in most cases, I believe it is adequate to get the state school degree, work hard to be noticed, make connections, make friends in your industry, etc.

    One more thought along these lines. I live in So Cal. I was born here, raised here, studied here and now work here. So, finishing school at the local state school actually helped me to start networking with others in my same industry and locale several years before graduating. Many of those folks are now clients, that I might not know if I had crossed the country to study at some sexy program then return here to work. One more reason to consider studying locally, if you plan on working locally.

    And I would say that of the senior execs that I have worked with and for in my industry, the ones that I would say have succeeded in the upper say 5 or 10%, the success definitely is based on internal drive way more than it is based on the source of diploma.

    I used to think that college was always the best option unless and until you have a better option. I am not so sure about that now. Maybe JC / CC if you aren’t borrowing to make it happen. There are many other careers that pay well without college debt, but a drive to succeed is still important. I know equipment operators that make $80K plus per year. I know electricians making $100K plus per year. Check out some of Mike Rowe’s stuff on line. He makes some great points. And how about some computer certificate programs that allow folks to get to $80K or $100K per year over time, with little college but a lot of drive and continual growth.

    Did I get off target? I am just rambling now. My 0.02. Good luck in your pursuits.

    • Kate says 31 July 2015 at 11:45

      I think the College Level Exam Program (CLEP) is way overlooked. I was able to blast through 24 credits of English, History and Social Studies by taking these exams. It made a real difference for me. Are these exams still available?

      • Donna Freedman says 31 July 2015 at 12:32

        Yep, there’s still CLEP. Follow the link in the article.

    • getagrip says 03 August 2015 at 11:28

      With respect to AP courses, a “3” is not typically accepted for credit however many colleges would also reject a stand alone “C” grade from a community college as well particularly if the course is required for your major. Either path is fine, just get the grade or score the test, but don’t expect what they consider “lower” performance to necessarily be guaranteed for credits.

      • Karla says 04 August 2015 at 01:25

        I tell my high school students only take the AP classes you think you are passionate about. I remember sitting at freshman orientation and the family next to ours was just dumbstruck when told (I paraphrase) “yes, that’s nice that your daughter put all the effort into AP, community college. But we strongly believe our English program is important, and your daughter must hear how we want papers written, so we will grant 3 credits at most.”

        That, and most colleges will only grant credit in your non-major. Most science schools say the same thing…that’s nice you put all the effort into AP Bio/Chem/Enviro Science in high school, but for college credit, not so much.

        Now I have seen a very bright person pretty much AP-out of her first year of college.

        Remember, college is about for-profit any more (unfortunately)

        As for the financing, even if you waited until the last minute consider opening a 529. Earnings are still tax-free as you funnel money through there. You don’t get all the years of compounding, but you do get a little. (plus when your daughter sees the statement and realizes just how much money you funneled through in a year, she may be amazed. at least for a moment)

  10. Alexandra @ Real Simple Finances says 31 July 2015 at 09:20

    Another benefit of community colleges is that good students can join Phi Theta Kappa, an honors society that offers both scholarship opportunities, as well as automatic grants to attend certain schools. I think 2-year colleges are one of the best options for saving money on college.

    • Doug says 31 July 2015 at 09:34

      I agree. My wife was in the honors program at university. The program actually gave her and the other honors folks preferential treatment (e.g. ‘first in line’) at registration time. They never had to fight for the classes that were in demand. They had first pick.

      Alexandra, Glad you brought that up. That is an important point that I will have to keep on my radar.

  11. Laura says 31 July 2015 at 09:44

    The strategy we’ve used is that DH & I both work for universities that provide tuition waiver or reimbursement. I went to night school at the (private) university DH works at (and which I used to work at), and although it took 20 years (with a 10-year break), I finally got my B.A. I don’t remember sunk costs prior to the break; total out-of-pocket cost after the break to do 9 courses was $900 for some tuition and books and fees.

    DS was accepted to DH’s university as well. DH is grandfathered into the old benefit of 100% tuition waiver for kids so for 4 years we’re saving about $180,000 total tuition. DS will live at home so we’re saving about $45,000 total there. DH & I are committed to pay DS’s books, fees, & incidentals estimated at $3K/year out-of-pocket; if he gets a PT job, fantastic, but since he has got to finish in 4 years, we agreed that that’s more important than him working a job during school. Better for us to pay the miscellaneous than have DS struggle because he’s working to pay them on top of his studies.

    One thing to keep in mind with public vs. private universities: public universities may waive tuition, but tuition is a fraction of the amount of fees and the fees are not waived. So you may pay $3K for public school tuition or have it waived via a program for bright students, only to be on the hook for $13K in fees.

    • Candace says 04 August 2015 at 19:19

      Couldn’t agree more! After putting one child through a private college, I promptly started looking for a new job at a local state university. Now my second child will attend tuition free at the state college. The fees will add up but we’ve set up a savings plan for them.

  12. Kyle says 31 July 2015 at 10:34

    I made it through college with my B.S., but I feel like it’s a touchy subject. I really wouldn’t recommend college unless you have an inkling of what you plan to do. AND make sure you research what people are hiring for and that there is a demand for your degree. Realize there are plenty of great fields of work that don’t require a degree if you’re willing to put some serious work and dedication in(just like college). As much as I wanted to do something else, I’m in a standard engineering field today.
    *I did go through a community college first to get my Associates Degree. Just make sure everything will transfer without issues.

    • phoenix1920 says 04 August 2015 at 07:01

      When you buy a home or a car, you research that purchase significantly before spending that much money (including having it inspected if it is used. Tuition alone at $3000/semester results in $24,000 for a 4-year degree, books and living expenses not included. I don’t understand why anybody would go to college and chose a field without researching it completely and seeing what kind of life it leads to, including with job potential and college debt taken into consideration. There are so many sources that provide great outlooks, based both on field and on college expenses. The information is out there and just needs to be gathered.

      Not having a degree can end up backfiring even years down the road in terms of promotions, but it really varies based on the industry. A college degree is something that always is on a resume. As years go on, there are more and more fields that require a degree. When most dental hygienists now have to have a 4-year college degree to get hired (although years ago, most could find good jobs with only a 2-year degree and certification). One deciding whether to go to college needs to consider the outlook and affect 20 years into the future. There was a time when people said it didn’t matter if you finished high school and should just jump out there and start working, but that view has slowly disappeared.

  13. Jason says 31 July 2015 at 12:44

    I think we are so far behind the European nations. I learned from an acquaintance who was visiting from Denmark that they not only pay for your post-secondary, they actually PAY YOU to GO TO school. Now how smart is that? Actually support your budding little citizens so they can graduate debt free and begin to contribute to society right away. More stability and better studying occurs there I’m sure since students don’t have to stress about what to eat all the time. Absolutely fascinating to see the different models of education funding on the international scene.

    Jason
    ADDFinances.org

    • Mysticaltyger says 02 August 2015 at 12:36

      But what also goes along with that is much higher taxes and also much stricter admissions standards. Personally, I think Denmark is probably a better run country overall than the U.S. Our public sector wastes a lot of money in the U.S.

  14. Carla says 31 July 2015 at 14:19

    Response to #4 JoeM (you can’t reply to individual comments on the phone.)

    I agree with you regarding CC and evening classes. I am going for dual enrollment at my local CC and state university. Why pay big bucks for basic classes? I love the diversity (age, experiences, etc) that I get at my CC – I don’t feel like the lone “older” student. Older students and veterans tend to offer the most dynamic perspective, especially in my liberal arts classes. I had one class where we had veterans from Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and Iraq/Afghanistan. It was a great learning experience for me.

  15. Stella Chiu says 31 July 2015 at 15:01

    Hi Donna

    The total amount of money for college will be reduced to affordable level if the kids will go to community college for 1st two years and follow by attending college near by so that there will be no expense for accommodation. No payment is required if they will have the grants.

    For the real world, when we apply jobs, the managers don’t care much about what schools you coming from; their main concerns are your personality and character.

    Our jobs as the parents are to let the kids know the above information to target at less famous and local
    colleges.

    -Stella

  16. Kristin says 31 July 2015 at 16:05

    As a threshold issue, parents and students should consider whether college is the best path for them. I heard this interesting piece on career and technical education on the Diane Rehm show earlier this week: http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2015-07-28/a-new-push-for-apprenticeship-as-a-path-to-employment

    My nephew is starting high school on the fall, and will be in a specialized program offered by our district during which he can earn an A.S. in Mechanical Engineering Technology while still technically in high school. If he wants to continue college after, he can. He participated in orientation over the past couple of weeks, and we really think we made the right decision for him.

  17. zzzzzz says 31 July 2015 at 17:06

    You mentioned “top scholar” programs. In general, you can extrapolate that to “be a great student.” There are lots of scholarship opportunities to outstanding students.

    For example, be a National Merit Finalist, and there are quite a few schools that will cover your tuition and fees.

    Your numbers are on the low side. Tuition and fees at many private schools now exceeds $50,000.

  18. Rocky says 02 August 2015 at 04:58

    I loved the article Donna. Thanks! I have interviewed several college students that have pursued the Community College option. They live at home and pay out of pocket for their education. While they do this, they are clarifying exactly what they want to do with their future, while NOT going into debt. The most recent student is actually working in his chosen field.

    You allude to working to pay for college in a couple of your bullets. I think it should be encouraged even more. We have all heard the stories of famous/important/successful people that worked full-time to pay for their education. It can still happen today. Perhaps entrepreneurship is a good solution as well, so you can coordinate work and study more easily.

    The military is a wonderful way to clarify a future direction. I have one son that chose this option and discovered that he loves the medical field in his capacity as an EMT. I have another son that will be following in his older brother’s footsteps.

    As a parent that only recently paid off my own education, I regularly encourage students to get creative and break the cycle of college debt. As a speaker to high school students I am encouraged by how many of them are concerned about this subject and willing to change course. Thanks again for writing this post!

    • Donna Freedman says 02 August 2015 at 11:19

      For an MSN Money article I interviewed a young woman who really wanted to go to an expensive university but ultimately decided she just couldn’t put her future self into that much debt.

      She lived in Texas and so went to a state school, working 30 to 40 hours per week. Although she did take out some education loans from the state, she knew they’d be forgiven if she graduated within four years.

      You guessed it: She did. No loan payments.

      As for working during her college years, she said it forced her to become very, very organized; in addition to working and going to school she also belonged to a sorority and did a business internship.

      That organization paid off when she started interviewing for post-college jobs. The HR folks remarked pointedly on the fact that she got good grades AND worked. Apparently some of the other folks who were interviewing got so-so grades and didn’t hit a lick all four (or more) years of college.

      Guess who got to pick the job she wanted vs. having to work retail while her resumes got thrown into trashcans?

      Full disclosure: I actually wish students didn’t have to work 40 hours a week all through college. Some of the “college experience” can be a lot of fun. But I don’t think working 20 hours a week would hurt a healthy, motivated student. Learning to juggle/balance/prioritize/not-slack is what my dad would call a “useful life skill.”

  19. Patty says 03 August 2015 at 08:34

    Several tactics enabled me to graduate from Law School entirely debt free.

    1. Admittedly, my parents had about 15k saved in a 529 account for me. Helpful, but in no way did it cover all my expenses.
    2. Attend State or Local colleges, especially for undergrad. The Universities I attended from 2006-2009 never had a sticker price of higher than $2200 per semester.
    3. Look for overlooked scholarships. I received a departmental scholarship of $1500 one year that a grand total of 3 people applied for! And they granted 2 scholarships! Financial Aid offices often distribute info on available aid very poorly. Being proactive literally saved me several thousand dollars.
    4. Consider going to school somewhere with a low cost of living. I never paid more than $300/month on rent until my last year of law school, and I lived in pretty nice places. That being said, my Undergrad town has a population of about 30k people, so not metropolitan by any means.

    Now for the downside. Sometimes I wish I had the more “traditional” college experience of attending a Division 1 school with an awesome football team and big parties. I may have missed out on that. However, my coworkers and friends that have $100k in student loans seem to complain much more about student loans than they bask in the glory of their college days.

  20. Bryan@Just One More Year says 03 August 2015 at 13:02

    Excellent ideas to help pay for college!

    These are all great ways that students can pay for college without necessarily needing to go into debt with student loans. A little creativity can go a long way and put a college student on much better financial footing once they graduate.

    Both the student and parents saving early and as much as they can prior to college, would be the best fall back approach in case nothing else comes through to help.

  21. slcccom says 03 August 2015 at 17:46

    However you pay for college, graduating debt-free with a useless degree means you threw away a whole bunch of money. If you want to be a writer, then write. If you want to be an artist, then create art. Get the Writer’s Market and Artist’s Market and Photographer’s Market books and study them. Subscribe to magazines. Join groups of peers in your field. Try to sell your work and learn from the experiences. The opinion of an instructor is NOT helpful and is often very destructive. If you want to make a living at it, the only opinion that counts is customers. I have friends whose confidence was utterly destroyed by their writing and photography “instructors.” These “instructors” are people who never sold a piece of their own work in their lives, or at least not recently.

    If you want to learn all about Black/Hispanic/LBGT/etc. etc. studies, find a library. Ditto for history, but start with the John Jakes series on American History. Nobody is going to hire you for anything but teaching such courses.

    If someone tries to entice or flatter you into going for an even more useless graduate degree, make them show you the costs and employment options. Heck, even the biological sciences have become a sucker’s racket unless you go into industry.

    But if you want to design bridges, please, please, get that degree!

    • Short arms long pockets says 05 August 2015 at 13:28

      I’m afraid I have to disagree with you. Getting a degree in the Arts is not the waste of time you seem to think it is (says the woman with the MA in Medieval French :)). There are many companies with jobs out there that will not look at a candidate unless they have a degree – and the degree itself does not matter.
      In many business related jobs the information that you learned in college is much less valuable than the skills that nobody teaches for credit – people skills, how to speak well, and, as someone else said earlier, how to be organized. But the degree is the price of entry.
      Getting a degree in the Arts is a way to find your feet and assess if you want to (or have the talent to) pursue a career in the field. And if you don’t – then you have the all-important piece of paper and access to a better level of alternative employment.
      I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do an ROI calculation on the degree you choose – anyone who wants to become an artist, for example, should not choose a college that will leave them severely in debt, because upon graduation you will be forced to abandon your career to pay your debts – but getting the degree not only enhances your abilities in your chosen field, it provides a modicum of insurance should your dream prove unattainable.

    • Donna Freedman says 05 August 2015 at 15:14

      “If you want to be a writer, then write. If you want to be an artist, then create art.”

      Not everyone can just start from scratch like that — and although both writing and art are subjective, most people WOULD benefit with some instruction on technique, history, etc.

      For example, someone with strong artistic leanings might never consider becoming a sculptor until s/he takes a sculpting course and finds it’s a perfect fit. The artist-to-be would also benefit from learning about techniques of sculpting, whether that’s welding, molding resins, or using plain old clay or stone.

      Put another way: A writer who works for one of the top PF blogs around recently took my “Write A Blog People Will Read” course, then hired me for a single session of coaching. The writer is now able to look at previous issues with hir writing and fix what ze knew was wrong but couldn’t quite get right. (Ze is also planning to sign up for another coaching session, a little down the road.)

      Full disclosure: I have never taken a writing class and I’ve been making a living as a writer for 31 years. However, I did benefit greatly from working with some great newspaper editors, men and women who helped me look at my work critically and to write with purpose vs. just throwing words at a page.

      Are eventually-to-be famous writers or artists out there right now, preparing their works without benefit of any instruction? Probably.

      Are other up-and-comers slugging away with help from teachers/editors? I have no doubt.

      To them I’d say the same thing I said in the article: Don’t go deeply into debt without a clear idea how you’ll pay it off. Work on a strategy that will let you do what you love at least part-time while you work your way through life.

      • slcccom says 05 August 2015 at 16:14

        Donna, you make my point. High school grads had English courses involving writing. They had newspapers and yearbooks to work on, school literary magazines, etc. So they should not be starting from scratch. Ditto for art classes. They can take additional courses at community colleges and art museums, etc. There are art guilds, organizations needing newsletter writers, and our library has organized writers’ groups. If you want to hone your public speaking abilities, there is Toastmasters. And if you show real interest and passion, you’ll find someone in those groups willing to mentor you.

        You can do all these things very inexpensively while holding down a full-time job. A low-skilled job gives you lots of time to think about your art.

        I started freelance writing after taking an inexpensive, 8-session course from a very well-respected science writer. I made a lot of money.

        Says the woman with a Bachelor’s in medical technology and Master’s in occupational safety and health, both of which led to employment.

        • Donna Freedman says 05 August 2015 at 21:19

          My feeling is that relatively few people can become good writers/artists by themselves. Either they’re not motivated enough to get the help they need to improve their work or they don’t know what they don’t know.

          Plenty of people with potential wouldn’t be able to harness their abilities without help. No shame in that.

          However, I do agree with your idea that college isn’t for everyone either right away or maybe ever. That’s why I advocate for “college or vocational training” and also suggest considering the military as an option (although that’s not for everyone, either).

    • Frank says 05 August 2015 at 16:24

      Slcccom,

      I am glad somebody said it.

      It wasn’t the point of Donna’s article but yes, it should be considered whether or not college is even the right pathway for someone BEFORE looking at how to pay for it. Far too many kids get stuck with “do-you-want-fries-with-that” degrees and hefty school debts. I wish as a society we would see that not everyone should go to college and that not having a college degree should not carry a social stigma. I really wish we had more vocational schools, especially at a reasonable price. Also, I wish we had entrepreneurial schools available, I’m NOT referring to MBA programs for accounting and management, but actual entrepreneuring.

      Donna, your article was great for what you were actually addressing.

      • slcccom says 05 August 2015 at 16:34

        Frank, you are right. Donna’s article is excellent for the topic she discussed. I think this whole topic would be a good one for a new post, Donna. (Hint, hint).

        Community colleges are starting entreprenuership classes, and there are the standard resources such as SCORE, local chambers of commerce, etc. However, my best source of information on the topic is the magazine of that same name. Reading it for years is an awesome education! Or you can look up back issues.

  22. phoenix1920 says 04 August 2015 at 06:35

    One of the things I highly recommend is to research your individual state to see what programs they have for paying for college for your children when your child is still young. I was able to pay for both of my children’s college tuition before they left elementary school based on this program (housing and books are not included). Also, many states have programs to keep their best performing students in state by offering scholarships, but they have to fulfill many requirements (including certain classes, volunteer service, etc)

  23. Funny about Money says 04 August 2015 at 18:40

    Thank you for listing the community colleges among this excellent list of strategies.

    The smartest of my students are young people (and older ones, too) who figure out that racking up two years of lower-division prereqs at a community college saves two years of exorbitant tuition at the local university. If you’re a high-school student who gets an opportunity to start on those requirements early at a nearby community college, grab it!

  24. Christy says 05 August 2015 at 09:34

    I went to college the first time with jobs, scholarships and pell grants. I worked 20 hours a week and used that money to pay all my utilities, it got cold during the winter, no cable, eating out only once a month, cooked at home, got out with my first degree owing nothing.

    My second degree I started small and took a few summer classes to see if I could handle a 40 hour work week and school. Because I got all A’s in those few classes, I got an academic scholarship which paid ALL of my further tuition. So other than paying $300, I got out of college a second time owing nothing.

    I worked both times, lived very frugal, did not have car or credit card payments and took every opportunity at scholarships.

    It can be done on the cheap, you just to have to be willing to forgo a few things to make it happen.

  25. slcccom says 05 August 2015 at 15:57

    I am thinking of the new high school grads. They do have other opportunities. Community colleges offer two-year degrees in useful areas, including welding, nursing, x-ray tech, machining, etc. Fast food jobs can lead for those who are inclined to food service to training in the franchise. Or a community college culinary degree. Even if they aren’t so inclined, it gives the job experience, which is even more important to get your foot in the door.

    These kids are usually just plain exploited by 4-year colleges into useless degrees. And I have seen too many art “instructors” who focus on turning students into mini-me’s in style instead of giving them the skills they need to help them do their own art. Just because something is, er, highly creative, doesn’t mean that student won’t be creating a whole new genere. But there are many instructors who will squelch that.

    THese kids are not able to do a good calculation of ROI due to lack of life experience. We need to help them, if they will listen to us.

  26. Bill in NC says 07 August 2015 at 18:07

    I was very clear with both kids from an early age that they would ultimately be responsible for most of their college costs (should they choose to go).

    Oldest got offered full ROTC scholarships in multiple branches of service.

    They spent one year at university with ROTC paying nearly 90% of all costs, then decided they wanted a more military experience.

    So they applied for & received an appointment at the federal service academy of their choice.

    Youngest is halfway to getting their pilot’s license, told them if they want to fly for a living Uncle Sam wants to pay them for it, so they will also be pursuing service academies or ROTC options.

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