Updated: Sep 26, 2019
I have spent one year attending community college, three years at a private undergraduate university, and six years of graduate school at a public university. You could say that I’ve experienced it all. So no one needs to tell me that there are a lot of different expenses related to getting a college degree: tuition, fees (orientation fees, student activity fees, parking fees, lab fees, graduation fees, recreation fees,...), room and board, and textbooks. However, I learned that there are ways to cut costs for most of these, saving you and your child a lot of money and avoiding unnecessary student loan debt.
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First of all, tuition can vary wildly between universities in the United States. Tuition rates at prestigious private universities, like Harvard, are close to $50,000 per year, but for smaller four-year public universities, like Missouri Southern State University or Eastern Kentucky University, in-state tuition can be less than $10,000 per year. Community colleges are even less. Furthermore, the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition for public universities can be tremendous. For the University of Michigan, in-state tuition is $15,000 per year, whereas out-of-state tuition is $45,000 per year.
What does this tell us? If you are looking to cut college costs, attend a smaller, in-state university. You get instant savings of over $150,000! If you are worried that a degree from a lesser known school is useless, recent studies have shown that employers are becoming less concerned about where you get your degree, meaning in most cases your job prospects are the same if you graduate from Missouri Southern State University or from Harvard. This is partially due to these smaller colleges developing top notch programs in niche areas and becoming “hidden gems” so to speak. There are many out there. The small state school I attended for graduate school has a stellar science and engineering program and many of its graduates go on to work at NASA, SpaceX, Google, and Boeing.
If for some reason attending a more expensive university is really important to you, you can significantly defray the cost by taking some core credits at a community college which will transfer to the four-year university. I was home-schooled during high school, so I took many of my senior year courses at the local community college and was able to transfer these, along with some Advanced Placement (AP) courses, to the private university I attended. I essentially entered college as a sophomore. I was also able to get a substantial scholarship from the private university that reduced the cost of tuition to be equal to that of an in-state public university. I talk more about scholarships in You May Be Paying for College the Wrong Way.
Room and board
Room and board is also quite expensive. Many universities have policies that require freshman students, and sometimes sophomores, to live on campus, making these costs unavoidable. However, costs vary between dormitories on the same campus, so if you are given a choice of where to live, choose a cheaper option to save a couple thousand dollars each year. Note that these policies usually exempt commuting students, so by attending a university within driving distance and living at home, you can drastically reduce the cost of room and board. If you have multiple children are attending the same university or college not within commuting distance, consider buying a small home near the university for their housing. The mortgage is likely cheaper than the cost of paying for university housing, and you can probably recoup most of the cost by selling it after you no longer need it.
And lastly there a textbooks. Textbooks are a big money maker for universities. Often, they have their own editions of textbooks and update the edition annually, making it all but impossible for the students to buy the textbook used. However, in the 10 years I spent in undergraduate and graduate school, there were only two textbooks that I was required to buy through the university bookstore. The rest I could purchase used on Amazon. Many people cite the cost of textbooks as $1000 per year, but with a little bit of effort, you can reduce that to under $200, if not $100. In my case, I would figure out which books I needed (most universities list the ISBN numbers for the books needed for each course) and then buy them used or new off of Amazon, or from a fellow student who was looking to get rid of their own copy. At the end of the semester, I would keep the books relevant to my major of study and sell back the rest to either Amazon (via their trade-in program) or to the university bookstore. One time, I was able to sell back a textbook to the university bookstore for more than I originally paid for it from Amazon! Some universities allow you to rent textbooks, but I found my method ended up costing me less money in the long run.
Another thing I learned is that many courses list textbooks as required, but never use them in the course (believe me, you experience a lot of justified anger if you drop $100 of your hard-earned money on a book you never use). In some cases, I waited to buy my textbooks until after the first week of class, when it becomes clearer whether a book is necessary. I’d then order it from Amazon using my Prime membership, and I’d have it in-hand within 2 days.
Finally, don’t forget that there are alternatives to a four-year college. If your child finds school and studying difficult, it may be that four-year college isn’t for them. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it doesn’t mean they are they are destined to work a minimum wage job flipping burgers for the rest of their life. Even if your child is a great student, you shouldn't discount these alternatives either, because they are a great way to save money and avoid the immoral college culture. Alternatives to a four-year college include include community colleges (which have significantly lower tuition rates than four-year colleges), trade or technical schools, and apprenticeships, many of which you can begin even while in high school. Choosing these alternatives typically results in much less student debt, and it surprises most people that you can even earn a higher income in careers following these alternatives than with some degrees from a four-year college. It’s true! I have a cousin that is an electrician making close to $100,000 per year, and he never went to college and never took out student loans. Forcing kids who don’t belong in college or don’t need to go to college saddles them with unnecessary debt and reduces earning potential, not to mention exposes them to the vices and immoral ideologies that are rampant on college campuses.
Now that you know how to reduce your overall bill, check out You May Be Paying for College the Wrong Way to learn how what to avoid in order to pay for college the right way.