10 Ways to Cut College Education Costs

As high school graduations wind down, many college-bound students are setting their sights not only on entering college come fall, but also making sense of what can be complicated financial aid packages.
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By Sharon Bowen, Advisor
Students Rising Above

As high school graduations wind down, many college-bound students are setting their sights not only on entering college come fall, but also making sense of what can be complicated financial aid packages. Free online tools, such as the Students Rising Above (SRA) Budget Builder, available on SRA's College2Careers Hub, can help decipher financial aid packages by comparing grants, loans, work study, and scholarships to the school's cost of attendance. But, did you know that the cost of attendance on the school's website is typically estimated based on average situations?

So what if your situation isn't the average? Here are 10 potential ways to knock down college costs:

1. Request a triple on your housing application
Single rooms are the most expensive, triples or quads are the best bargains, and doubles are in the middle. For example, for the 2016-17 school year, a triple at the University of California, Davis costs $2565 less than a single. Also, check to see if some dorm buildings are cheaper than others, but remember if you're too far away to walk to your classes you might need to budget for a bike.

2. Consider a a less expensive meal plan
Definitely sign up for enough dining hall meals to keep you healthy, but don't pay for meals you don't need. Why pay more if you don't want to get up early enough to go to breakfast before your classes, you have a small appetite, tend not to eat big meals anyway, or are willing to use groceries for simple meals in your dorm? You could save hundreds or even a thousand dollars a year by choosing a lower meal plan instead of the highest.

3. Buy groceries instead of eating out or at dining halls
Many dorm buildings have common area kitchenettes, with a microwave and stove for you to use. Just buy non-name-brand or sale-priced instant oatmeal, granola bars, cans of soup, just-add-water soup cups, peanut butter and bread, ramen, frozen burritos, or other filling, somewhat healthy, bargain-priced foods at grocery or discount stores. Having food on hand can save you money, compared to eating out or using a dining hall meal swipe three times every day. Be quick to wash dishes, take out trash, and put food away in containers with tight-fitting lids to keep unwanted insects and animals away.

4. Minimize your meal plan's "cash" or "bucks"
Meal plans often include money to use like a debit card at coffee shops, cafes, fast food places, and convenience stores around campus that charge normal dollar prices instead of dining hall swipes. Choose the smallest amount of cash/bucks because you'll get a better price on snacks and quick meals when you stock up at grocery stores, instead of grabbing them on campus or in restaurants.

5. Be a smart textbook shopper

Unless your major has particularly expensive textbooks (like pre-med or engineering), budgeting $1000 for freshman year books should work. Also, plan to:
  • Buy used books instead of new. If your professor says you need the latest edition of a textbook, ask if it is truly necessary or if you can adjust for the differences.
  • Sell your books online or to other students at the end of each semester.
  • Trade similarly-priced textbooks with other students instead of you both selling back and repurchasing.
  • Share a book or course pack with a classmate; be organized and communicative so you both have enough time to read and study.
  • For classic fiction and other non-textbooks, look for used copies on Amazon or similar sites where you pay a penny (seriously, one penny!) for the book and about4 for shipping, or find out if the text is available for free online.
  • Check books out of the library, make copies of your textbook, or go there to read the reference texts that cannot be taken out of the building. You can also rent books online.
  • Look over your class syllabus to see how many chapters of a book you need to read. If it's only a few, could you photocopy them at the library instead of buying the whole text?

6. Choose smart, efficient classes
Talk with your advisor before choosing your first year's classes, and strive to be organized and get all the courses you need in 3-4 years. If you're thinking about transferring to another school at any point, be absolutely certain that all your credits will count. Also, find out if you can take inexpensive classes at a community college in the summer and apply the credits to your bachelor's degree.

7. Ask about health center fees
You have to be careful because you don't want to get stuck with high medical bills when you're sick or in an emergency. But, you can call your school and health insurance company to find out if the plan you already have at home can cover you at college and let you opt out of the school plan. If it works out, make sure you fully understand what you are waiving and what services you can use. Keep written confirmation of everything, like emails, forms, or policies.

8. Do not have a car or pet at college
Both of these have numerous costs associated with them that add up quickly! Don't bring a car unless you absolutely cannot make walking, biking, or public transportation work. Wait until after college when you're employed to see if you have room in your budget for pet food, equipment, toys, medicine, and vet visits.

9. Become a Resident Advisor (RA)
Once you're beyond your freshman year, this is a leadership experience that might also offer free or discounted room and board.

10. See if you qualify for "food stamps"
Most full-time college students do not qualify for money for groceries from the federal government, especially if their school meal plan covers more than half of their meals. However, you might be eligible for this type of assistance if you do any one of the following. Read more details
  • Participate in a college work study program
  • Work at least 20 hours a week in work study or another job
  • Are taking care of a child or other dependent member of your household
  • Get public assistance benefits under a Title IV-A program like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)

Final Thoughts
College can be one of the biggest financial investments you will ever make. But by planning ahead, it is possible to save money on college education costs while minimizing overall student loan debt.

Do you have a creative money saving tip not mentioned above? Join the discussion below and let us know!

Sharon Bowen graduated from Northwestern University with a bachelor's degree in Psychology and Communications. She earned her master's degree in School Counseling from Vanderbilt University, and received her certification in School Counseling through the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards in 2010. She joined Students Rising Above in 2015 and provides ongoing mentorship to SRA's low-income, first-generation college students from college admissions through entering the workforce.

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