The ballooning cost of college has many parents and students on edge. If you’re trying to figure out how to afford a good college education, there are solutions. Don’t let the rising price tag of college keep you from moving ahead with the education you’ve been dreaming about for yourself or your children. If you make plans and smart decisions today, you won’t have to raid your retirement account, overpay for college, or take on decades of expensive debt.
How Much Does College Really Cost?
College planning can be complicated. There are many unknowns, including cost, location, how much to save, and more.
The first step is to consider how much college really costs. That’s difficult to pin down because there are many variables like:
- Which school(s) will accept you?
- Will you live at home or on campus?
- How many years will it take you to graduate?
- What additional fees will your program require?
- How much will college costs increase each year?
- Can you qualify for awards that don’t have to be repaid?
- How much can you expect to receive in student financial aid?
- How much will your college savings account grow over time?
I recommend using an online calculator that gives you an estimate of the cost your chosen college or university. The estimate takes your household income and inflation into account, as well as the percentage of students who receive scholarships or grants at a given school.
Don’t Forget to Consider Unexpected College Expenses
Between tuition, room and board, books, and dining plans, college expenses can average as much as $7,500-$11,000 for a state school and $27,000 per year for a private four-year institution, according to the College Board. Unfortunately for students and parents, however, that does not necessarily tell the entire financial story. There can be a lot of costs associated with college that the financial aid department might not tell you about.
Here are some of the unexpected expenses you might need to plan for:
1. Health Care. Many schools require students to be covered by some sort of health insurance. If you are still on your parents’ insurance plan and it will work for you while on campus, then there is no reason to fix something that’s not broken. But if you need to buy into the student insurance, expect to pay as much as $2,000 per year—although many schools’ plans are much less expensive.
2. Student Activity Fees. Large universities, in particular, are well-known for charging activity fees to all students—even those who do not live on campus. The activity fee will pay for everything from bringing major speakers and musicians to campus to keeping fitness facilities up-to-date. Student activity fees can range from $100 to $300 per year. Since you have to pay them, make sure you get your money’s worth by taking in the campus social events and working out at the gym. It will enrich your college experience.
3. Parking. The bane of large university existence is trying to find a place to park your car within the same zip code as your class or the library. There’s a premium for parking spots on campus, and you will have to pay for the privilege of having your car—some schools even charge a fee to register your car on campus. The cost of parking on most campuses can range from $250 to $600. Even when you have shelled out for a parking pass, you may still find yourself hoofing it or taking a campus shuttle, so know that the price you pay does not necessarily buy you a good place to park.
4. Going Greek. If you decide to join a fraternity or a sorority, know that you will probably be paying about $2,000 per year for the privilege of being a member and living in the house. Some Greek organizations will allow you to become a member while living elsewhere, which can be a cheaper option.
5. General Expenses. These include laundry, dinners out, toiletries, linens, etc. Even if you are heading to a fully furnished dorm room and a 21 meals per week dining plan, there will still be some general living expenses that you should prepare for. Scavenging quarters for laundry every week (or to buy more shampoo when you run out) can be a demoralizing exercise if you have not budgeted for it. Plan ahead for all the little living expenses that everyone must face so that you’re not forced to call home for money—and become a living cliché.
Don’t forget to take these additional expenses into consideration when saving for college. When you consider all the extras, you might want to consider putting a little extra into your 529 College Savings Plan each month!
How Much Should I Save for College?
Because you can’t know the answer to every question about the cost of college ahead of time, it’s kind of like planning for retirement. A few of the same rules apply: get an early start, take advantage of tax-favored college savings accounts, such as a 529 college savings plan or a Coverdell ESA, and allocate your investments more conservatively as freshman year approaches.
You can also get creative with your college savings, such opening an account with Upromise, which is a rewards program that directs savings toward college education expenses. It’s free and easy to join.
Related – Learn More About College Savings Plans:
How to Cut the Cost of College
Here are 5 strategies you can use to dramatically minimize the cost of college tuition:
Tip #1: Start at a Community College
In most cases, credits earned at an inexpensive community college can be applied toward a degree at a larger, more prestigious school. Spending the first 2 years of college at home can also save a huge amount when compared to the inflated cost of room and board on most college campuses.
Find out the articulation agreement between the community college and the school where you hope to transfer, so you know which credits would be accepted at your dream school and the grades you have to achieve to get in. Remember that your diploma only names the school where you graduate!
Tip #2: Lock in the Cost
If you want to skip a regional college and get a full four-year college experience, consider using a prepaid 529 savings plan to lock in the future cost of college at today’s rate. Many state schools and private colleges allow you to prepay, which could mean getting a great education at a substantial discount if the cost of tuition continues to rise. Prepaid plans don’t put your funds in the market—so they aren’t subject to any investment risk—but they are subject to the solvency of the state or institution’s program.
If your child decides not to go to college or wants to attend a different school than the one you prepaid, you can transfer the value of the account or get a refund. To learn more about prepaid 529 plans for public and private colleges visit finaid.org and privatecollege529plan.com.
Tip #3: Graduate in Less Time
Though most kids would hate to cut their college experience short, if you complete the coursework for your degree in less time, it will cost less. You might be able to get a bachelor’s degree in 3 years instead of 4 and save a bundle on room and board, tuition, and fees. Unfortunately, the average student takes more than 4 years to graduate, which drives up their overall cost of college. So use the following strategies to accelerate your college graduation:
- Work harder in high school so you qualify for Advanced Placement (AP) classes that give you college credit before you even arrive on campus.
- Work harder in college by taking a heavier load of classes each year.
- Be clear about the school and degree you want—changing either one mid-stream can result in having to take more classes that keep you in school much longer.
- Test out of classes using CLEP or other college-level placement exams.
Tip #4: Apply Strategically
If your child applies to colleges where his or her grades and SAT scores rank in the top 25% of students, they’ll have an advantage. That’s because colleges proactively recruit students who can benefit their overall student body. Families who earn too much to receive financial aid should apply to colleges that award high percentages of merit aid that does not have to be paid back. Visit collegedata.com to find information that reveals which colleges may be the best match for you or your child.
Tip #5: Pay As You Go
I recently interviewed Zac Bissonnette—the author of Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents—to get his tips. Zac challenges conventional wisdom about choosing and financing college and recommends that no one take out student loans. Instead, he advocates that students work during high school and college, and families cut back their lifestyle, to pay for college as you go.
Zac is a really sharp guy who just graduated from the University of Massachusetts. You can listen to our conversation and learn much more about how he got a great education without paying a boatload or taking on any debt!