The following is a guest post by Ellen Berry of BrainTrack.com.
The most important thing you can do to save money on college costs is to plan ahead. The more knowledgeable you are about your options, the better choices you’ll make, and the more money you’ll save. Here’s a list of strategies that will give you a head start:
- Create a career plan before choosing a school. College is a great place to explore your options when it comes to a career. If, however, you take some time to consider what career suits you best before going to college, you can save yourself a lot of money. Conduct your research by:
- Taking career tests to identify your areas of interest and strength
- Working or volunteering with different employers
- Shadowing people at their jobs to see what their daily work is like
- Taking continued education courses to scope out potential career tracks
- Reading up on various career paths to prepare yourself to make a more educated decision when it comes to school
The more detailed vision you have of where you’re headed and what it takes to get there, the more money you’re likely to save by selecting a relevant degree and school.
- Choose a degree that gives you skills and training. For the most part, there are two basic kinds of degrees offered by most colleges and universities – those that provide the opportunity to explore a wide array of fields (like social sciences, philosophy, history, human development, and English), and those that focus on giving you specific, applicable skills (like engineering, computer science, journalism, agriculture, and fine arts).The more software programs you can use, certifications you can earn, languages you can program or speak, technology and equipment you can operate, processes you understand, analytical thought you can apply, and direct experience you can gain during the course of your education, the more likely you’ll be able to get hired for a paying job in your field upon graduating, and the less money you’ll spend on courses that you can explore later, once you’re making good money.
- Make sure your degree is what employers prefer. Whether you’re choosing to further your career by obtaining a degree, or starting out on a new career path, it’s a good idea to know enough about the employers for which you want to work in order to choose a degree that the employers require, expect, or desire. For example, in journalism, if you don’t have a degree specifically in journalism, but instead have a degree in creative non-fiction writing or English, you may find it more difficult than others to get a journalism job. The goal is to get that keyword on your resume that employers use to find candidates.
- Check if your employer will pay for your schooling. If you choose a degree that directly relates to the work that you do, your employer may reimburse your tuition, fees, and cost of books. If you are not currently working in a position or for an employer in your field of interest, consider transitioning to a position or employer who is in that field and will provide tuition reimbursement.
- Customize your degree. Some schools are more flexible than others, and may allow you to pick specific courses that you would like to take in order to specialize in a particular area. This is a great way to save money by taking only courses that apply most directly to your chosen career path. However, use caution and make sure that your plan of study and the name of your degree meet requirements of standard job descriptions.
- Don’t overlook scholarships. Online scholarship search engines like FastWeb make it easy to find the kinds of scholarships for which you qualify; however, there are many that are not listed online. Be sure to check the school departments where you’re considering majoring, the career resource center on campus, the library, and student bulletin boards for other opportunities. (Note from Christina: You should never, ever pay to apply or receive a scholarship. )
There are many different kinds of scholarships – for good grades, for talent, for being a member of a particular group, offered as a contest, or specific to a program (like funding a semester abroad). What scholarships are available, and how much financial assistance they will provide, may influence the degree you ultimately choose to pursue.
- Know how you learn best. Online learning is great for flexibility and convenience, but some students do better in a traditional classroom environment, or in learning labs. Before you commit to a program, evaluate how many courses are delivered online in whole or in part, and how hands-on the course requirements tend to be. You’ll get more for your money this way, and you may avoid having to retake classes.
- Be clear on what’s important to you. When comparing schools to see how well they match your career goals and learning needs, consider the cost of living in the surrounding community, expenses related to tuition, fees, and books, costs for required course materials, equipment, software, and lab fees, and travel expenses going to and from college.Don’t assume that the most expensive schools are the best choice – a less expensive school may have more flexible program choices, offer special focus areas, have a department or project with a great reputation, or have a culture that is better suited to your lifestyle (regarding diversity, conservative versus liberal views, etc.)
- Take prerequisites at a more affordable school – Most colleges and universities have required courses that all students must take in their first years, followed by a curriculum of courses specific to students’ chosen majors. Consider taking these general courses at a community college or vocational school that has partnered with a college or university.
- Make sure credits transfer. Triple check whether course credits from your chosen school will be accepted at other degree programs and schools in state and out of state.
- Attend school in state. Study in the state you have lived in (for the minimum number of months to be considered a resident), or move to another state to work for a while, become a resident, and then go to school (note that if you indicate on school-related paperwork that you moved to the state to go to school, you are likely to be charged out-of-state tuition). In-state tuition is typically at least half as costly as out-of-state.
- Go to college in Texas. State funding for education is well-allocated in Texas compared to many states, so Texas schools have a good reputation for their quality and affordability. Note that in-state students are eligible for much more financial assistance than out-of-state students.
- Take advantage of campus visits. Before deciding on a school, be sure to visit the campus for several days, take the tour, meet with department faculty and other students, and check out the career center. This can save you thousands by helping you make an informed choice about this investment in your education.
- Live off campus. The cost of housing on campus can vary widely in relation to the availability of nearby apartments and houses for rent. Frequently, students are able to save considerable money by living off campus with roommates.
- Eat on campus. Depending on your eating habits, you may find that a campus dining card will save you quite a bit in time, convenience, and money when compared to shopping and cooking for yourself (especially in a house full of roommates).
- Buy in bulk. Collaborate with other students to buy necessities in bulk.
- Rent textbooks. Owners of websites like Chegg allow you to rent your textbooks (and will plant a tree for each rental).
- Avoid parking fees. Use a bus pass, bicycle, ride sharing, or your own two feet to get to class rather than paying for parking with meters or permits. Not only will you spend fewer nervous moments waiting for a parking space, but you’re less likely to get a traffic ticket or have your car towed.
- Save on healthcare. Receiving medical care can consume a lot of money quickly. And remember, college is a time when you may not be making the smartest decisions. Keep in mind:
- Most campus healthcare facilities are more affordable than local doctor’s offices, but if you rarely get sick you might consider using walk-in clinics or free health clinics rather than paying campus health service fees.
- When starting a new medication, if you’re paying out of pocket or the cost of the medication is high, consider purchasing half of a prescription in case the medication doesn’t work well for you.
- It’s a smart idea to only use emergency rooms for truly life-threatening emergencies – otherwise use walk-in clinics or urgent care centers.
- If you don’t pay for the campus health care program, be sure to get established with a dentist upon moving to a new community (emergency rooms are typically not equipped to handle dental emergencies, and many dentists will not take on new patients in emergency situations).
- Get points for spending. When using a debit card or credit card (which isn’t recommended unless it is a prepaid one), make sure you get rewards for purchases whenever possible. Join frequent flyer programs and hotel rewards programs to earn miles from flying, staying at hotels, dining, and shopping.Use websites like MyPoints to get rewards for online purchases (but avoid filling out surveys for cash or points – these are time wasters that require too much personal information). Rewards points and miles can be used to pay for basic necessities, meals out, airfare, hotel stays, holiday gifts, etc.
- Watching your spending doesn’t have to be a drag – challenge yourself to see how much money you can save, and keep a sense of humor about your finances.
Ellen Berry writes about a variety of college and career topics for BrainTrack.com. She has contributed a great deal of content to the site’s Career Planning Guide.