By Sani Golriz
Just a few short years ago it seemed that college was the natural next step for graduating high-schoolers. It allowed them to move on to a whole new level of education, helping them develop the skills and knowledge they'd need for the bright, shining future that seemed guaranteed on graduation day.
Today, though, the landscape is very different. The cost of tuition has increased (and has done, in fact, at around twice the rate of inflation every year since The Beatles played the Ed Sullivan Show), and an increasing number of parents are unable to set aside enough savings to help pay for higher education.
What's more, with the economy in a shambles and unemployment at its highest rate in recent history, college students don't even have the assurance that they'll be able to find a good job (or any job at all) when they graduate.
As a result, college has become much more of a gamble than in times past. It isn't guaranteed to be a stepping stone to a great career, but for ambitious young men and women there simply isn't another viable option.
Times are hard, sure, but you have to speculate to accumulate, and those who decide to abandon their plan to get a college degree might just find themselves serving fries to those who decided to risk it all and move on to college.
So how can those brave men and women get through these straitened times? How can they lower the cost of college, work to pay the exhorbitant fees and, hopefully, come out the other side debt free and ready to jump into a great job? Well, here are a few ideas...
Pick the Right Major
What I'm about to say is almost heresy among the educated classes, but it's true nonetheless: if you decide to commit yourself to four years of college you should at the very least pick a major that leads naturally to a high-income profession.
You can't all be doctors or lawyers (nor do most of you want to), but if you're going to pay for an expensive education you may as well get some benefit from it beyond intellectual enlightenment. This means, unfortunately, that theater, philosophy, history and music are out the window unless you have a very good reason to pursue those avenues.
It's a personal choice, of course, and if your reasons for going to college aren't focused on the desire to earn money, that’s wonderful, just as long as you understand that a liberal arts degree may present a more difficult career path than any other. In short, I'm saying that you should simply make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.
Study in Your Own State
Many colleges charge much higher tuition fees to students not usually resident in the same state. In some cases the fees are twice as high. To minimize the cost you should give preference to colleges in your own state before considering more distant locations.
An added benefit of studying close to home is that you'll be closer to your parents. In a perfect world you could stay living at home and attend college in the same town, but if that's not possible it will at least mean that it'll be cheaper to travel home for the holidays, saving you the cost of several flights each year.
If you must study out of state, why not consider taking a year out after high school and moving to your chosen state in order to establish residency? It's a risky move, especially for a high school graduate living away from home for the first time, but if it works out you'll reach college with greatly reduced tuition obligations and the money saved from a year of hard work in your pocket.
Stay Out of the Dorms
You might expect that on-campus housing would be subsidized, making it the most cost-effective accommodation you could find, but that often isn't the case. By taking a small apartment away from campus you might find your costs dramatically cut. In any case, off-campus housing may be a little more conducive to study, what with the absence of the temptation to hang out with friends and dorm mates all the time.
What's more, you should use this opportunity to become truly self-sufficient. Learn to cook a few healthy meals and buy a bike. You should think of every expense as an opportunity to cut back. You eat out at restaurants? Make your own meals on the weekend and freeze them for the week. You spend a few dollars each day riding the bus to school? Cycle instead. Savings can be found everywhere.
Don't Save in Your Own Name
Finally, here's a sneaky little tip to help you qualify for the highest possible level of financial aid. When you apply for means-tested federal financial aid the savings of you and your parents will be taken into consideration. Your own savings are assessed at 20%, which means that if you've saved $10,000, the government will reduce your financial aid by $2,000.
Instead, you should keep your savings in your parents' names. Parental savings are assessed at between 2.6 and 5.6%, so your aid will only be reduced by a maximum of $560 based on $10,000 of savings.
The average student graduates college with a mind-blowing $27,000 of debt. That sounds like a scary figure, but before you head off to earn your degree you should remember that it's just an average. For every spendthrift who graduates $50,000 in the red there's another who comes out debt free. Which do you want to be?
Do you have any tips to add to the above? Please do so in the comments below!
About the author:
Sani Golriz is a community blogger and active staff writer for CollegeFocus, a website dedicated to helping students deal with the challenges of college, including housing, finance, style, health, relationships, and transferring from a community college to a four-year university.
You can follow CollegeFocus on Twitter at @CollegeFocus101 and Facebook at www.fb.com/collegefocus.