College is expensive, no matter how you look at it. Even if it’s just tuition, without room and board, you’re still looking at thousands of dollars times four years. It can get overwhelming, to say the least. Still, don’t panic and drop out just yet. There are people who have gone before you, people like me, who have learned what to do and what not to do. I’ve seen people graduate with very little debt, and I’ve seen people graduate with the kind of debt that could put you in an early grave. I find myself somewhere in the middle, which is how I’m still sane enough to write this article. Through my own mistakes, and the success of others, here are 10 hacks to save thousands on tuition:
1. Apply for obscure scholarships
There are so many scholarships out there. You don’t even have to look that hard. Entire sites are dedicated to finding them for you. Unigo.com, one of many similar sites, has you fill out a profile to match you with scholarships that apply specifically to you. For college freshman there are 1,843,929 awards available. Seven billion dollars total. It’s tempting to dismiss the $100 and $500 dollar scholarships, but really, those can add up. It’s worth it.
I had a roommate who was money smart all through college. She had a standard essay she put together for scholarships of all types. She’d edit it slightly to apply for each scholarship. She was awarded a few scholarships and rejected from many. It was worth the time it took her to apply, because the total of a handful of scholarships made a big difference. Her loans post-grad? Small enough to be paid off. My loans post-grad? Deferred and gathering interest. Learn from my mistakes, and learn from her success, you want the scholarship from your local neighborhood nursing home.
2. Utilize Work-Study Programs
Check with your school’s financial aid office to see if there’s a federal work-study program in place. If so, apply for it. If you’re approved, this allows you to work part-time, ideally alongside your area of study, and apply that money to school related expenses. You can also receive the money directly and budget it as you see fit. The choice is yours.
3. Get a Part-Time job
If you aren’t approved for the school’s work-study program, or there isn’t one in place, there’s always the option to apply for a part-time job on campus or off. This requires a little more discipline, since there isn’t an option of directly applying your paycheck to tuition. If you’re really nervous about your self-control, involve a third party, a.k.a. Mom or Dad. Give them the check and ask them to give you a portion for an allowance, that way you won’t blow your whole paycheck on an impromptu trip to Disneyland.
4. Learn to Budget
That brings us to our fourth hack: Learn to budget. The truth is, budgeting is hard. Really, being an adult is hard. This means keeping track of paychecks, and not letting your bank account get to the point of having three dollars to last you until Friday, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. Trust me. You’ll be grateful when you graduate with a small cushion in your savings account. This isn’t to say that you can’t have fun, but keep it within reason. You’ll have to say no to the Spring Break trip to Cancun, but you can say yes to the late night Denny’s run. Balance is what’s going to let you graduate and look for a job with enough money to pay off loans during the in-between.
5. Take Advantage of A.P. Classes
If you’re reading this article and still in high school, thank goodness, it’s not too late. A.P. classes may seem like a pain now, but they’re worth it. Even just taking two or three makes a huge difference. They count for college credit and can save you hundreds or thousands depending on your college’s cost-per-unit. They’ll also spare you from having to take even more U.S. History than you’ve already taken in your 12 years of school. Taking A.P. classes now allows you to skip to the college courses you want to take.
6. Enroll in Summer School (even though you won’t want to)
Remember that money-smart roommate? She was very into summer courses. More into them than I was. She checked in with our school’s registrar to see what units would be transferrable from her local community college. I spent my summers watching daytime television and binging on Netflix. Was the break worth it? Not really. She graduated a semester earlier than I did, and saved thousands of dollars. I still haven’t caught up on Grey’s Anatomy.
7. Take 18 units
As a full-time student, you no longer pay per unit. So 12 units or 18 units essentially cost the same. It’s smartest to get more bang for your buck and take a full course load, even if your friends aren’t doing it. It’s tempting to tell yourself that you need to keep the load light for the first year, so you can ease into college life. Really though, you’re going to get stuck in a comfort zone of late nights and last minute assignments. Taking 18 units your first semester is like ripping off a Band-Aid. Some classmates might advise against it, but you’ll be surprised at how many like-minded students you’ll find.
As cheesy as it sounds, college really can be the best time of your life. But living in an alternate universe of Froyo runs and unnecessary all-nighters isn’t an excuse to ignore the costs. Eventually, the hundreds of dollars turn to thousands and the money catches up to you. I guess the real advice is this: Have fun, but be smart. Take the extra 10 minutes to proofread the scholarship essay. Get a part-time job, even if you don’t want to. Say no to the pair of shoes. Just know, from the other side of those four years, that good decisions now, big or small, always make a difference later.