Attend College on the Cheap—7 Ideas to Keep Costs Down and Graduate Debt Free (or at Least Get Close)

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In all honesty, I didn’t graduate debt free. I feel like that’s something I should be upfront about. However, I did witness people graduate debt free. It may not be possible for you, but if you aim for debt free and fail, you’ll be closer than if you hadn’t tried at all. This is one of those situations in life where almost is more than enough. The real goal is trying to come out of those four years with a manageable final number. It is possible to graduate debt free, or at least get close, even if I didn’t. Here are seven ideas on how:

1. Pick a school you can afford.
Loans make you feel like you can afford anything. Of course, that depends on your understanding of loans and your understanding of the word “afford.” It’s important to remember that just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Pick a school that’s affordable for you. Think ahead. How much in loans is manageable for you and your ideal career post-grad? If you want to be a struggling artist and live off the land, it’s not smart to graduate $80,000 in debt. Which can happen, if you let it.

2. Pick a school in-state.
On average, attending a school as an out-of-state student costs around $10,000 more than an in-state student, according to 2012-2013 data from U.S. News. Short of you moving to a state for a year prior to applying, there isn’t much you can do. Even then, a school can still deny you the in-state rate. You’re going to need serious proof of residency to get the in-state price. Plus, this article is about how to keep costs down. Picking up your life to move to a new state and pay rent for a year isn’t what I’d suggest, but that’s just me. Still, if a cross-country journey to New York has been a lifelong dream, it’s not completely impossible. You can always attend a private school. Their funding doesn’t come from the state so they have a single tuition rate. The bad news? That tuition rate is usually high.

3. Transfer in.
Transferring in as a sophomore or junior might not seem like the college experience you dreamed of, but plenty of my friends in college were transfers. Really, I envied them. They took a year or two at a community college to get those gen-eds out of the way, and then took full advantage of the programs our school had to offer. They had no trouble getting involved and finding their space on campus. Some started clubs. Others joined intermural sports teams. It might’ve taken more intention and effort to meet people without the structure of a weeklong orientation, but I think the thousands of dollars they saved were worth it.

4. Live by your Budget.
Sometimes I listen to Dave Ramsey on the radio, and I’m terrified. People call in with questions and he really gets to the point. He’s a big advocate of living on a budget, even as a student. Start budgeting from the beginning of application season to graduation day, and even after. It’s important to be realistic about your finances. Say no to things you can’t afford, even when it pains you. Just ask yourself if Dave would approve.

5. Commute.
Like transferring in, this is another idea that doesn’t always fit into prospective college student ideals. But again, I had friends from college who commuted. I even commuted from home for my final year, and guess what? I still had a “college experience.” It might not be the one from the movies, but no college experience is like the movies. Commuting, when possible, saves thousands on a dorm room you don’t need. Like transferring in, finding a fit on campus will take more effort, but it’s still possible. There are even programs solely for commuters to connect.

6. Become an R.A.
Maybe living on campus is something you won’t compromise on. In that case, there are other options on how to save money and still stay amongst your peers. Resident Assistants, known as R.A.’s, are like the advisors of the dorm room floor. They enforce the schools rules, but also work to foster a community amongst residents. They plan events, attend meetings and try to maintain relationships with the residents of their floor. It is a lot of work. My roommate was an R.A. and watching her balance school and the job didn’t make me envy her. But she loved her job, and it helped her afford to stay on-campus. Typically an R.A.’s salary is the equivalent of housing costs. It’s not a responsibility to take lightly, but if you think you’d be a good fit, it’s worth trying.

7. Figure out your major.
You thought you wanted to be a doctor, but then you hated Biology. Then you thought you wanted to be an English major, because Shakespeare just gets you. But then you hated Theory and you really started to hate Shakespeare. So then you took Intro to Philosophy and figured out you wanted to be a Philosopher, much to your parents’ dismay. But at that point you were an entire semester behind. Changing your major costs money. If you aren’t sure, don’t declare one. Even if you are sure, play it safe and start with the general education courses. Give yourself time to fall in love with things, some of which might surprise you.

You might not be able to graduate debt free, and that’s OK. Education is worth the costs. If you don’t have to take out loans, don’t. If you do have to take out loans, be smart about it. Debt shouldn’t be an abstract thought you push from your mind until graduation day. It’s important to keep it in mind when making decisions. When you’re picking a school, when you’re thinking about changing your major (again), it’s important to talk about the costs. If you keep a healthy level of awareness, there won’t be a huge shock post-grad. Try your best to graduate debt free, and if it’s just not possible, get pretty darn close.

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Paige Dinneny is a recent graduate of Biola University. Born and raised in Southern California, she currently lives in Long Beach and is now pursuing her Masters of Fine Arts in Fiction at Cal State Long Beach. Her days are filled with many jobs including social media marketing, retail and this! She spends her free time writing, watching the Game Show Network and going to concerts.


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