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The Smart Way to Attend College

Updated on April 22, 2015


An Awesome Accomplishment.
An Awesome Accomplishment. | Source

Not All College Students Are Equal

Some students will graduate college with loads of debt, and some will have none. You may be one of the lucky ones who has parents or a trust fund that will pay your way through what may be the most expensive four years of your life. Or you may be one of the smart, hardworking students who has been given a free ride from scholarships.

At a time when college costs are rising higher than ever, it's time you as a student put your foot down and approached college with a clear, well-thought out strategy to emerge with your degree in hand and without debt.

The Outrageous Cost of An Education

The rising cost of education has produced much controversy.
The rising cost of education has produced much controversy. | Source

First, Understand the Problem

More students than ever are either graduating with the debt of student loans, or even worse, dropping out of college without a degree but with thousands of dollars of student loan debt. This last problem is especially prevalent with for-profit colleges where students may realize, after taking student loans out and attending classes, that their highly (over?)-priced college is either sub par or their degree will not help them attract gainful employment or a decent income.

How much college debt are kids left with upon graduation? Thousands and of dollars of student debt! The amount will obviously vary depending on the college, location, and the financial mindset of each student, but it's time to lay it bare: this process is just too much of a burden for too many people.

If you have hundreds of thousands of dollars of student debt and your degree enables you to find employment in a good job that pays handsomely, you might not be too worried. However, there is still the problem of the state of the economy. Even if you are well-qualified, what if you can't find employment? There are also an incredible array of majors out there that do not lead to handsome paychecks. They are fun and you learn something, but you'll just never bring home the big bucks, or at least, you shouldn't expect to until many years in your industry. The most you can expect with a good quantity of today's majors is a moderately OK paycheck, better than if you didn't graduate college, but not all that great.

On top of student loan debt, too many students get adapted to a credit card lifestyle, racking up their debt when they either don't even have a job to pay it off, or don't have anything other than minimal payments to pay toward their debt.

What ends up happening is what we have now -- middle-aged and older people who are still paying off thousands of dollars of student loans and credit card debt! They feel stuck in the rat race and can't afford to work in an industry they might love but that doesn't pay well, because they must work the 9-5 grind so they can make those minimal payments on all their debt.

This is a bad cycle!

Another problem with student loans is that, as of this writing, you cannot declare bankruptcy on your student debt. That means even if you are broke, have lost your job, and can't find employment, or only find employment that doesn't pay much, you cannot declare bankruptcy on your student debt -- you'll still owe it. With the downturn in the economy, many, many people suddenly realized this. Not a fun mess to be in.

More Resources

One of the best ways to find scholarships is by using your friendly internet search engine. Search for "college scholarship guide" and you'll find many free very helpful resources. Also search by any specific scholarship by name, if you know it.

If you're looking to make the moola, check out this article about the Best-Paying Jobs by Major.

Learn to live frugally with my Most Excellent Tips to Save Money.

Travel cheaply by checking out The Best in Cheap Lodging.

Take the time to excel at your classes by learning more about How to Memorize Quickly and Efficiently.

Learn How to Get and Stay in Shape - easy and free!

Creativity Can Take You Places

Build a tiny home like this one while in high school to save money on lodging costs for college and beyond.  Find and salvage materials and work in the summer to pay secondhand what you can't find for free.
Build a tiny home like this one while in high school to save money on lodging costs for college and beyond. Find and salvage materials and work in the summer to pay secondhand what you can't find for free. | Source

How to Get a College Education Cheaply

If you are not a trust-fund baby and scholarships aren't going to give you a full ride, there are a number of things you can do to make your trip through college a less financially devastating one.

If you and/or your family plan years beforehand, you can make your college experience a financially light-weight breeze. If your family has been saving for your college since the time you were little, you'll have all that money to use. If your family hasn't saved for you (which happens to the best of families, it ~ gasp ~ happened to me) you need to take the reins into your own hands and start steering your life. Do you want to be saddled with THOUSANDS of dollars of student loan debt or do you want to figure out how to do this the easier, smarter way? You need to start planning and acting now when you have the time to allow your savings to accumulate. You can work during the summers full time in high school, and/or work part time during the high school year and save up money. You'll gain skills and experience. Get your own checking and savings account and keep the checking account virtually empty and just keep loading up your money into your college fund. Most importantly, work on keeping your grades up and keep involved with extracurricular activities that appeal to you. When the time comes, research and apply for scholarships.

Make the Right Choice
First off, you'll have to examine your own motives and life-goals. Let's say you want to be an actor or actress. A college education can be very helpful and show you are serious, but so can going to a decent trade school, where you'll learn a skill that will enable to work a flexible schedule and get paid enough to free up your time to pursue auditions seriously. Everyone has their own perspective, but that might be a better option if you think about what pursuing an acting career really takes.. free time and money to have a life and pay for photographers, classes, acting coaches, headshot printings, and publicity materials for mailings.

Take a realistic look at the industry you're interested in and see what the prospects are for entry-level pay and what a college degree in that major may or may not do for you. You'll have to do research and talk to people in the real world, not just the admissions department of an expensive college or institute.

If you're not someone who wants to stomach more years in school but want to be able to earn a good income, there's no shame in that. Trade schools might be a good choice for you, particularly if you have a proclivity to a certain field. Do your research and know what you're getting yourself into.

It is up to you to determine what is the best choice for you. You have to do your own self-examination and then do the research regarding the job market and schools.

Financial Aid
See if you qualify. If you do, great. You can factor the free aid into your financial decisions. But these days "financial aid" is synonymous with student loans ~ which means student loan debt ~ so if you only qualify for student loans, let me tell you, you can do much better than taking on years of payments if you are resourceful and determined.

Stay at Home and Commute
Oh, I know this is not as glamorous as living in crowded dorms with paper-thin walls next to people who want to party all the time, but slaving away for years at a job you hate to pay off debt is not glamorous either. This is the affordable way that I was able to get through college, attaining an AA and a BA, and emerge debt-free, having paid my way through college entirely with scholarships, part-time work, and full-time summer work.

Be Creative with Shelter
Ken Ilgunas lived secretly in a van to help pay his way through Duke University. Sleeping in a van may or may not be legal, but it certainly is cheaper than paying monthly rent on top of attending Duke. Ken had just finished paying off $37,000 of student debt for his bachelor's degree. He wanted to go to Duke University for graduate school and was determined not to get into more debt. He managed to graduate, debt-free, by taking advantage of the college gym for showers and secretly sleeping in his van at night.

Austin Hay built himself a tiny home at only 16 years old. It's on a trailer so he can take it with him to college and then anywhere else in the world he wants to go. I think this is one of the best, most creative ways to experience college and to do it cheaply. I would imagine that an admissions evaluator would think highly of a student who would choose to be so foresighted and take the initiative of ensuring for him or herself a mortgage-free life, along with a debt-free college experience.

If you do want to or need to move out to go to college, and dorms aren't an option, find an affordable roommate situation. Back when I went to college, mostly working part time, affording an extra couple hundred to pay for rent was not an attractive solution to me. My parents let me stay rent free so long as I was in college or would be continuing college soon during the periods I worked full time to save up money. Their generosity really helped me to graduate debt-free.

Go to Community College First
State community colleges are accredited, meaning the classes you take there will transfer to a 4-year college. Even though costs have gone up, community colleges are still your best bet for value. Value means that you are getting a good education for the amount of money you are paying. The first two (and often three) years of college are filled with breadth requirements anyway. Why go to a 4-year college, paying more to do so, when you can take the same classes that transfer much cheaper at a 2-year community college? Not only that, but it's often just a matter of a few more classes to earn your AA or AS degree. So you get an AA or AS degree, classes that transfer, and a lower price ~ all smart, great stuff.

State Colleges are Cheaper than Private Institutions
Going to a state college in your home state is cheaper than going to an out-of-state college. Going to a state college within commuting distance will be cheaper than moving out of your gentle parents' abode. Having 2 years of general breadth under your belt from your local community college will be cheaper than doing all 4 years at a 4-year state college. These are your best options financially speaking. I am not against people going to the college of their dreams at all. It's just a matter of understanding what you can afford easily and what will take more work and creativity on your part.

Do Your Best to Pay Your Own Way
That's right, I said it. Try NOT to take out student loans. Get a part-time flexible job. Live at home. Ride your bike, walk, or take the bus to commute. For most majors, there is a better way to attend school then to get into heavy debt with student loans. Even if the payments are low, they go on forever. If it matters to you to earn a decent income (and it should), turn a critical eye to your major's realistic ability to enable you to gain decent employment. No offense to him, but I'm sure you don't want to end up like Nick Keith, $142,000 of student debt and now homeless. He graduated from a culinary institute and was able to secure a whopping $10 an hour part time job doing assembly line work. It took him 3 months to come up with the first $1,500 loan payment.

Student loans are a serious commitment. If you change majors to one that has less attractive employment prospects, you might come to regret the amount of student loan debt you've racked up along the way when you hit reality and understand what your entry level pay is going to be.

Do NOT Get Credit Cards
On college campuses across the nation, credit cards and swag are practically thrown at students. You must resist credit cards. Do not sign up for a credit card because you get a free T-shirt, or a hat, or you can earn extra cash rewards, or super cashy points, or airline miles. Credit card companies are sharks and there is a whole side to them that you never want to see. Getting a credit card does not mean you are a grown up. The statistics are unfortunate regarding credit card debt and students: 76% of students have credit cards. Often that means, that for the first time in their life, it feels like they have money. They don't mean to, but they start spending. And suddenly they have racked up credit card debt that they can't pay off. How can they pay? They're just students, either working part-time or busy with classes. Some students must drop out of college because of credit card debt ~ they have to find full time work to deal with their bills. Then they have not only credit card debt, but often student loan debt, and no degree. They're not able to get a decent paying job because they haven't finished college. So they work full time paying off their credit cards and student loans and the dream of going to college and graduating becomes just that; a dream that gets put away. Sadly, some college students have even committed suicide over their credit card debt. It is not worth it to commit suicide. Avoid credit cards.

Work or Start a Debt-Free, Profitable Business
Do something that garners you an income. You'll need money coming in to pay for books, classes, commuting, food, etc. Try to find part time work in your field of interest if possible. OK, and by "Start a Business" I don't mean go deeply into debt. I know there are millionaires out there that started their own business in college, but most of them had some funds to begin with. Mowing the neighbors' lawns, babysitting, house-sitting, tutoring -- these can all be profitable and can be jobs or small businesses.

Be OK with Taking it Slow
I don't know if this will come as a surprise to you or not, but many, many students take more than the standard 4 years to graduate from college, especially if they change majors. The reason is prerequisites are not always available and the student must wait for the next semester or quarter to roll around to enroll in a needed class. Also, many classes are only offered once a year, so if you miss it, you have to wait a whole year to take it.

Now, if you are taking out loans, how much debt will be accumulated if it takes longer than the so-called standard 4 years to graduate? The answer is many thousands of dollars. This is another reason why many, many people are under the burden of thousands and thousands of dollars of school loan debt.

By taking some time off of school to work, you'll be able to save money up to pay for college. In Europe, taking a gap year is common ~ completely taking the first year before college to travel and volunteer. It gives young people time to experience living on their own for the first time, to experience a wider world, and to home in on what exactly they want to major in. Every person's situation is different, but if you really can't afford school, why not find interesting work that will allow you to save up until you can? You'll have to make sure your arrangements are wise, since working full-time and paying for lodging can make college a difficult endeavor. I once took a semester off school while I continued my full time summer work with a wine importing company. I had a blast and learned many skills. But I decided to quit after the semester was over so I could continue my education. I finished my last semesters of college working for a popular coffee shop. Got free drinks and a flexible schedule to boot. If you have your priorities straight you won't just drop out unless you know you have it in you to make the next Facebook or something (in that case, I wish you well). I'm glad I took the time to work full time while I was getting through college. I was able to easily afford the rest of my college and I gained interesting experience I wouldn't have gotten otherwise. So I didn't exactly graduate in 4 years? What I've learned about the standard go-away-to-college, live-in-a-dorm, and graduate-in-4-years experience is just how many people don't do that. And of those that do, at least for a great many of those students, taking out student loans and then end up paying them off years and years later is the norm. Because of the choices I made during college, I do not have to partake in that experience.

Learn to Cook
Cooking your own food will definitely save you money. Even in a dorm room, you can get a hot plate and a small (mini) refrigerator and that will save you money. If you live at home you're a double-winner, especially if momma loves to feed you. :) Costco and Sam's Clubs will save you money, and so can many produce markets. Farmer's markets are also fun and can have deals. Compare prices and use coupons.

Adopt Frugal Habits
It is very easy to save money when your ears perk up and you open your eyes to the possibilities out there. The simple and easiest way to save money is to stop spending and halt your shopaholic spendy ways. This takes a change in mindset, but as a student paying your own way through college, the truth is likely that you won't have much money to get spendy on anyway. You'll have to get creative and lower your gotta-have-brand-new standards. The first thing to do is to see where you are spending your money on, and then start making cuts. Stop going to Starbucks. Don't smoke (save your lungs too). Get your clothes at the Goodwill. Yes. Just wash them, they'll be fine and many are very fashionable. No one will ever know and you'll save a lot of money. Or, you can just rely on birthdays and Christmas for a new wardrobe. Listen to free music. If you must drink, take a flask with you. Use your student ID card to get discounts wherever possible. When you do spend money, party, and have fun, just keep it to a splurge, once in a while. If you see you're splurging too much, then cut back so you can safely pay your school bills without dipping into loans or credit cards.

Be Smart About Your Education Materials
Books and textbooks are a large expense. Do your best to get your hands on the syllabus as early as possible and then try to find the textbooks online used at places like, or by purchasing books from previous students. Then at the end of the course, after you've received your "A" and know you'll no longer need it, sell your textbooks. You might be able to get better prices selling directly to other students rather than the college bookstore. This isn't exactly kosher but I once found a buyer for one of my books directly in the college bookstore. I noticed he happened to be looking for a book I had just finished with that was waiting outside in a locker. So I offered him a little discount if he was willing to pay me in cash. He got a book for cheaper than the college bookstore used book price, and I got most of my money back on the book. Not that I am advising you to do anything illegal. You can use this same concept by just making friends with younger students that share your major. Become the go-to person for their textbooks and everyone's happy.

Consider Writing for Hubpages
As a writer on Hubpages, your articles can start to earn you money. It won't be a lot at first, and you'll have to write a lot, but the money will keep on coming, month after month, long after you wrote the article. Hubpages is full of free advice and information that will teach you how to be successful. It's free to join and there are never any charges ~ it's just your own work typing out interesting and helpful articles for others. As a student you have the added bonus of being close to good, helpful information. You can write about anything you want ~ social life, things you're learning about, skills and knowledge that you can pass on, it's practically endless. If you have any kind of a writing bent, I encourage you to try your hand on Hubpages. It's a lot of fun! An added bonus is you can put it on your resume as I have: Writer for Hubpages. :)

Consider Learning Online with Open Source Courses
For goodness sakes, MIT offers free, open-source classes online. You can learn programming languages for free all over the internet, and the US government has released all the materials for language learning to the public domain. These were courses that used to be taught to our foreign diplomats, so not to shabby. Other handy free resources for college students are your local public library, the free books available for Kindles and electronic readers, librivox, and the Project Gutenberg. Do you need the course for a credit or is it just for fun and knowledge? Look into your free options.

Invest in School of Phenomenal Memory Training
The School of Phenomenal Memory offers a memory training program called GMS (for Giordano Memorization System) that far exceeds anything else that's out there on the market. Students of this program who do the intensive work to get through 60 tough exercise lessons improve their visualization and concentration skills and can truly memorize anything much, much more quickly than your average Joe. You'll be able to memorize math equations, quotes, books, texts, tables, and more. I'm not kidding. (I'm a lifetime member of the School of Phenomenal Memory and have already read an article about it which you can read here.) If you want to be at the top of your class, or are taking an especially difficult major, I highly recommend you look into making the investment in their program. You will just blow your competition away using GMS. As it stands right now, when you join the School of Phenomenal Memory, you'll get lifetime membership for what amounts to about the price you'd pay for just one class at a community college. It is not easy but if you do the exercises and apply yourself, you'll see that their system works incredibly well and gets easier as you continue the exercises and practice. It's a life-changing class that I wish I knew about back when I went to college. Highly, highly recommended for any college student.

There You Have It

I hope I've given you some ideas to gear you up for tackling some of the most expensive and rewarding years of your life. Graduating from college is a dream held by many that anyone would be proud of accomplishing. Don't let the cost deter you. The more determined you are to get college paid for without getting into debt, the more likely you'll be able to succeed. Everyone has their own path in work, education, and life. I wish you the best in yours.

16 Year Old Builds Tiny Home for College

© 2012 carozy


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    • carozy profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from San Francisco

      Thanks Drstabile. Good luck paying off your loans!

    • Drstabile profile image


      6 years ago

      Great hub! I'm in the process of paying back student loans myself. I was lucky enough to find an ok job before I had to begin paying, but there are some real horror stories out there. Thumbs up!

    • carozy profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from San Francisco

      Thanks for stopping by. I'm looking forward to reading your hubs with a name like that!

    • tipstoretireearly profile image


      6 years ago from New York

      Excellent advice for prospective college students. Its not worth mortgaging your future to attend your "dream" college. Planning for college costs and taking steps to minimize them will lead to a better lifestyle after graduation. Thumbs up to this hub!


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