Positioning yourself for financial success before entering college can seem like a daunting task. However, whether you are years or months away from entering, there are many ways to prepare yourself, reduce costs, and minimize stress. Links are included to the specific resources that I used, though for things like credit cards, you should always research for the current best offers.
Reducing the Cost of Tuition
In the 2013 TICAS report, it was discovered that 69% of students graduated with an average of $28,400 in student loans. While benefits of higher education are well established, there are ways to reduce this amount, regardless of your personal or familial financial history. I did it using the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams (https://clep.collegeboard.org/exam). Exams cost $80 apiece, and are accepted for credit in approximately 3,000 colleges and universities. Minimum qualifying scores and amount of credit earned can vary by institution, so it is important to check your institution’s policy before signing up.
A wide variety of scholarships can be found on national websites, but when looking for financial assistance, local scholarships with less competition are far easier to get. Depending on your intended major, look into local institutions that support your career goal. As a woman with a scientific focus, I was able to get a $2500 scholarship from a local hospital’s “Women in Science” organization. Hospitals, rotary clubs, and major, locally founded corporations are great places to start.
Reducing the Cost of Living
Assuming a student is not living at home, there are typically two options available: renting off campus, or staying in the dorms.
When looking for the most cost effective renting options, it is important to connect with as many campus resources as possible. Craigslist can be a great resource for apartments; however, many colleges will feature a board on campus with local property owners who want to rent specifically to college students, instead of the general public.
During graduate school, I rented the upper level of a beautifully renovated Victorian home that I found on a campus corkboard. Pro tip when renting: give yourself as many options to make payments as possible. Naively, I went to college thinking that my trusty debit card could be used in all circumstances, but that was not the case. My landlord would only accept payment by check, and there were massive holds put on my debit card when I travelled to conferences for school. I was two hundred miles from my local bank branch, but managed to get some cheap personal checks delivered quickly and secured a low-limit credit card for emergency travel.
If living in the dorms, one great option to reduce costs is to become a Resident Advisor. Typically, dormitory living costs more than an apartment, but offers the advantage of onsite dining, laundry, and sometimes workout facilities, in an environment with fewer distractions than an apartment. I paid for one year in the dorms as a freshman, but worked as a Resident Advisor for the next two. I had a free single room, a free premium meal plan, and a monthly stipend of about $250. I had approximately 5 “duty nights” per month, where I would do rounds of the dorms with a partner and report anything disruptive. Additionally, I planned events, decorated the floors, and attended weekly meetings, none of which ever interfered with school work.
Aside from the FAFSA, student loans, and scholarships, there are many creative ways to reduce the tuition and daily living costs of college life. Connecting with campus advisors, senior students, and university-sponsored websites is a great way to find unique savings opportunities on your own campus.