How Students Can Take Action to Make College More Affordable

by Sophia Bera on September 24, 2014

You’re starting college — and the cost is frightening. The average for in-state tuition at a public university was $8,893 for state residents and $30,094 at a private college for the 2013-2014 school year according to CollegeData.

(Yes, that’s a big difference between public and private schools. You can read more about why your private college might not be worth it.)

Before you start freaking out, check out the ideas below for how you can increase your income, boost your financial aid package, and cut your expenses. Remember, by just implementing a few of these ideas, you can significantly reduce the amount of student loans that you borrow.

The Importance of Reducing Dependence on Student Loans

If you borrow $2,500 less in student loans each year, that’s $10,000 over four years. If, instead, you take out an extra $10,000 in Stafford loans at a 6.8 percent, you’ll be paying $115 a month for the next 10 years, and that $10,000 will end up costing you $13,812 once you tack on interest. Even with repayment plans, that’s a big debt burden to deal with.

That’s why it’s really important to avoid taking out more student loans than you need, even if you’re eligible for more. Make sure you take out the subsidize loans first before taking out unsubsidized student loans and avoid private student loans at all costs.

The class of 2014 graduated with the most student debt ever — an average of $33,000, according to the Wall Street Journal. If you’re in college now, you probably don’t want to repeat that experience. So what are your options?

Start Hustling

The best way to make college more affordable? Earn more money. Yes, that means doing extra work between your courses, research papers and case studies — but the rewards are well worth the effort.

You don’t need to hold down a full-time job along with a full course load. Look into part-time jobs that offer flexible schedules so you can rack up your hours around your classes. If the idea of working for someone else doesn’t appeal to you, connect with your inner entrepreneur and create your own work with a side hustle. Put your knowledge, skills and abilities to work before graduation and do freelance or consulting work in your field.

Working while in school is tough. Keep yourself motivated by focusing on the return on your investment of time and energy. Not only will you earn cash to help manage your college expenses, but you’ll also earn valuable experience that will put you ahead of the pack when it comes to starting your career after graduation.

Reapply for Scholarships and Grants

If you applied for scholarships and grants and were previously denied, don’t let that stop you from trying again. A lot can change in a semester — including your grades. If you brought up your grades from the previous semester, you could be eligible for scholarships and grants you were passed over for before. Check with your department chair for scholarships for upperclassman in your major.

And if you lost your scholarship? Prioritize your time so you can focus on your studies to boost that GPA again. It can really make a difference in how much you end up paying for your education.

Learn to Live Frugally

It can be tempting to take out more student loans than necessary to finance a fun, you-only-live-once lifestyle in college. You have all these visions of going out to parties, buying a car, treating yourself after you’ve aced a test or project, upgrading to the fresh new apartments a few miles from campus, or going on vacation in-between semesters. It may be more fun to use money from student loans on this kind of stuff, but you won’t think it’s as much fun when you’re trying to pay those student loans back in a few years.

You should live within your actual means with whatever money you have available to you (and keep money from student loans exclusively for college expenses). You don’t need to be cheap, but you should learn to live frugally. Here’s what that might look like in action:

  • Frugal living means learning to cook your own healthy meals. (Being cheap is trying to survive off ramen noodles for four years.)
  • Frugal living means cutting back on alcohol and weekly brunches. (You don’t have to cut these things entirely, but moderation is key.)
  • Frugal living means seeking inexpensive alternatives instead of automatically springing for the most expensive option. Instead of trying to live by yourself in a two-bedroom apartment off-campus, consider living with roommates (or even your parents, if your college is local).

In short, be less wasteful. Realize that your needs and wants are two different things. Practice mindful spending, be more resourceful and seek to simplify. Life in college is already tough enough — don’t make things more difficult for yourself after graduation by ignoring your money, spending excessively, and landing in a whole pile of unnecessary debt that must be repaid.

Use Facilities on Campus and College Discounts

Most colleges have great amenities that students often ignore. If there’s a gym on campus, why bother paying for a membership elsewhere? If your laptop stops working, contact the information technology department on campus. If you aren’t feeling so great, head to the health care center.

You may have everything you need within a 10-minute walk from your living space. You’re already paying for it with your tuition, so take advantage.

And don’t forget to use your college ID to score discounts to activities on campus and off campus. Discounts are available on plays, museums, movie tickets and — my favorite — a Eurail pass.

Accelerate Your Studies

Taking just four courses (12 credit hours) per semester won’t get you walking across that stage, diploma in hand, in four years. And the more semesters you stick around, the more you’ll pay.

Your tuition may not change if you’re grandfathered in, but fees can go up — and they’re charged by semester. Don’t forget about opportunity costs, either: the longer you stay in school, the longer it takes for you to start your career and secure a salary. That means your future earnings potential is delayed.

So work hard and play hard. Do what you need to do to graduate in four years (stop changing your major!) and if you’re really ambitious, take summer classes and use advanced placement credits from high school to finish in three years.

This Is What It Means to Take Action

Not all of these tips will work for everyone; each takes time and effort to put into practice. And yes, sometimes it is tough to juggle everything required to be a successful student with taking steps to reduce your dependence on student loans.

Remember the title of this post. It included the words “take action.” It takes a lot of action for any student to accomplish working on the side, or getting through school as fast as possible. But if you’re willing to do the hard work, your future financial self will be thanking you because you graduated with that much less debt!