Among the class of 2015, 68% of graduates reported borrowing student loans to pay for college. But did they all need to? Most students turn to loans, but if you want to minimize your education costs, take advantage of the following 16 tips before, during, and after college.
1. Find Free Money
The absolute best way to save money in college is scholarships and grants. These are free money, so every dollar you receive is a dollar less to borrow.
2. Calculate Net Price
The type of school you attend may determine how much you borrow. Many state or public schools have lower price tags than private schools, but they also tend to award fewer institutional grants. Private institutions may be more expensive, but their endowments may allow them to award more debt-free financial aid.
Every school must have a net-price calculator on its website. Use this with the Department of Education's College Navigator to find schools that meet your needs and your wallet's.
3. Investigate "Meet-Need" And "No-Loan" Schools
There aren't tons of these, but schools with "meet need" or "no-loan" policies shell out enough grant aid to ensure low-income students have no loans in their financial aid package. They may also cap loans, match your Pell grant, or eliminate the need to pay any more than your expected family contribution (EFC). About two-fifths of schools of schools with endowments over a billion dollars have these types of policies.
4. Get Credit Before You Enroll
If you're in high school, getting high enough scores on AP tests may earn you credit toward your degree, saving you on course costs. However, some schools use these credits to place you out of core requirement classes, but you still have to take the same number of courses overall to graduate. Ask your prospective colleges about their policy.
All students may also be able to earn credits through The College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) and DSST. These programs offer dozens of exams in different subject areas (exam fees are as low as $80). If you pass, you could earn college credits—just make sure the school you want to attend will accept them.
5. Get Community College Credits
See if you can take evening classes at a local community college to count toward your degree. You'll pay an extremely lowered rate, and it will look great when you apply to your top 4-year picks. Just be sure that your credits will transfer.
6. Take A Break
It can really help to take a break before college (a "gap year") to determine what you want to do. Backpacking around Europe won't save you money, but landing an internship or part-time job could help you figure out what type of work you will enjoy doing after college (as well as put some money in your pocket). Then, when you start college, you'll be less likely to switch majors or schools—both of which can be expensive.
If you take a year off and already have a college in mind, think about moving to that area. That way, you can establish residency and possibly attend at in-state prices.
7. Take More Credits
Even if you don’t bring a bunch of credits to school with you, you can still reduce your debt by graduating early. One way to do this is increasing the credits you take each semester. In fact, some schools actually charge the same for 15 or 18 credits as they do for the standard 12-credit course load. By getting more credits for your money and finishing school early, you essentially double up your savings!
Worried about taking that many courses in a single semester? Look into summer classes instead. They are typically less expensive than regular semester classes. Plus, you could pay even less by taking them at a community college, as long as the credits transfer. Talk to your adviser about these options to see which works best for you.
8. Win Even More Scholarships!
Scholarships are not only for first-year students. Scholarship deadlines are all throughout the year, and many schools have institutional or endowed scholarships for upper classmen. Like most scholarships, these tend to have specific eligibility criteria, but it doesn't hurt to ask your financial aid office.
9. Borrow Federal Loans Before Private Ones
If you're going to borrow loans, taking on federal student loans could save you money in the long run. Federal loans have low, fixed interest rates and forgiveness, deferment, forbearance, repayment options, and protections that private student loans don't.
Private lenders may advertise low rates, but these are typically for the most creditworthy borrowers. They also tend to require cosigners. Talk to your school's financial aid office to make sure you maximized all of your federal and free money options before borrowing private student loans.
10. Figure Out Where To Live
If your parents don't live far from your school, save on rent or residence hall costs and live with them! You will probably have to pay for gas or public transportation to get to and from class, but the savings should outweigh those.
If that doesn't work, talk to residence life about your dorm options. Typically, triple rooms cost less than double rooms. Think of it as selling some of your personal space for thousands of dollars. Also, consider becoming a resident assistant/adviser (RA). Typically, RAs get free or heavily discounted room and board.
You could find a cheaper option living off campus as well. Budget for everything (rent, utilities, etc.) to ensure you're saving, and check with financial aid before moving. Going off campus could affect your financial aid package, so don't sign a lease until you know what the bottom line will actually be.
11. Change Your Meal Plan
In many cases, first-year students don't get much choice in their meal plan; however, upperclassmen tend to have more flexibility. Think about how many meals you need or how much money you need in your dining account. You don't have to live off ramen (no one would blame you if you did, though), but if you never eat breakfast, why pay for 21 meals a week?
12. Cut Textbook Costs
You can save on textbooks and supplies in many different ways. Try online retailers, visit used bookstores, or see if you can rent your textbooks or buy eBooks—all of these may be a better deal than your campus bookstore. Many states offer a tax break for textbooks as well.
If you need the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, or another publication, try sharing a subscription with other students to save money as well.
OK, so you did everything above (good for you, by the way) and you still have student loans. Your college expense choices may be behind you, but you still have options to reduce you debt.
13. Create A Budget
The first step to saving money at any point in your life is to create a budget—and stick to it.
14. Choose An Income-Driven Repayment Plan
Income-driven repayment plans base your monthly payments on how much you make. Federal loan borrowers may be eligible for income-based (IBR), income-contingent (ICR), Pay As You Earn (PAYE), and Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE) repayment plans. These options may lower your payments; however, they offer potentially bigger savings by forgiving your remaining balance after 20–25 years, depending on the plan (that amount would be taxable).
You need to apply annually, but these options may save you a lot of money if you have a high student loan balance or work in a low-paying field. Use Salt's Repayment Navigator to estimate your payments under each plan.
15. Look Into Forgiveness
Depending on where you work, what you do, and where you live, you may qualify for special loan forgiveness or student loan repayment programs. Check out 100+ Ways to Get Rid of Your Student Loans (Without Paying Them) to learn about all of the programs Salt® has found so far.
16. Pay On Time—And Early!
Obviously, you want to make your loan payments on time. However, paying on time for a certain number of months may decrease your interest rate. You may also get an additional interest rate discount by selecting automatic payments. Ask your loan holder about these options.
And, of course, the best way to shave money off your debt is to make extra (or extra-large) payments. This will limit the amount of interest you pay overall. There's no penalty for prepayment with federal student loans. For private loans, check with your lender about their policies.