Your education is undoubtedly an investment in your future, and in your capacity to earn over a lifetime. However, I would like to encourage you in the strongest terms possible to avoid accumulating debt during your student years. Here are a handful of simple ways to save on the cost of your college education-- from someone who knows:
-CLEP tests. This pretty much allowed me to graduate at all. These are computer-based tests that you pay about $75 dollars for (though probably a bit more these days, and the cost may vary by institution) that award college credit for prior knowledge (though you can also just memorize a textbook on the subject, like I did for a few of them). I earned a year and a half (18 hours) of credit this way, and saved myself many thousands of dollars, being at a private institution.
-Think long and hard about your choice of major. I followed my less practical instincts and majored in Creative Writing-- and now, a few years later, I'm shelling out cash to pay for education classes, since I am now-- as I knew perfectly well I probably would be-- a teacher. I still plan to be a full-time writer someday, though, so the background is still useful to me. Just make sure you graduate with an actual plan. And, ideally, a backup plan.
-Use distance education-- right now a 3-credit-hour distance course I am taking through a public university here in NC costs only $350. At for-profit distance education universities, the price might be almost double, so try to find these courses through a public institution or community college.
-Increase your load to graduate early. I did this towards the end and, by upping the number of CLEP tests I was taking as well, squeezed two semesters of work into my final one. Obviously this saves you not only tuition costs, but dorm, food, and general living costs-- thousands of dollars.
Handy tips for current high-schoolers
-Consider dual-enrollment classes while still in high school. I
tried this my senior year but unfortunately became over-committed and
ended up withdrawing. This is a great opportunity to get a head start on
your college graduation requirements and get some general ed courses
out of the way-- and, importantly, it gives you a feel for what will be
expected from you in college course work.
-Consider community college. If you do this for even just your first year of college, while you're taking the general classes, you could really save a ton of money.
-Do apply for every scholarship possible! Do the research. Treat it like a job. I won some I didn't think I had a chance at-- and I can guarantee you will miss out on 100% of the ones you don't apply for.
Additional tips for saving money while in college
-Whenever possible, buy textbooks used online, and at the end of the semester sell them online-- the bookstore buy-back scam at the end of the semester just takes advantage of you. If you sell the book online you may well break even, assuming they haven't published a new edition in the last ten seconds (which happens, unfortunately, quite often).
-Think about living at home-- this not only saves the cost of a dorm or an apartment, but should allow you to skip the mandatory meal plan, or at least get a lower-priced one. One of the biggest wastes of money for me in college was the mandatory meal plan-- I always had a large quantity of unused meals left over at the end of the semester, with no roll-over.
One last tip for college students (or those soon-to-be)
Run far, far away from credit cards. If you do choose to get one-- if you can be grown-up about it, you can start to build your credit history-- always pay the balance in full before it's due. But I'll be honest, the vast majority of college students (myself included, at the time) should just run in the other direction. The data supports this-- the average college student graduates with thousands in consumer (credit card) debt. Choose to be the exception.
And one really final tip, and by far the most important:
Enjoy it-- college never lasts nearly as long as we'd like it to.