I recently drove by a billboard sponsored by the College Foundation for North Carolina. It featured a bright young boy and the tagline: “College is just around the corner! Start your 529 plans today!”
Of course, the sentiment is well-intentioned. Parents should try to save early and regularly for their children’s future education.
But parents also ought to pay off credit card debt, contribute to retirement accounts, have an emergency fund, pay for daycare, and buy groceries, health insurance, and new school supplies.
The fact is, most parents feel financially squeezed. So it seems off-putting that we try to shame or inspire people to save for their children’s future college education when every dollar can go toward a more pressing need today.
If you want your kids to graduate from college debt-free, but didn’t start saving before Junior was conceived, check out these 10 tips for lowering the cost of college.
1. Honest Communication
Want your child to graduate from college debt-free? Tell them that’s your goal for them. Explain the cost of college and how much (if anything) you can contribute.
Start the college-cost conversation as early as middle school and keep talking until your kid walks across the stage at their college graduation. You are responsible for ensuring your children understand the costs and the consequences of debt.
2. The Importance of Saving to Lower the Cost of College
Every parent I know wants to direct every penny of savings to their kids, but that’s often not possible. While your kids are in elementary and high school, prioritize your retirement savings over their college funds.
Investing 10 to 20 percent of your income for retirement gives you some margin in your budget.
While some parents believe that they can cut back on your retirement savings to help offset some of the costs of college, experts disagree.
“After basic needs — that is, food and shelter — funding a retirement plan comes first,” says Robert R. Johnson, Ph.D., professor at the Heider College of Business at Creighton University.
“I believe there is a misconception among many Americans that Social Security will provide for their retirement,” Johnson says. “They are in denial about the standard of living that relying solely on Social Security will provide them.”
“While retirees with no savings have virtually no options to fund retirement, there are many options with respect to a child’s college education,” Johnson adds. “Quite simply, a parent choosing to fund retirement over a child’s education should emphasize that later in life, they don’t want to be a financial burden on the child.”
3. Graduate From College by Age 19
Did you know that most states offer dual or post-secondary enrollment options for academically capable high school students?
That’s right — in most states, your kid can get a free college education while he or she attends high school.
You may be thinking: My kid is smart, but she’s no genius. Don’t discount your child’s abilities. You don’t have to be a genius to succeed in a dual enrollment program. You just need to be capable and willing to work.
With dual enrollment — not to mention AP and CLEP exams — many students can complete three years of college by the time they graduate from high school. Only having to pay for a single year of college can go a long way toward lowering the costs.
4. Work Full-Time, Go to School Online
So your kid is 17 years old and does not have a single college credit. What’s more, you may not have saved a dime. Never fear! He can still graduate from college debt-free. It will just take more time and flexibility.
Encourage your child to work full-time while working toward his degree.
The job will give him the money he needs to pay for tuition without going into debt. With a full-time work schedule, your kid may need to choose a more flexible school option, such as an online degree program.
There are also plenty of 20-somethings who work full-time and go to college. It may take them an extra year, but they learn self-reliance and the value of hard work, which is invaluable as they enter the real world.
“Experience has taught me that when you pay for something out of your own pocket with your own hard-earned money, you cherish it and appreciate it more,” says Johnson.
“When one has skin in the game, one appreciates the accomplishment more. If one contributes to paying for their education — either through money earned through work or scholarships earned — they appreciate the achievement more,” Johnson adds.
5. Work While in High School to Lower the Costs
Working while still in high school will help your kid develop confidence, money smarts, and time-management skills.
They’re going to need those skills to graduate from college without debt.
In an ideal world, your teen will also manage to save cash to defray his own college costs. In reality, he’s likely to spend a ton at Starbucks. But working still provides a great foundation for future money management.
6. Apply for as Many Scholarships as Possible
Most students won’t earn a full-ride scholarship to college, but there are loads of smaller scholarships out there. Even minor ones help when it comes to lowering the cost of college. Every dollar counts.
To help your child find different scholarships, there are a few different options. If you are willing to spare the expense, purchase the Scholly app. For $45 per year, it helps students connect with thousands of scholarships.
If not, there are plenty of free options as well. The Going Merry app allows students to search for and apply directly to scholarships, while providing a time estimate to see how long it will take to apply to each. Scholarships.com is another great resource that allows students to switch between the website and mobile application seamlessly during the search.
7. Discourage Car Ownership
Okay, so this isn’t strictly a way of lowering the cost of college, but it can help. Many college students want to own a car, but if debt-free graduation is the goal, discourage your kid from buying one.
The truth is, cars are expensive to purchase, own, and operate.
Edmunds, a company dedicated to helping consumers find the perfect vehicle, has a “True Cost to Own” calculator that explains just how much it will cost to own and operate a vehicle.
Public transit, a bicycle, and the rare Uber ride can help your kid keep their living costs low so that their hard-earned money can go toward tuition.
8. Move Somewhere Cheap to Lower the Cost of College
If you live in the Northeast, every university costs a lot of money. The average student in the Northeast spends more than $35,000 per year on education, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.
Elsewhere in the country, the average runs from $19,181 to $21,577. Here in North Carolina, in-state tuition for UNC Chapel Hill is just $8,986 per year. For comparison, in New York, the in-state tuition for the University of Buffalo costs $10,524 per year — and living costs are higher, too!
Want to stay where you are? Financially independent kids can establish residency in a different state to gain access to in-state tuition costs.
9. Hack the FAFSA
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is an obnoxious college financial-aid form that every parent grows to hate. But if you want to maximize your aid, do what it takes to hack the FAFSA. Usually, this means thinking two years ahead.
In general, you won’t get many grants (free money) from the FAFSA. But your school is likely to use the FAFSA to help issue other forms of need-based aid.
“[Certain] scholarships are contingent on GPA, but the FAFSA must be completed to be eligible,” says Stephanie S. Young, Ed. D., a college access advisor. “Most schools use the FAFSA as a baseline to determine eligibility, not only for federal and state money, but also institutional.”
“For example, if you have two children in college at the same time, a school may give a [grant] based on the FAFSA information that shows another child in college,” adds Young. “In addition, work-study and institutional scholarships can be awarded.”
10. Pick an Affordable School
If attending an Ivy League school means going $100,000 into debt, consider helping your child find a more affordable top-flight public university. The caliber of an institution weighs heavily in the minds of most current students, but the value of a brand-name school is suspect once you start working.
When choosing a college, students should ultimately consider their projected career path, the importance of networking in their field, and personal preferences before considering the name of the school that will be on their diploma.
It may be worth it to attend a less prestigious school if it means lowering the cost of college.
In order to select the right school for you and your child, it is important to speak with a guidance counselor or college advisor to help you make your decision.
The Bottom Line on Lowering the Cost of College
Though college can be expensive, there are many options parents can take to ensure that their kids will not remain in debt forever. With the right choices, kids can afford a quality education at an affordable price.