The College Post
The College Post -- Covering Higher Education in America

How Can Students Minimize Their College Expenses?

Obtaining a college degree is a common and sizeable expense for many American families, and students routinely take on substantial debt in the process, but there are a number of steps students can take to make their education more affordable and economically beneficial according to some experts. 

Many students incur debt to cover the cost of their college education and often struggle to pay off their debt. Student loans are such a massive source of debt in the U.S., they total over $1.6 trillion, a figure so staggering the phenomenon is regularly referred to as a “student loan debt crisis.” 

According to Jay Fleischman, a longtime consumer protection attorney and student loan lawyer, students should try to find ways to minimize out of pocket expenses before taking out student loans. Fleischman told The College Post, students could consider community college, their choice of university, and potential job prospects after graduation. 

After that, Fleischman suggested students look at ancillary costs like textbooks, lodging, food, and transportation and find ways to bring those costs down. From there, students can look for scholarships and grant opportunities. Only then, Fleischman said, should students consider taking out federal student loans, leaving private student loans as a last resort. 

“You want to be able to look at it as an investment and what is the probability of a positive return on your investment,” Fleischman said. “It’s kind of a cold way of looking at it when you’re 18 years old and just looking to go to college, but it’s something that I think everybody needs to be prepared for.”

Another thing to think about when considering the cost of a college education is choice of major. The field of study a student chooses to pursue can affect their long term outlook in terms of how much they’ll be making and how quickly they’ll be able to pay off their student loans.

“The majors that are valuable are the ones that are obvious in the marketplace,” Henry Levin and education economist and professor emeritus at Columbia University told The College Post. “Not just the sciences or the maths, but good liberal arts backgrounds like communications, writing, analytics, and thinking skills.”

Students should also think about where they decide to go to college. Different universities have varying costs of tuition, graduation rates, and other factors like in-state or out of state tuition that can affect the cost of getting a degree.

Attending community college instead of heading straight to a four-year university, for example, can be a good way for students to reduce their tuition costs.  Fleischman, however, believes the benefits of attending community college go beyond just lower tuition.

“Community colleges are closer to home and… it’s easier to adjust to college life if you still have some of the things that are familiar to you around you,” Fleischman told The College Post. “A lot of people go away to college and report difficulties adjusting…so community college is a great way to mitigate those potentially negative effects and help you transition into life as a college student and hopefully perform a lot better.”

Community college doesn’t come without some drawbacks, however. For example, community colleges tend to have lower rates of completion, meaning attending a community college could increase a student’s chances of dropping out of college. As far as Levin is concerned, whether it’s smarter for students to attend community college is “up in the air.”

“Certainly from a fiscal point of view [attending community college] is a better decision,” Levin said. “Others say if you don’t start or your college, you hurt your chances of completion.”

If a student drops out of college after shouldering debt to do so, it can leave them in a worse financial situation than where they started, with little hope of higher-income employment opportunities. According to a study from the Community College Research Center, the biggest determining factors in whether a student transfers from a community college to a four-year university are their grades and the number of community college credits earned.

Levin also pointed to research showing for-profit institutions generally have worse outcomes for students than non-profit colleges.

“The research literature finds big differences between the not-for-profit and the for-profit,” Levin said.  “The distinction in terms of drop out rates… is absolutely substantial.”

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, for-profit institutions have lower graduation rates and higher rates of students who default on their student loans compared to non-profit institutions. Further, tuition at for-profit universities is significantly higher than at non-profit institutions.