How to cut down on college costs

College in the US can be expensive, but there are ways to make college cheaper. For example, look into colleges that offer free tuition in exchange for working on campus, or considering living off-campus with parents if the college is close by.

Elise Amendola/AP/File
People are led on a tour on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Aug. 30, 2012. College in the US can be expensive, but there are ways to make college cheaper, such as commuting from home.

In case you haven't noticed, we're in a lot of student loan debt. As of the end of 2013, the figure had soared to $1.08 trillion. Compare that to the total outstanding revolving debt in the US (which includes credit cards): $872.2 billion in May 2014, according to the US Federal Reserve. How bad is the problem? One company,, just put out a press release touting the virtues of selling estate jewelry to finance an education.

You may not have any spare jewels lying around to pay for Junior's higher ed. (No, gumball rings don't count.) But if you're willing to get creative and consider alternative approaches, you can cut some or even all the big expenses. Think of it as maximum value for your valedictorian-in-waiting. Here are some ways to do college on the cheap.

College for free, but it'll cost you

Bring up the subject of a zero tuition college, and there's a good chance folks think you're a few courses short of a full semester. But yes, it's true: There are some colleges out there that don't charge any tuition at all.

College of the Ozarks, a Christian college in Point Lookout, Mo., calls itself "Hard Work U" because students work on campus in exchange for their education. "Debt is openly discouraged and no federal, state or private loans are made," according to the school's website. But hey, who needs a loan when you don't have to borrow any cash in the first place? However, showing up for class late may be fine once in a while, but we're not sure what happens when you show up late for work.

Half for all, and all get half

Parents who need to borrow a truckload of dough dream of the day their son or daughter gets a full-tuition scholarship to college. Then again, you can theoretically increase those chances by applying to a school that gives out nothing but full rides. One such school is Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, which enrolls 125 students. But to get in you have to pass an audition; admissions are based on "artistic promise alone," the school's website says. Less than 7 percent of applicants make the cut, according to US News and World Report.

Even with the long odds, Curtis may represent an excellent choice for a musically inclined hopeful. But what if a student leans toward more traditional majors such as architecture, art or engineering? In that case, Cooper Union in Greenwich Village is an excellent choice. Though they charge for room and board, every student gets an automatic scholarship that covers half of the $39,600 yearly tuition. (That change begins in the Fall of 2014; prior to that, Cooper Union offered full scholarships.)

Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass. offers a similar deal, with all full-time beginning undergraduates receiving grants and scholarships that cover at least half of tuition costs, currently $43,500 per year.

Food costs are better off campus

As of 2011 (the most recent statistics available) an unlimited meal plan cost an average of $1600, according to statistics cited by the Money for College Project. You might think that going to a lower mean plan would produce some savings, and it can. At Loyola University Maryland, for example, a full meal plan with 14 swipes of a meal card costs $2000 per semester, or about $143 per week. A 9 meal swipe package costs $1650 per semester, or $183 per week — so while it’s cheaper in total, it’s more expensive per meal. In fact, per-meal costs can as much as double for partial meal plans.

So how do you save money here? Money For College recommends buying your own food (once you can leave the dorm and go off the college meal plan, usually after freshman year). That’s a recommendation that Kantrowitz agrees with. “The main way of saving on a meal plan is to choose the smallest required meal plan or to choose a living arrangement that does not require a meal plan,” he says. In fact, if you can cook lasagnas or mac and cheese bowls to last the week, or live off box cereal for breakfast, a single college student might easily get by on $75 a week in groceries, far less than what most college meal plans cost. Just don’t forget the Tupperware.

Fine arts, in negotiation

Let's say that you've applied to a number of colleges, but don't know which one will wind up the cheapest. Edward Fiske, a former New York Times education editor and author of the Fiske Guide to Colleges, says that the tuition number you see at first may be irrelevant because "there's so much discounting that goes on that a published tuition doesn't always have much relevance."

So how do you get that tuition lowered? "Don't make a decision in the fall of your senior year because you're locked into a position of having no negotiation power," he says. "In the spring, you're in a better position to compare financial aid offers." Then, don't be afraid to go to the school and ask for a better aid package. "It used to be tacky, but now colleges expect this [...] Have conversations with the financial aid officers with the school you're interested in. They have huge counseling operations because they want to do everything they can to help you pay the tuition."

So come prepared. While it's impossible to say how much of a break you might get, "Colleges may revise awards based on special circumstances such as an unexpected loss of income, a serious illness in the family, step-siblings' tuition requirements, and the costs of caring for an elderly relative," saysBarry Fox, a college financial aid consultant based in Merrick, N.Y. "If you think the calculated family contribution is unrealistic, be prepared to document why your disposable income, assets, and savings are insufficient to meet the amount."

Book that course: The least costly major for texts

Fiske says that books for science courses "tend to be more technical and more expensive. It depends on what the used book market is on a particular subject." But in general, literature courses will have among the lowest costs, for two reasons. First, "the books can be obtained from the library. If you're taking a course on the modern American novel, you can check out all the books at no cost." Even if you have to buy them, many "will be classics that are out of copyright and can be downloaded on a Kindle for very low cost," says Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of

Home cheap home: Finding the least expensive housing

The CollegeData says that the average cost of room and board in 2013–2014 ranged from $9,500 at four-year public schools to $10,830 at private schools, citing College Board statistics. Assuming you split at least $1,500 off those figures for meal costs, housing comes to about $8,000 (for public schools) and about $9,300 (for private). That said, there's some conventional wisdom that can apply to minimizing what you spend. "Colleges often have tiered housing systems with differentiated pricing systems, just like budget hotels, medium-priced hotels and elite hotels," Fiske says.

Or, you could live at home with you parents or a relative if they're close enough to campus. That can theoretically reduce your housing costs to near zero, but at another kind of cost, Kantrowitz says. "Much of what you learn at college comes from interacting with your peers on campus," he says. "And you won't get financial aid to cover expenses for living at home."

Exclusive schools with exceedingly low debt

Yes, Ivy League schools do cost a fortune. But that doesn't mean students will incur a mountain of debt. In fact the amount is surprisingly low, Kantrowitz says, because these schools (and about six dozen in all) have "no loans" financial aid policies. Grants replace loans in the financial aid package, and thus "the average debt at graduation at Princeton University, the school that started the trend, is less than $6,000."

How is this possible? "Part of the fact is that they have large endowments, and don't have many low-income students," he says. "So you could get an Ivy League education at a public college price. It's a pretty good deal if you can get it and they're not going to hold low-income status against you."

There are many other ways to keep costs down, though you have to use some caution. Exotic scholarships can be found all over the web "but never pay any money for this kind of information," Fiske says. "Never, ever do it because all of that information is available for free online." And perhaps the best way to get a bargain for college is to do the hard work in high school to get outstanding grades. "If you have a strong transcript, that means they'll offer you more aid to get you," he notes. "You should develop a strategy early where you're the desirable applicant."

Lou Carlozo is a contributing writer for DealNews, where this article first appeared:

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