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How to pay for college: Your guide to a debt-free degree

The College of St. Scholastica By  The College of St. Scholastica  |  @StScholastica  | 

Pay-for-college

You're about to embark upon a journey to find the perfect college for you and, as you do, it will be difficult to ignore price tags. News headlines about student loan debt rising and loan default rates climbing paint a less-than-stellar picture of investing in a degree, and they are impossible to avoid.

Many colleges are listening to student concerns and working tirelessly to make a high-quality education more affordable, but your money-saving efforts don't have to limit you to choosing a cheaper, lower quality school.

You may already be planning on picking up a part-time job, but there are a handful of other things you can be doing—in preparation for college and while you're attending—to ensure that you're working toward a debt-free degree.  

We consulted several higher education experts and financial advisors to learn their practical, creative and downright brilliant secrets for soaking up the college experience without breaking the bank.  

8 innovative ideas for saving money in college

1. Submit your FAFSA ASAP!

You're likely familiar with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) if you've spoken to your academic counselor or your parents about paying for college. It's the form used by all colleges and universities to determine student eligibility for federal financial aid.  

"Many students and their parents don't apply for FAFSA money because they assume their family earns too much to qualify," explains Michael Boothroyd, director of SAT and ACT programs at Kaplan Test Prep. "That's a costly assumption," he says, adding that billions of dollars are awarded to millions of students nationwide from all income brackets.  

"Since FAFSA is first-come first-serve, the sooner you apply, the better," he urges.  

2. Take advantage of AP classes in high school

Most high schools offer advanced placement (AP) classes for students to experience advanced learning in preparation for college. While saying "yes" to another demanding commitment may sound less than ideal, it's important to think about the big picture.  

"If you aren't in college yet, make sure to take as many AP [classes] as possible," says Katie Schellenberg, founder and CEO of BeyondTutoring.com.  

AP courses offer you the unique opportunity to earn actual college credits before you even step foot on your chosen campus. The credits themselves are free, although students must pay a modest fee for the final AP exam. Taking advantage of this opportunity could cut your college timeline in half while also serving as a positive signal to admissions officers that you're ready to handle a college-level workload.  

3. Create a plan

Your future self will thank you for crafting a budgeting and saving plan as well as an academic one. Only 41 percent of American college students graduate in four years. That percentage increases greatly for students attending MN Private Colleges, but it never hurts to take precautionary measures.  

If you nail down your major early, you have the opportunity to map out your academic plan with an advisor—that way your college experience will feel more like a treasure map than a never-ending marathon.  

If it's important to you, you can also plan ahead by opting to major in a field that's in high demand. "It goes without saying that you should consider job reports and average salaries before committing to a major and a career," Schellenberg says.  

4. Treat the scholarship hunt like a part-time job

Hunting for scholarships can feel like sifting through a haystack just waiting to be pricked in the finger by that sought-after needle—in other words, a waste of time.  

"Many students miss out on scholarship opportunities because they simply don't put in the time," Boothroyd says. "Millions of scholarship dollars go unclaimed because students have not applied for the funds."  

It can be intimidating to put yourself out there in the midst of what may feel like some pretty stiff competition, but anything that lightens your financial burden will be worth it in the end! Peruse reputable websites like Scholarships.com and Chegg.com to see what you might qualify for.  

5. Customize your meal plan & use it!

"The biggest mistake I made in college was living by the 'What if I died tomorrow?' motto," says Chenell Tull, owner of BrightCents.com. "While it's great to live life to the fullest and have a good time, that shouldn't be an excuse to spend every dollar of extra money on buying unnecessary things."  

Take advantage of your meal plan by trying to limit how often you eat off campus. Many colleges will even let you customize which meal plan you'd like to use. Don't be afraid to choose a smaller plan if that feels more fitting. "While the larger seems practical, it can leave you with tons of spending money on your card at the end of the semester," Schellenberg adds.  

Schellenberg also recommends getting involved with local community agriculture or markets. You could have the opportunity to connect with a local economy, work in the garden and even take home some fresh produce!  

6. Buy used books

Depending on your chosen major, buying new textbooks can cost you more than $1,000 per year! But used books, on the other hand, promise the same education at a fraction of the cost.  

"There are so many resources for book buying, renting and exchanging," Schellenberg divulges. "You can even rent electronically from your local library, so make sure you have an active library card."  

If you opt to buy your books used from an online resource, scout the selections at the local library a few months in advance or locate a small group of classmates to split the cost.  

7. Utilize public transportation & student discounts

You'll only be a college student once—when else will you have shuttles available to take you to the mall or discounted ticket options at movie theaters?  

Having a car on campus will cost you more than just the biweekly gas fill-ups. Pocket the money that you would have spent on parking permits and take advantage of public and university-sponsored transportation instead, Schellenberg recommends. Many city transit systems even treat student IDs as season passes.  

You may also be surprised how many establishments offer student discounts. "Google, Yelp and ask for student discounts everywhere you go!" she adds. As long as you have your student ID handy, you're good to go.  

8. Let your saving determine your spending

We do this one backwards far too often. Rather than spending what you think you need and throwing the rest of your paycheck into savings, create a savings plan and stick to it, suggests Gene Natali, part-time lecturer and co-author of TheMissingSemester.com.  

"There is far greater peace of mind when you spend money [knowing] that you are preparing for your future," he says, suggesting students start by saving their first $1,000 and then reserving $10 from each subsequent paycheck thereafter. "Remember, when you invest or save the money, you aren't throwing it down the disposal. Instead, you are letting it grow and simply waiting to use it at a later date."  

Cut the price tag & pursue your dream

Once you wrap your mind around your career dreams, you'd hate for anything to deter you from pursuing them—especially the cost of college. The good news is there are several steps you can take to minimize that cost as much as possible.  

Heed the advice from our panel of experts to cut your own costs, and be sure to seek out a budget-friendly school that takes seriously your academic success.

Colleges and universities like The College of St. Scholastica (CSS) want nothing more than to see their students succeed. If you're interested in learning more about making college affordable, here are six one-of-a-kind scholarships offered by CSS.

The College of St. Scholastica


The College of St. Scholastica is an independent private Catholic Benedictine college with locations across Minnesota, in addition to many high-quality programs available online and through convenient evening and weekend formats. Since 1912, St. Scholastica has been preparing students for a life of purpose and economic gain by engaging students in the love of learning and active citizenship in the world. Our mission is to provide intellectual and moral preparation for responsible living and meaningful work. 

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