Six ways to keep college costs down

I read a lot of personal finance blogs, and most of them got into blogging about money because they had large debts of their own to pay off.  Credit card spending was a significant part of the total debt for most of them, and most also had (or still have) student loans to pay off.  There are some that say that student loan debt isn’t “bad” debt, because the interest is tax deductible.  There are others who say that all debt is bad and they want to get rid of it ASAP.
 
I have a student loan that I’m paying off, that got me through library school.  I was doing medical transcription at the time, and my salary was enough to pay my daily expenses but not to pay for school.  So, I took out a small (by many standards) loan, that I’m paying off over 10 years (6+ years to go).  The payments are low enough to be comfortable, and I don’t feel burdened by it financially.  And I do like the tax deduction.  So, I’m not making any extra payments to pay it off.
 
I know people who leave college with six-figure student loan debt.  I can’t imagine.  I know of many more people with student loans in the mid to high five figures.  I feel fortunate to have gone to college when I did; tuition was still very low in some places then.  I paid for college totally with scholarships and grants; my parents chipped in a little for room and board, but there was no debt involved.
 
I don’t know if this will help anyone out there, but here are several pointers to consider when you are deciding on a college.
 
1.  Make sure that you attend a school that is accredited, by the large nonprofit organization for your region.  For instance, the accrediting body in the southeast is called SACS, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.  Theirs is the only accreditation that counts.  There are other “accreditation” organizations out there, but they don’t count.  Find out what the official accreditation body is in your area, and make sure your school is accredited by them.  If not, your credits won’t transfer, and you may not be able to sit for licensing or certification exams.  You may also not be able to get hired; for instance, all librarian jobs require an MLS from an accredited school.  Library schools are accredited by the American Library Association as well, and there may be another accreditation that your program requires.  Make sure you have all the facts on that.  Otherwise, all the money you spent on your education might be wasted.
 
2.  Consider a community college.  Tuition is significantly lower than at four-year colleges.  In Florida, if you get an AA from a state community college, you are guaranteed admission to one of the state universities.  (You’re not necessarily guaranteed admission to the program you want; that depends on your grades, etc.)  You can stay closer to home, or even stay at home and save room and/or board costs, if your parents are amenable to that.  Community college schedules tend to be very flexible, too, because many of our students work.  If you can work and go to school, you may not have to borrow any money at all.
 
3.  Consider a public state university over a private school.  They are usually much less expensive, especially in-state tuition, and the education is often just as good, if not better.  I got into graduate school with a degree from a state university just as easily as I would have with a degree from Harvard or Johns Hopkins.  The “name” of the school you go to doesn’t matter nearly as much as it used to in most professions.
 
4.  Don’t borrow any more than you need to, and don’t live extravagantly.  One of my six-figure school debt friends could have borrowed much less if he hadn’t leased a nice car, bought a new computer every year, had the latest cell phone, and eaten out almost every meal.  Now he’s paying for it – literally.
 
5.  If you’re not sure college is for you at all, don’t jump right into it.  Take some time off and do other things.  Working or volunteering for a year may change your outlook completely.  Don’t let anyone pressure you into going to college before you’re not ready and eager to.  That’s a good way to take a lot of classes that you don’t need because you change majors 4 or 5 times.  That’s expensive. 
 
6.  Explore other options.  A college degree may not get you where you want to be.  One area that is predicted to be short of workers in the near future, if not now, is auto mechanics.  An auto mechanic program is a one-year certificate at many community colleges.  There are many other good professions that pay decent money that still only require a certificate or a two year degree.
 
I believe strongly in higher education, but I believe in being smart about it.  I’m also a strong proponent of public institutions.  So – make sure you know all your options, and be smart.
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