Keeping the Cost of College Down

A small, black paper graduation cap and tassel sits on top of paper dollar bills.

Between the high costs of tuition, living expenses, meal plans and textbooks, it is easy to see why college students are increasingly stressed about their finances. A 2015 survey  found that around 70% of college students feel stressed about their personal finances in general. As a current student at UCLA, I too have felt the financial strain of an undergraduate education. Luckily, I have found that there are many simple actions college students can take to reduce the cost of postsecondary education. Here are 5 tips from a current college student on how to make college more affordable:


  1. Manage your academic life

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 60% of college students in 2016 graduated within 6 years of beginning their studies. Every additional semester or quarter spent in school means more tuition spent. One of the best ways to save money in college is to graduate on time. Graduating within four years instead of six can save you tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and other expenses. One of the easiest things you can do to graduate on time is to manage your academic life. This includes planning and prioritizing classes necessary for graduation such as General Education (GE) and major requirements. Does the class “History of Rock and Roll” fulfill a GE or major requirement? If yes, then great, take the class! If not, then maybe take that English Composition class required by your university for graduation instead. By carefully planning out your classes for your entire college career, you can be sure to graduate on time or even early!

Effective class planning also includes ensuring that you take enough units each semester to graduate on time. In order to remain eligible for student aid, institutions require students to take a certain number of units per semester. Taking less than the recommended number of units at your institution can make it difficult to graduate in four years and can also jeopardize your student aid opportunities. Because of this, it is important to closely monitor the number of classes you take each semester and be mindful of the impact that dropping a class might have on your financial aid and graduation plans.


  1. Be thrifty with books and supplies

According to the CollegeBoard’s estimated undergraduate budget for 2018-19, students are expected to spend around $1,240 on books and supplies in a year. Early in my college career I often found myself spending hundreds of dollars at a time at the campus bookstore in order to buy the required textbooks for school. While books might be necessary for class, it is not necessary to spend large sums of money on them. Over my college career I have found that there are usually many cheaper alternatives to buying new textbooks from the campus bookstore. For example, if you are willing to do a little Internet searching, you can usually find a cheaper used book option online. Additionally, many college students directly sell their used textbooks to other college students on Facebook through pages such as “Free and For Sale.”


  1. Choose the right meal plan

In addition to tuition and books, meals also contribute to the high cost of college. If you are living in the residence halls, you are typically expected to purchase a meal plan, some of which are more expensive than others. By choosing the right meal plan, you can save some money, and still stay well nourished. I made the mistake of purchasing the largest (and most expensive!) meal plan my freshman year. At the end of the year I had 80 extra swipes, which is the equivalent of 80 extra meals. Clearly I did not get the full value of my meal plan. After switching to a smaller meal plan my sophomore year, I still had around 10 swipes left over at the end of the year and I saved $300.


  1. Budget

Budgeting can help students keep track of their day-to-day expenses, save money and practice planning for the future. Creating a budget can help ensure that you do not go overboard with unnecessary spending on expenses such as eating out and concerts. Fortunately, there are a lot of great resources available to help college students learn how to budget. For example, Federal Student Aid (FSA) provides students with information on the benefits of budgeting and how to create a budget. Additionally, there are plenty of free apps, many of which directly connect to your credit card, designed to help users keep track of their expenses.


  1. Look for free money

Looking for free money in the forms of scholarships and grants is another way to keep the cost of college down. Scholarships, which are usually merit-based and grants, which are usually need-based, are considered “free money” because they do not have to be repaid. There are a wide variety of scholarships and grants available to college students varying in size and purpose. For example, through your university there are often scholarships from outside donors given based on factors such as a student’s major, future career goals and background. Most scholarships and grants have an application process that sometimes requires short essays. The relatively little amount of time it takes to fill out these applications can come with a huge reward if you end up winning the scholarship. FSA also provides students with more information about scholarships and grants. 


College can be expensive and navigating these expenses can be stressful. Luckily, there are several simple ways to help reduce the cost of college. Carefully planning classes, buying used books, opting for the cheaper meal plan option, budgeting and applying for scholarships are all easy ways to conserve money as a college student. While these methods will not cover the cost of tuition entirely, hopefully they will help you save a little extra money and let you concentrate on studying instead of your finances.

 

Laura is a senior at UCLA where she studies Political Science and Economics. She currently works at UCLA’s Student Technology Center as a computer technician and interns for Federal Student Aid through the Virtual Student Federal Service internship program. After graduating from UCLA in June, she will move to Washington, D.C. where she will work as a consultant.