It’s no big mystery that as the costs of a college education continue to rise, so does student debt. The student loan system has reached all-time records of default rates and outstanding debt, leading many experts to declare student loans a national crisis. This has sparked wide discussion – from high schoolers to presidential nominees – about what can be done to solve this complex issue. While there is no consensus yet on the fix-all measures that need to be taken, there are more localized, personal steps that you can take to ease the financial stress around higher education. 

Select the Right School for Your Wallet

The first and most effective tactic is making the best, most reasoned choice about which school to attend. Your ‘dream school’ may be across the country, or perhaps it’s nearby but it didn’t grant you as many scholarships as you had anticipated– it is imperative to think about whether it will be genuinely worth it to opt for that preferred, more expensive school compared with an in-state institution that has far more affordable tuition. A recent analysis of average tuition costs concluded that, on average, private colleges cost almost ten times more per year than the average community college, and it is highly doubtful that private colleges actually provide their students ten times the value of a community college. 

Even comparisons between in-state public colleges versus out-of-state public colleges call the sizable tuition discrepancies into criticism – on average, attending an out-of-state public four-year university costs more than double the price of attending a comparable one within your state. Unless you have been awarded high-caliber academic scholarships or special accommodations to only pay in-state fees for that out-of-state college, it would be wise to deeply consider whether going outside your state for college is really a better option. Many states offer scholarships that cover the total costs of tuition for the first two years of school if you attend a community college, at which point transferring to a public university to finish your undergraduate studies would be much more feasible, and paths such as these are both very reasonable and underutilized. 

Apply for Federal Student Aid

The next step to saving as much money as possible is to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) which provides access to a number of grants and scholarships you otherwise would be ineligible to receive. It is worth noting that not all of FAFSA’s financial aid forms are solely based on family income. If the high cost of college – even after collecting as many scholarships and grants as you can – is still too great, completion of the FAFSA also entitles you to take out federal loans to pay for college, which tends to be a better choice than taking out private loans due to the diverse range of repayment options as well as loan forgiveness offered by the federal student loan system. Furthermore, federal loans do not require good credit or steady income on the part of the applicant, nor a co-signer.

Utilize Free or Discounted Resources

Some methods of saving money on education are more practical, to be followed after you’re already at college. These include: renting textbooks or selling them once you’re done (college textbooks are highly expensive so do not waste precious funds buying ones you’ll hardly use or treating them badly and damaging them, lowering their resale-value); taking advantage of all the on-campus amenities offered by your college (access to which is already built into the attendance costs of the school, so use of these resources is just common sense and a good way to get your full money’s worth); and working or starting a side hustle to establish an income stream (many colleges offer on-campus job programs that give preference to current students, allowing attendees to earn a decent wage in the hours between classes and prior commitments, without having to go very far out of their way). 

Stay Thrifty, Spend Thrifty

There are even additional, less obvious ways to save money in college. One is to be mindful to shop at places that offer student discounts; these  savings off your purchases add up fast. Another would be spending less on technology – you likely don’t need the ‘best’ personal computer on the market to write papers or do your online homework, and many college libraries offer access to desktop computers seven days a week. Splitting expenses with friends and family whenever possible is also a good practice to save money, whether it be on cellular bills, groceries, or entertainment. Lastly, be smart when school is out of session and travel cheap– when going home or on vacation during breaks, see if you can split the drive or gas-money if someone else is going your way, and look for cheap flights, even if they are slightly less convenient than ones that cost extra.