Cutting College Costs: Understanding The Cost And Value Of Your Degree

There’s a myth that expensive colleges are always better than the cheaper ones. As if higher college costs means that you’ll automatically get a great job, you’ll have an extremely high salary, and more. Well, that’s not always true. According to an article in The Wall Street Journal: From the academics [who have studied whether students…

Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Last Updated: May 31, 2023

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There’s a myth that expensive colleges are always better than the cheaper ones. As if higher college costs means that you’ll automatically get a great job, you’ll have an extremely high salary, and more.

Are colleges with higher college costs always better? Here are some other things you'll want to think about when paying for college and college tuition.Well, that’s not always true.

According to an article in The Wall Street Journal:

From the academics [who have studied whether students from elite institutions outperform their peers or not] we know that in terms of future earnings, 1) your choice of field matters more than your choice of college, 2) after controlling for ability, the earnings differences of graduates from elite and non-elite institutions are small at best, and 3) any earnings advantage that may emerge over the long run is difficult to concretely tie back to the effects of one’s college choice.

According to Forbes, tuition for an in-state public college averages around $28,000. Private college tuition was double that amount at an average of $59,000.

For a four year elite university, the cost jumps to $68,000.

And, if you’re attending higher education for something like medicine or law, your college costs may reach hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years that you are in school.

As you can probably see, college can be very expensive and there is no doubt about that.

However, I want you to know that it is possible to get a valuable college degree on a realistic budget.

So, before you take out a reverse mortgage or dip into your retirement account to pay for your child’s education, I want you to read this whole blog post.

And, read this one too – You Don’t Have To Go Broke For Your Kid’s Education.

I believe that parents should only fund their child’s college education if the parent is on track for retirement.

This is because there are multiple ways to pay for college (paying for it with cash, student loans, grants, scholarships, etc.), but there is only one way to fund your retirement.

Remember, you cannot take out a loan for your retirement!

This means you should not wreck your retirement plans to help your children through college. You should analyze your financial situation and where you are on your track for retirement to see if helping your children through college is possible. If it’s not possible, be realistic with yourself and your child. At the end of this article, I have listed several ways for a parent to help their child with college costs that don’t involve paying for their college tuition.

I have heard far too many stories of people who think that college is unattainable, that they need to take out a second mortgage, a personal loan, loads of student loan debt, and so on in order for them to go to college or for a parent to send their child to college.

However, while college can be expensive, there are ways to lower your college costs so that you aren’t drowning in debt when you are done.

Or, you may even be able to attend college without racking up any student loan debt. Remember, that is possible as well!

Related articles on college costs:

Here are ways to cut college costs and save money on the average college tuition:

 

Think about the value each college will offer you.

Instead of thinking of attending the most popular college, you should be thinking about the best college for your specific major.

Sometimes, the very best college or the most expensive college may not be the best for your actual major, which can hurt you in the long run and also cost you a lot of money.

When thinking about whether or not a college is right for you, here are some things you’ll want to consider:

  • The accreditation of the college- this is especially important if you want an advanced degree, such as medicine or law, because accreditation can determine whether or not you can go on to the next level of schooling.
  • The degrees that are offered by the college.
  • The college costs and whether scholarships or financial aid are available.
  • The location of the college.
  • Student to faculty ratio – If you need more one-on-one help with your studies, then this may be an important number to know.
  • The expertise of the professors – For me, I always liked to have professors who had hands-on knowledge in the fields they were teaching.
  • Networking opportunities – A lot of life is about networking, and for some professions networking is a must.

 

You need to think about the full cost of college.

College costs can span a huge range.

The most expensive school may actually be able to give you more scholarships than a less expensive school, which might mean the most expensive school may actually be the cheapest in the end, and this is why you need to think about the total cost.

And, there are still many great colleges at a very low price point too.

There are many factors that determine real college costs, and due to this, you’ll want to think about things such as:

  • College tuition – this will most likely be the biggest expense that you pay.
  • Room and board – will you live on campus or not?
  • Fees – this can include laboratory fees, parking fees, etc.
  • Textbooks – textbooks can easily cost a few hundred dollars each semester.
  • Financial aid – will you receive any?
  • Scholarships – will you apply for any?

All of these factors put together may change your mind on which college provides the best value.

 

Remember that college isn’t the only thing that’s important.

When thinking about college costs and how to pay for them, you also want to remember that college isn’t the only thing that’s important. Yes, you definitely want to learn as much as you can when in college while attending the college with the best value, but there are other factors that are extremely important as well.

These other factors may help you land the job you want too.

Some of the other points you’ll want to keep in mind include:

  • Internships
  • Extracurricular activities such as college clubs
  • Part-time and full-time jobs
  • Leadership opportunities

And more!

By being able to include these things on your resume, you may put yourself ahead of others that are applying for the same position.

Remember, companies want to see that you can apply what you learn and that you actually have experience.

 

Take community college classes to cut college costs.

Whether you are in college already or if you haven’t started yet, taking classes at a community college can be a great way to save money.

Community colleges provide an enormous value. However, many think they are too good to save money by taking classes at community college.

Usually, earning credits at a community college costs just a fraction of what it would cost at a 4-year college, so you may find yourself being able to save thousands of dollars each semester.

You may only spend $4,000 a year at a community college, which is a huge difference from the costs that were mentioned at the beginning of this article.

There is also a myth that your degree is worth less if you go to a community college. That is not true at all. When you eventually earn your 4-year degree, your degree will only say where you graduated from and it won’t even mention the community college credits. Your degree will look the same as everyone else that attended your college, whether you took a few classes at community college or not. You might as well save money because it won’t make much of a difference.

I only took community college classes during one summer semester where I earned 12 credits, and I still regret not taking more. I probably could have saved around $20,000 by taking more classes at my local community college.

Also, the types of classes you will most likely take at community college are just general credits, so it’s not like you are missing the interesting in-depth classes that give your 4-year college the reputation they are known for.

If you decide to go to a community college first, always make sure that the 4-year college you plan on attending afterwards will transfer all of your credits. It’s an easy step to take, so do not forget! You should do this before you sign up and pay for any classes at the community college.

 

Take advantage of high school classes that give you college credit.

Many high schools allow you to take college classes to earn both college and high school credits at the same time. Most of the time, these are done right at your high school, so you don’t have to go out of your way to take them!

If you are still in highschool, this is something I highly recommend you look into, as it saves time and is one of the best ways to save on college costs.

When I was in my senior year of high school, nearly all of my classes were dual enrollment courses where I was earning college and high school credit at the same time. I took AP classes and classes that earned me direct college credit from nearby private universities.

Due to this, I left high school with around 14-18 credit hours (I can’t remember the exact amount). I had knocked out a whole semester of college before even starting. I could’ve taken more, but I decided to take early release from high school and worked 30-40 hours a week as well.

 

Take all of the credits your tuition allows for.

At community colleges, you typically pay per credit hour.

However, at many universities, you pay a flat fee for your college tuition. So, whether you take 12 credit hours or 18 credit hours, you are paying nearly the exact same price.

For this reason, I always recommend that a student take as many classes as they can if they are going to a college that charges a flat fee tuition. This will allow you to take full advantage of high college costs.

If you think you can still earn good grades and do whatever else you do on the side, definitely get full use of the college tuition you are already paying for!

 

Apply for aid and scholarships to lower your college costs.

To lower your college costs, you should see if there is any financial aid or scholarships that you may qualify for.

Before you start your semester, you should always look into scholarships, grants, FAFSA (click here to read my FAFSA tips), and more. Paperwork for the following semester is usually due around spring, so I highly recommend doing this as soon as you can if you are planning on attending college in the fall.

Sadly, many people believe that scholarships are impossible to get. That is just a myth.

I received around $16,000 a year in scholarships to the private university I attended. That helped pay for a majority of my college tuition. The scholarships were easy for me to get because I earned good grades in high school and scored well on tests. I received scholarships to all of the other colleges I applied for as well- just for good grades, so I know they can be found as long as you do well in high school!

There are still other ways to find scholarships. You can receive scholarships from private organizations, companies in your town, and more. Do a simple Google search and I am sure you will find many free websites that list possible scholarships.

Tip: Many forget that you sometimes have to turn in a separate financial aid form directly to your college on top of the FAFSA form. Contact your college’s financial aid office and see if there is a separate financial aid form that you should be filling out as well. Don’t forget to do this by the deadline each year!

 

Search for cheaper textbooks to lower your cost of college.

There are a lot of college costs, and one of them is college textbooks.

Students usually spend anywhere from around $300 to $1,000 on textbooks each semester, depending on the amount of classes they are taking and their major. Just one textbook alone may cost as much as $400!

When I was in college, many of my classes required more than one book and each book was usually around $200 brand new. This meant if I were to buy all of my college textbooks brand new, I probably would have had to spend over $1,000 each semester.

I saved a decent amount of money on textbooks by renting them and/or finding them used. Renting was nice because I only paid one fee and never had to worry about what to do with the textbook after the class was done, as I only had to return them. There was no worrying about the book being worthless if a new edition came out, which was nice! Buying used textbooks was also nice because sometimes I could make my money back.

Related tip on saving money on textbooks: I recommend Campus Book Rentals if you are looking for textbook rentals. Their rentals are affordable and they make getting the textbooks you need easy.

 

Find ways to make money to pay for your college tuition.

While I wasn’t smart enough to graduate from college without debt, I do know of many amazing people who were able to attend college and pay for their college tuition all on their own. They did it with a mixture of the tips above, as well as finding ways to make money that allowed them to pay their college tuition bill in full each month.

Whether you only have one free hour a day or if you are willing to work 40 to 50 hours a week on top of being in school full-time, there are many options when it comes to earning extra money.

Here are some things you can do to pay for those high college costs:

  • Find a part-time job.
  • Look for a paid internship.
  • Make money online such as creating a blog, becoming a virtual assistant, etc.
  • Become an Uber or Lyft driver – Spending your spare time driving others around can be a great money maker. Read more about this in my post How To Become An Uber Or Lyft Driver. Click here to join Uber and start making money ASAP.
  • Maintain and clean yards. You can make money by mowing lawns, killing/removing weeds, cleaning gutters, raking leaves, and so on.
  • Move furniture and find jobs on Craigslist. Movers can earn a broad range when it comes to hourly pay, but it’s usually somewhere around $50 an hour if you run your own business.
  • If you love animals, then you may want to look into how to make extra money by walking dogs or pet sitting. With this side hustle, you may be going over to your client’s home to check in a few times a day, you may be staying at their house, or the animals may be staying with you. Rover is a great company that you can sign up with in order to become a dog walker and pet sitter. Learn more about this at Rover – A Great Way To Make Money And Play With Animals.
  • Babysit and/or nanny children.
  • Sell your stuff.
  • Rent a spare room in your house to someone else.

Learn more at 65 Ways To Make Extra Money.

Related tip on how to pay off student loans: I highly recommend Credible for student loan refinancing. You can significantly lower the interest rate on your student loans which may help you shave thousands off your student loan bill over time. Through Credible, you may be able to refinance your student loans at a rate as low as 2.37%! Plus, it’s free to apply and Credible is giving Making Sense of Cents readers a $100 bonus when they refinance.

 

Other ways you can help your child get through college.

If you cannot afford to pay for your child’s college costs, or if you decide that you just do not want to, there are many other things you can do to help them.

You can:

  • Help your child understand personal finance. Helping your child understand personal finance, such as creating a budget and understanding college costs, will help them greatly in life. I recommend reading How To Create a Budget.
  • Support them and help them make a plan. Even if you are not offering financial support for college, you may want to support your children in other ways. This doesn’t mean that you have to agree with what they do, rather help them by giving advice and coming up with a solid financial and college plan.
  • Help your child find ways to make money. There are tons of ways to make extra money, and helping your children find ways to do so can help them pay for college and their living expenses.
  • Inform your children about affordable college alternatives. For example, your child may only think they should go to an expensive private university, but it’s important for you to inform them of more affordable alternatives, such as going to community college or a state university.
  • Help your child apply for scholarships. There are numerous scholarships that your child may qualify for. Some may require them to write essays, whereas others are based on high school grades. Most take very little effort and are given away by the college itself, this makes applying for them a no brainer!
  • Help your child in other ways. For some reason, there is this myth that helping your child go to college means you need to pay for everything. Instead of paying for their tuition, textbooks, food, dorm, car, and everything else, set limits on the college costs that you’ll pay for. You might help by giving them emotional support, letting them stay in your home while they are in college, helping them find ways to save money for college, helping them cut their college expenses, and more.

What other college costs am I missing and how can a person lower the cost of college? How much student loan debt do/did you have?


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Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Author: Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Hey! I’m Michelle Schroeder-Gardner and I am the founder of Making Sense of Cents. I’m passionate about all things personal finance, side hustles, making extra money, and online businesses. I have been featured in major publications such as Forbes, CNBC, Time, and Business Insider. Learn more here.

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  1. Mustard Seed Money

    I took classes at community college and also went in state to a public college. This significantly lowered my tuition bill. Plus some of my friends that went out of state are still paying on their student loans and are now starting to regret the decision b/c it is holding them back in other areas of their life. They have admitted that they would do things differently if somebody had been up front about the real costs of out of state tuition when they were 18.

    1. Yes to this >> “They have admitted that they would do things differently if somebody had been up front about the real costs of out of state tuition when they were 18.”

      Many people end up feeling that way.

  2. The Giving Budget

    I did not graduate college debt free like my wife did. But I did work a full 40 hour a week job and go to college full time. It was hard but totally worth it. I have many friends who are still paying on their college debts and will be for years down the road! One friend is $120k in student loan debt. Did not apply for any aid and wanted to live the college life. I bet he regrets that now.

    One thing I encourage people I talk to is if you are not sure on a degree yet. Go to your local community college and get those gen. classes out of the way. It saved me tons! Also, I personally think trade schools are as good of a college education as some people might need!

    I am a firm believer in working hard and having relationships will get you farther in life than a piece of paper. While college is still important it might not be for everyone and if not done carefully could rack up a small house mortgage of loans!

    Thanks again for the awesome post!

    Barnabas

    1. Not applying for aid always kills me. WHY NOT?!

    2. Natasha @ Inspiring Single Mothers

      Hi Barnabas! I love your website and the work you’re doing. Much success to you!

  3. My biggest regrets with college is not taking dual credit courses while I was in high school and not taking full advantage of community college courses.I could have saved so much money just skipping one semester at a larger university, especially since I never even finished my degree.

    While I hope to be able to fund my children’s college, I know it might not be possible to fund the whole thing with costs rising every year. I love that you’ve provided alternative ways for parents to help their children before and during college!

    1. Yes, there are always other ways to help ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Should I FI?

    I still think a college degree is important in today’s job market, however I believe that the college at which you got that degree is becoming less and less important. I work for a company that has a culture of only hiring from the most “prestigious” schools, however they are starting to come to the realization that their hiring process is becoming obsolete. What’s the most important thing, graduating from Stanford or having some experience?

    If you can land an internship in the field that you want to go into, it will pay off in spades when you’re ready to enter the job market. I definitely didn’t go to the best college and I wouldn’t say that my MBA is held in high esteem, however I had internships since my freshman year in college and I landed a great job relatively easily. Even better, my internships were well paid ones and I was able to finish college with zero debt. Finishing with no debt is partially due to the internships but also due to the fact that I went to an in-state school where the tuition was low. If you have confidence in yourself and can be active on an internship search then the name of the school on the degree is less important than the degree itself!

    1. Yes, THIS! I went to a good college for my undergrad and my MBA, but it definitely wasn’t “prestigious” school as you say. Me having worked full-time was always a topic in job interviews and put me above everyone else.

  5. Mrs. Picky Pincher

    I feel like we’re not given the truth when we’re told to choose a college as young adults. I went to an incredibly expensive private school and my degree isn’t commensurate with what I earn. I think in the future we’ll see better alternatives to the traditional four-year degree.

  6. Good stuff Michelle! We work with so many college-age young-adults and 99% of them think there is no way to graduate college without a TON of student loans. Any tips, like this, that help them understand ways to cut costs – and maybe even graduate WITHOUT debt – go a long way!

  7. This is great advice Michelle! My thoughts about college have really changed over the last few years. With how expensive it has become people really need to do some cost/benefit analysis on it. My main question is if their major make them enough money to get from under all of that student debt. Looking back at my undergraduate program that is tough to say yes to. It was a $100,000 program and most people would come out making $30k to $40k a year. Luckily, I had parents that could help me out.

    – Adam

  8. Kathy

    We put our son through college and grad school with no debt, doing many of the things you mention. Many students do not need or want to go to college and vocational school is a great alternative for them. Also, college selection is very important. You don’t need to go to Harvard to be an elementary school teacher.

  9. Great post Michelle! We paid cash for my husband to get his associates degree. It wasn’t easy, but we are SO glad not to have student loans.
    He went to a “career focused” college where all of his classes were important to his degree instead of a liberal arts college where you have to take multiple unrelated courses.
    His internship was also super important. Having a good internship gave him real experience which was what employers wanted. He got a job right away because of it.
    I think one mistake a lot of high school graduates make is getting caught up in the idea of wanting the “college experience”. It’s exciting to be more independent and you want to make new friends and have tons of fun. What’s most important is getting the right training for a good job. The fun stuff happens anyway.

    1. Yes, internships are great and provide valuable experience!

  10. Amanda @ centsiblyrich.com

    I transitioned to grad school directly from undergrad and graduated with an additional $18000 in debt. If I had to do it over again, I would have worked for a while to save money and decide if grad school was really worth it to me.

    We are encouraging our kids to take as many college credit courses in high school as they can. It’s free!

    My son has decided to go into the Air Force to get his tuition paid. It comes with it’s risks, but he is confident in his decision and knows it will help him get a good start.

    1. Yes, taking college credits in high school is such a smart decision. It wasn’t free when I was in school, but it was only a few hundred dollars.

  11. Manuel

    I’m glad that I don’t pay for the university more than โ‚ฌ200 per semester in Germany. I have also great support from my parents as they allow me to still live at their house and get a small amount of pocket money. The rest is earned by my own with a job as a working student. In Germany, you are very restricted on how much you are allowed to work as a student. But I will leave with a master degree and totally no debt at all! That’s really great.

    I highly agree with The Wallstreet Journal that the choice of field is much more important than the choice of the college.

    A funny thing here for Germany: In Germany, private universities have a much lower reputation because you don’t need good grades to study there and they are often seen as a ‘pay for your graduation/marks’ way.

    1. That’s interesting that you are restricted with how much you are allowed to work. I do think that working can be very helpful, as real experience can put you above everyone else.

  12. Great thoughts Michelle! It’s okay to “get a job” when you’re at school and still succeed in your studies. It is possible!! In fact, you’ll probably have a higher GPA overall. You’ll just have 10-20 less hours drinking and playing video games (speaking for myself here).

    1. Yes, exactly! I worked full-time the whole time and it really helped me.

  13. Matt

    To me the school you decide to attend is less important than the work you put in once you’re there. I’ve seen people who graduated from big name schools amount to nothing because they costed through and didn’t really apply themselves. Meanwhile someone who went to a community college may work tirelessly and ultimately end up better off than the grad with the fancy school on their resume.

    1. Yesss! It’s more about how hard you work.

  14. I wish I would’ve known all this information prior to going into $206k of debt from undergrad and law school! So thankful I’ve paid off $97k already – hoping to be debt free in the next couple of years (depending my blog income). Fingers crossed!

    1. You’ll be debt free in no time!

  15. Someone told me when I was young to do community college for the first 2 years. I didn’t want to stay at home for college so I didn’t listen. I wish I’d taken that advice more seriously and thought about community colleges in different cities. This is a great post!

    1. Yes, I wish I would have spent more time at community college. I think I only spent one summer there but I did save a lot of money!

  16. Awesome post. The rising cost in colleges is insane! It’s so sad that so many of our friends and family have gotten their degrees, along with basically a mortgage payment.

    We both went to community college then a state college. Two HUGE decisions that really help us start off on the right path for financial success.

  17. Great job on graduating with much less debt than the average.

  18. ReachingTheCrest

    “Remember, you cannot take out a loan for your retirement! YES!

    I really think parents need to step up and stop the insanity with some of these college choices. Why go out of state when in state is so much cheaper. Pedigree of degree means less and less these days. The real shame is that the value of that degree is going down.
    There will be more and more kids who do the 2 years at a community college and then transfer.

  19. I chose to work during college and pay for it myself. I’m so glad I avoided debt, especially because I didn’t even get to use my bachelor’s degree, I found work in a totally different field!

    I wanted to apply for a scholarship (because I thought – yey free money!), but needed excellent grades to get approved. Since I worked, I couldn’t exactly focus on getting the best grades possible. I’m not sorry though, I did save a lot by buying used books, borrowing notes from those who graduated one year sooner, I didn’t need to live on campus and I also bagged my lunch each time I needed to so I wouldn’t spent at the cafeteria ๐Ÿ˜€

    1. I wish I was more smart during college. I worked full-time but thought that students loans were “normal” so I didn’t make any effort at paying them off until after!

  20. I’ve loved reading this article. You’ve raised one of the most common issues in a family. When our kids pass out of high schools, it’s time for their college and arranging college fees is really tough for parents. You’ve really provided us with great alternatives and solutions on the issue. Your work is worthy of appreciation. Thanks a lot.

  21. Michael

    My parents covered my undergraduate degree and I was on full scholarship in grad school. I didn’t come out with any student debt. However, I did spend recklessly during college and came out with a large credit card debt.

    I was fortunate to acknowledge the problem early in life and address it right away.

  22. If I could go back I would have taken classes at the community college and then transferred to a 4 year. Instead I graduated with $25,000 of student loan debt. Luckily I paid those off several years ago and it still feels really good!

  23. Natasha @ Inspiring Single Mothers

    Wonderful post! My daughter is starting high school this year. I’ve always talked to her about money and college. Now, we are preparing spreadsheets with scholarship information and making sure her grades stay top-notch throughout high school as they have been through elementary and middle school. I am mentally preparing her to apply for at least 100 scholarships. I’m saving as well but to receive scholarship money is my prayer. Thanks for the detailed information Michelle!

  24. Haydn Deal

    This is really great content Michelle!

    The part about ensuring your retirement savings are taken care of before helping pay for college is so important. From my own experience, I was really appreciative when my parents assisted with my in-state public undergraduate tuition, and my brother was as well when they helped him with him out-of-state private college tuition.

    Since then however my brother and I talk often about how we are worried about what our parent’s retirement looks like, so in that way it’s been somewhat detrimental on both fronts.

    I know with my son (he’s only 1 so I have some time) I plan to implement as much money management and personal finance experiences as I can to give him better footing when he is ready to step out into the world so he can be confident in making better decisions about his finances, and allow my wife and I to pay down our debt and increase our retirement savings.

    Thanks again for the thought provoking post!

  25. Dave

    My wife spent $20k to earn her teaching degree from a state school. One of her co-works spent $80k to go to Lehigh. Another co-worker spent $120k to go to NYU. They are all on the same payscale.

  26. Scott

    You go to elite schools for an impressive alumni network. The thinking here is if I go to Wharton, my name is connected to people like Warren Buffet. Although you might have gone to the same school, it doesn’t exactly mean you’ll get the same return that Buffet did. In fact, you’d probably make a lot less than he does but enough to where you are comfortable.
    Secondly, those schools do have alumni who recruit from the school they graduated from. Instead of going through the usually run-around interviews, you already did half the work by attending the same school they did. Sure they can ask about your coursework and qualifications, but more often then not they’d probably talk about old professors and dorm parties.