How to keep a handle on college costs

About 19 million kids head to college this month, which is likely to have their parents in a mild panic about how to pay the bills. Even if you saved religiously from the time your child was a toddler, the stock market has worked against you over the last decade, leaving many families short.

Worse, college isn’t a one-time expense. One of my friends likens it to buying a luxury car, then driving it off a cliff. “Repeat that four times,” he said. “Then you can imagine what it’s like to pay for college.”

Of course, the hope is that college will pay off in increased earnings for your child. But that’s only if your child goes to the right school and manages to graduate and get a job. What can you and your child do to boost that chance and reduce out-of-pocket costs in the meantime?

Check the school’s record. Colleges demand detailed records about students before they’re accepted. Before you write your first tuition check, check on the school’s performance, too. How many people who start at that school continue for a second year? How many graduate in four years? What about six?

The dirtiest secret in higher education is how poorly some colleges perform when it comes to retaining and graduating their students, said Ali R. Malekzadeh, dean of the Williams College of Business at Xavier University in Cincinnati. Paying tuition to a school with rotten retention and graduation statistics is probably a huge waste of money. The National Center for Education Statistics offers a great Web-based tool called College Navigator that gives the essential statistics.

Get credit for Advanced Placement classes. A lot of students take advanced placement classes but fail to take the tests that determine whether they get college credit for the courses. It’s worth it to study and take the test. Many colleges accept these courses as transfer units, but only if the student gets high marks. The tests cost $86 per subject; that’s a fraction of the cost of even a single unit at a public or private university. Each class that’s accepted by a college reduces the number of units a student needs to take, ultimately reducing tuition costs.

Consider junior college. If your child has already been accepted to a four-year university, he or she may not want to delay admission for a year or two to complete general-education requirements at a junior college. But the difference in costs is astounding. A typical 12-unit course load is going to cost a little more than $600 a year in tuition and fees at a California community college; roughly $4,800 at a California State University; $9,200 at the University of California; and roughly $30,000 at a private university, according to

A possible compromise? Your child can attend the university but arrange to take summer classes at the community college in your hometown. (Make sure your child talks to a college counselor and picks only courses that can be transferred.) Combining a few AP classes with units earned in summer school at the community college can make it possible to shave a year off the four that are normally required to graduate. That not only saves a year of tuition and living expenses, but it could also allow your child to start work a year earlier. That could be worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Rent or borrow books. Textbooks can be insanely costly, but with some advance planning, a student can rent or borrow them for a fraction of the cost at the campus bookstore. Several sites, including, allow users to check on the most affordable options for assigned texts.

Work for food. Ever heard of “hashers”? They’re the people who show up at a sorority for meal times and help serve and clean up. In return, they get free meals and sometimes get paid a nominal sum. A student can work for a restaurant or school cafeteria and probably get either free or discounted meals, too. This won’t pay for everything, but it can help supplement a basic meal plan without eating up cash.

Pack a lunch. Cooking may not be allowed in a dorm room, but a mini-fridge can hold sodas and the makings of a decent sandwich. Packing a sack lunch is more healthful and far less expensive than heading to the cafeteria for the mystery meat du jour.

Pay as you go. Can’t pay the tuition all at once without borrowing, but think you could handle it if the cost were spread into 12 monthly payments? Call the school and ask whether you can set up a payment plan. Thousands of schools allow parents to spread their payments out, without paying interest.

Use care with loans. There are two types of student loans—those offered through the federal government, which are low-rate and loaded with borrower protections; and those offered by private lenders, which are not. If you must borrow, seek federally guaranteed student loans, which have a maximum interest rate of 6.8 percent. Most private loans have variable rates, and those rates can run into the high double digits, which can double the cost of your education in no time.

Host a garage sale. While your student is packing up for school, it could be a great time to clear out the closet (and the garage and attic) and put things up for sale. Hosting a garage sale can add a few hundred dollars of spending money to your child’s pocket to handle some of those college expenses.

Every dollar saved and earned is one you won’t have to borrow.