5 Hacks to Help You Save Money on College

It's insanely tough, and it will take some ingenuity and effort, but it's possible to finish college without $50,000 or more in debt.

(Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

Jun 16, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Melissa Rayworth is a regular contributor to TakePart. She has also written for the Associated Press, Salon and Babble.

The numbers are mind-blowing: Estimates last year found that the cost of a college education have increased more than 500 percent since 1985. At an in-state public college, you'll easily spend $25,000 for a bachelor’s degree. If you go out of state or choose a private college, expect to pay closer to $50,000.

A lucky few have parents who were able to save that much toward their education. But most young Americans enter freshman year knowing that student loans will dog them well into adulthood.

Of course, there are exceptions—people who find a way to creatively pay for a semester’s education without borrowing huge sums or getting help from deep-pocketed parents. Some of the college-cost hacks you’ll find below involved years of planning and effort; others were born out of creative thinking and plain old hard work.

All five are products of young-American ingenuity—the stuff college can’t necessarily teach.

1. State Switch

As a freshman, Caitlyn Bishop was a New Jersey girl paying a whopping $26,000 per year to attend the University of Texas. She scrambled to get through the first year with help from her parents, but four years like that just wasn’t going to work.

So Bishop gambled: She returned to Austin for sophomore year, but she didn’t register for classes at UT. Instead, she got a job off-campus and took courses at a local community college. She continued living with UT friends in an off-campus apartment while slowly becoming an official Texas resident.

When she returned to UT the following year, she paid in-state rates, plus she was able to put those inexpensive community college credits toward her UT degree. Now two years out of college, Bishop estimates that this creative approach lowered the cost of her degree by about $60,000—money she would otherwise be shouldering right now as student loan debt.

Residency requirements differ from state to state, but it’s worth looking into the rules to see if you can find substantial savings.

2. Professional Princess

Holly Hoover isn’t a real princess, but she’d like to play one on TV someday. So she’s been dressing up as one ever since high school to earn money toward her college education: She started a business hosting princess-themed children’s birthday parties with a group of theater friends. Hoover arrived at Albright College in Reading, Pa., last year with money saved, and she has continued the party princess business as a college student.

Its not a huge moneymaker; she’s earning a little over $1,000 per year right now. But along with covering the cost of books and other incidentals, the princess business figures into her post-college plans: If she moves to New York or L.A. to pursue her acting career, those are cities where high-income parents will pay a whole lot for fabulous kiddie birthday parties. So this creative business will also be a guaranteed post-college job.

3. Patchwork Puzzle

Robyn Manning-Samuels earned a small academic scholarship to Marlboro College in Vermont, but it didn’t cover much. So she took every job she could get under the Federal Work-Study program, plus additional jobs. Computer lab monitor, campus van driver, receptionist, mail room worker, Women’s Resource Center program coordinator, and more: Each semester she created a patchwork of income, fitting all these jobs together with her class schedule.

Every step seemed to require more ingenuity. Saving on room and board by becoming an RA disqualified her from Work-Study. So the following year she found an affordable room off-campus and an off-campus job, then commuted on a free shuttle bus instead of buying a car. The hours were long. There was no room for luxuries. Finally, it paid off: Her hard work so impressed people on campus that she landed a full-time job working for the college when she graduated last December. She does have $31,000 in federal loans, but the total could have been twice as high. And when loan repayment kicked in last month, she was employed and ready to handle it.

4. Serious Scholarship

It’s a scholarship like no other: Every year the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gives 1,000 American minority students the title of Gates Millennium Scholar. Each gets their bachelor’s degree paid for in full at the school of their choice, and can get funding toward a master’s and even a doctorate.

“You basically have to start working on it your freshman year of high school,” explains Kirby Parnell, who is at Eckerd College in Florida as a Gates Scholar.

Winners need high grades and a resume full of leadership roles in extracurricular activities, and they must beat out tens of thousands of other applicants by writing eight persuasive essays. Parnell had dreamed of studying marine biology, something you can’t easily do in landlocked Oklahoma. Thanks to her hard work, she’s a thousand miles from home doing just that.

5. Supportive City

The Pittsburgh Promise grant program offers money toward college tuition for kids who graduate from Pittsburgh’s public schools with a GPA of 2.5 or better and a strong attendance record.

In order to motivate parents to send their kids to the city’s public schools, the Promise gives larger sums to kids who have attended for longer periods. Go to Pittsburgh city schools for all 12 years and you’ll graduate with $40,000 toward a bachelor’s degree at a college in the region.

For Travis Wilkins, those extra funds meant he could attend the small and highly ranked Allegheny College in the fall of 2008, despite that school’s pricey tuition. The program also connected him with potential mentors and gave him access to networking events that helped him land his first job at BNY Mellon just weeks after graduation.

TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, is collaborating with Samuel Goldwyn Films on the distribution of the documentary Ivory Tower.