The most affordable way to earn a bachelor's degree is pretty simple: Start at a community college and then transfer to a public, in-state school. Oh, and live at home if you can.
This may not be the sexiest option you can imagine, but with ever-soaring tuition costs, it just might be the most sensible path. Your future self will thank you for not going into massive debt to fund your education.
While it’s undeniable that going to college is a huge and exciting time in a person's life, it’s also important to keep your eye on the prize and remember why you're going to college: to invest in your future.
But for many people, that investment is getting harder to fund.
This past school year, college students at public, four-year schools paid more than triple what students paid 30 years ago for tuition, according to The College Board. And that doesn’t even include increases in room and board, student fees, and supplies like laptops and textbooks.
As tuition has risen, so, too, has the debt burden on college students. Roughly seven out ten of the seniors who graduated this May graduated with student loans, with an average debt load of $37,172.
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Is college still a good investment? Yes
Given all this, you may be wondering whether it’s still even worth it to get a college degree. The truth is that college isn’t right for everyone. That could be because you’re pursuing a career that doesn’t require a degree or because you’ve decided to go to trade school.
Still, for the majority of grads, a college degree is the safest way to ensure financial security in the future.
Not only do students who earn a college degree earn on average an additional $24,000 in annual wages, but they are more likely to be employed than their high school classmates who don't continue on in their studies.
And for many professions like health care or engineering, most workers can’t even enter the field without an undergraduate degree.
Finding an affordable school
Community colleges and state schools offer quality educations respected by employers, especially in fields like teaching and business.
In general, local public colleges and universities provide the most competitive tuition rates because taxpayer money is also helping the school meet its needs.
Community colleges and local state schools also offer the option to live at home and pocket those funds you would have otherwise paid for room and board. Just note that some schools require you to live in the dorms for at least your first year, so you'll need to check with your school first.
How to transfer schools the smart way
The vast majority of college students take standard core classes for their first two years, regardless of their major. Community colleges, two-year colleges and state schools offer the opportunity to get the same quality of education in foundation subjects like math and English at a lower cost.
After the first two years at a local school, you can then transfer to a four-year state or private school to take the specialized classes you need for your major. These schools have the resources to offer more courses in a wider array of topics.
In addition, the professors are often research professionals who can provide critical professional connections, internship opportunities, and mentoring to a budding scientist or future college professor.
Other ways to save
Beyond your choice of schools, there are other ways to greatly reduce the final price tag of your college education.
Everyone knows scholarships help save money, but few people actually take the steps to apply for scholarships, assuming their chances of success are low. That's not always the case—after all, the scholarships have to go to someone.
Think about what makes you special and unique as a student. Rather than applying to a bunch of random scholarships, look for ones that cater specifically to students like you. The more specific you can get, the greater your chances of success.
Another idea: take a year off.
Delaying your admission for a year is a controversial move, but for some students a gap year opens up a lot of opportunities. Taking a year off can give you a breather between the pressures of competitive academic environments and it can also be a great opportunity to earn the money you need to afford school.
Some high school graduates join the Peace Corps or take an entry-level position in an industry they are interested in as a way to help narrow down which field or major they eventually want to pursue.
Regardless of the path you choose, you’ll need to start by filling out the FAFSA and applying to several types of schools that interest you.
Once you get your award letters from the schools to which you’ve been accepted, you can comparison shop knowing the full price tag and what college is specifically best for you.
See also: Are Community Colleges a Good Value?