Attending college is more expensive than ever before, but there are several steps that students can take to cut costs and make sure that their college experience pays off.
College finance consultant Kathy Ruby tells CNBC Make It that for most students, starting college is their "first step towards financial independence." That means students need to learn what not to waste money on. "There are decisions that you can make that are going to make a difference in what [students and families] end up having to pay," she says.
Here are four costs to cut while in college:
Sure, having a car on campus may make you popular among certain crowds who want someone to pick up late-night snacks or to chauffeur them to the airport, but these requests can quickly feel like you are being used for your ride. On top of that, having a car is expensive.
"Don't take a car to college. It is one of the biggest expenses for students," says Ruby. "Most campuses have good public transportation systems, so if you can avoid taking a car, that's going to save money on insurance and the cost of parking."
The American Automobile Association (AAA) estimates that the costs of owning and operating a car is $8,469. Factors like gas, insurance and parking can make the costs of bringing a car to college add up.
According to Affordable Schools and Discover, parking on colleges campuses can range anywhere from $40 to $2,500 per semester. While extreme rates like $2,500 per semester are rare, there are many colleges that charge more than $1,000 a year. A parking pass for a full-time student costs $752.26 a semester at Columbia University and $668 a semester at Boston College.
The College Board estimates that students at public universities spend an average of $10,800 on room and board each school year. But schools often offer a wide range of housing options, and students can save money by choosing wisely.
"Many colleges have variable housing prices. A nicer, newer apartment-style living situation is going to be more expensive than the traditional two-person dorm," says Ruby. "The more roommates you have, the better."
It may sound like fun to live in the nicest dorm on campus all by yourself, but your wallet will thank you when you graduate with less debt to pay off just because you had a classic college dorm room for four years. Plus, having roommates is a great way to build a community and make friends.
One of the biggest traps that students can fall into in college is amassing credit card debt. Students should arrive on campus with one credit card on hand and a plan for paying off their balance each month. John Ganotis, founder of CreditCardInsider.com, recommends the Capital One Journey Student Credit Card to CNBC Make It.
Students should be particularly wary of wasting money on flashy highly-advertised cards. In 2009, the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act banned banks from aggressively marketing credit cards and financial products on college campuses, but this regulation does not stop banks from actively pursuing college students.
"There are regulations that are still in effect, but students still need to do a little bit of homework," Suzanne Martindale, a consumer finance expert and attorney for Consumers Union, tells CNBC Make It. She explains, "A lot of times these companies have marketing deals with the campus that make them look like the 'school approved' product, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the school has made sure that those products are in fact the best products for their students."
The biggest thing that college students can do to save money is graduate on time. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, just 40 percent of first-time full-time students earn a bachelor's degree in four years, and only 59 percent earn their bachelor's in six years.
This means that millions of Americans are forced to pay for extra years of tuition, and some are taking on thousands of dollars in debt without a diploma to show for it. Bill Gates says these dropout rates are "tragic."
"The U.S. has the highest college dropout rate," says Gates. "We're number one in terms of the number of people who start college but we're like number 20 in terms of the number of people who finish college."
Students should avoid wasting money on extra years of college by planning their path to graduation early. Map out what classes you will need to take in order to earn your diploma on time, make an appointment with your dean and find a professor who is willing to guide you.
By staying on track, students can save thousands of dollars on the cost of college.
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