For some, it costs about as much as a Lexus. Every year. For others, about as much as a Honda Fit. And some will get change from a $5,000 bill. It's college and, whatever way you slice it, it's very expensive (doesn't help that it's been going up at twice the rate of inflation for the last ten years). But cheer up. We've got 13 tips for you about how to get your money's worth out of college. So, even if you're laying out big bucks, at least you'll get big bang for your buck. Here's how:
1. Take the choice courses, not the leftovers. Always register for classes at the earliest possible date so you can select the courses you want, not get stuck with the dregs after every one else has registered. For first-year students, this means getting to the earliest orientation sessions, often held in (gasp) June - that's often the time when new students pick their courses. But even later on, primo courses are available provided you pick off-peak times.
2. Get out of the herd. Unlike the wildebeest, your safety is not in numbers. The best learning does not take place in large lecture courses but in smaller classes, which still can be found, even at mega-universities - if you look carefully enough. Whenever you have a choice, size down. And when there's a choice of a professor or TA - well, wouldn't it be better to pick someone who has thought about the material for many years?
3. Make it to all your classes. Some students think about their classes like fat cats with season's tickets. They'll get to a few big games, miss the snoozers, no worries. But what if you were paying by the class? Say $100 or $200 a throw? Would you be so quick to cut? You do the math. You may be astonished at how much you've prepaid for each lecture - money that goes down the tube when you decide not to show.
4. Use the facilities. No, not those facilities (we know you'll use them). We're thinking about the recreational and academic services you paid for as part of your student fees. Olympic-sized swimming pools, Apple-endowed computer labs - not to mention the free tutoring service, writing center, and math lab. And, if you're not feeling up to par, or college isn't turning out to be quite as happy as you expected, be sure to check out the university health service or counseling center. You've already paid for them, too.
5. Think about flying the coop. At many schools first-year students are required to live in the dorms. But after that, you're on your own. Consider living off-campus in an apartment or a cooperative living arrangement. You can often save bundles on food (at many colleges the food-service is overpriced and is used as a means to subvent other campus programs). And hey, you might enjoy playing Rachael Ray, not to mention doing dishes once a month.
6. Learn a skill for life. Once you know your major, be on the lookout for courses that will give you the skills to get ahead in your chosen career (even if such courses are not required for the major). Learning Chinese or Arabic could be a big selling point for a business major wanting to work for Walmart or Procter & Gamble - or the C.I.A. or Homeland Security. A course in critical reasoning or logic could pay off for a wannabe lawyer- or a course in statistics for someone going into the health care profession.
7. Keep entering the lottery. Many students (and parents) think that the financial aid package you get when you enter college is the end of the matter. But once you're at college, there may be a number of opportunities to compete for and get various hidden scholarships. Many donors give piles of money to specific departments for the support of their majors (at Princeton, for example, there is an overflow of money in ancient Greek language and civilization). Often these scholarships are handed out on the basis of merit, so if you're doing well, take full advantage of them.
8. Hit up your uncle. Uncle Sam, that is. To some degree, the pain of out-of-control tuition increases has been lessened by a slew of recently-introduced tax advantages, including the Hope credit, the lifetime learning credit, the student loan interest deduction, and the tuition and fees deduction. Very good information about all of these (including family-income caps and other requirements) is available at Sallie Mae's Web page www.collegeanswer.com/paying/content/pay_tax_benefits.jsp and the IRS' own Tax Breaks for Education: Information Center at www.irs.gov/newsroom/article/0,,id=213044,00.html . Gluttons for punishment can read the entire 99 page IRS publication at www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p970.pdf.
9. Max out your credit. College is one of the few places where it makes sense to take out as much credit as you can. Federally-guaranteed student loans often have no interest payments while you're a student, so whatever money you have left over after paying for tuition and books (and pizza and beverages) you can invest in a five- year CD earning a tidy return. (Check out www.bestcashcow.com or www.bankrate.com for details.) And even when payoff time for the student loan comes (and you're making that six-figure salary), the interest is tax-deductible.
10. Collaborate with a professor. In many fields, there are real possibilities to work in tandem with a professor -- could involve co-authoring scholarly papers, presenting joint papers (or posters) at conferences, or interning with a professor. Many colleges are now putting big bucks into supporting these activities: You could end up with a stipend for research costs and travel. And, in the very best case, you'll join the professor's network of professional contacts, giving you a big leg up come looking-for-jobs time. Sweet.
11. Travel on their dime. Wanna see the world? Consider the study abroad program. Many colleges have special scholarships or stipends to enable students to do research abroad or to take courses at "sister" universities. This can be a wonderful opportunity to improve your language skills, do research in countries where the materials you're studying actually exist, and take courses at colleges where they specialize in what you're interested in.
4-Star Tip. Make sure you have a valid academic reason for wanting to study abroad. Hoping to find an Estonian bride, or groom, won't cut it at most colleges.
12. Join the workforce. At many colleges, there are special work-study jobs to be had. Some of these - like being a museum guard or the checkout person at the college library - have long periods of down time, when you can do your homework at the college's expense. And you'll make friends with other student-workers, not to mention making goodwill with your parents (who'll be happy that you're bringing in a few bucks).
13. Plan to finish on time. Though the average student now takes five or six years to finish college, it's almost always possible to finish in four. In many cases, it can be financially advantageous to do so. You'll surely save money if your school charges by the semester (rather than by the credit hour). And some schools even offer special discount rates, and promise never to raise the rates, if you sign onto a four-year-to-degree (sometimes called the eight-semester) plan.
5-Star Tip. If you're short one or two courses, "buy" them at summer school , at a nearby community college, or even (in some cases) at an online university. It'll be much cheaper, and you won't have to sign up for a whole new semester.