Living With Less: Affordable College Education

As Mark and I state in the first few sentences of our “College: Higher Education at Lower Cost” chapter in Living With Less So Your Family Has More book…”If you want to know one Savage parenting regret, just ask us about our experience leading our older children through college.”  Both Anne and Evan have school loans that they will be paying off for a long, long time.

Bottom line, we didn’t discuss our strategy for college for our kids until it was too late.  And when we did discuss it, we didn’t agree.  And quite frankly, we had too many kids and too little income to be able to give them the finances for college.

However, after early mistakes and lessons learned from those mistakes, we do have a plan now that we both agree upon.  It’s not a nest egg for their college tuition, but it is the strategy and guidance they need to successfully find an affordable college education.

In a recent newspaper article by Claudia Dreifus and Andrew Hacker, authors of the book Higher Education?, state that “After so many years of researching the American Way of Higher Education, we’ve come to believe that when parents are selecting a college for Jennifer or Jason, their primary target should be a school that permits their child to graduate debt-free.  That means thinking creatively and forgoing dreams of luxury or prestige.”

Indeed this is what Mark and I have discovered.  In our case, assuming there are no full-ride scholarships on the table, our local community college has become the default first two years of college for our kids.  After that, a state school trumps a private university any day.
Check out the tuition differences:

Average Community College: $88/credit hour = $1320/semester
Average State University: $350-$400/credit hour = $6,000/semester
Average Private University:  $850-$900/credit hour = $12,000/semester

If Mark and I had just educated ourselves better, we could have better led our older children in their higher education choices.  You can bet we’re leading our younger ones differently.

In addition to two years of community college, these strategies can also be pursued to keep higher education affordable:

  • Commute: Living at home and finishing your education can save thousands of dollars of education.
  • Grades/ACT/SAT scores: Grades and scores do make a difference…sometimes.  When Anne went to Taylor University for 3 semesters her good grades helped a little…about $1000/year off tuition–not much, however, when you consider the $24,000 price tag.  When Erica scored a 27 on her ACT we learned that if we lived one county over, she could have had a full-ride scholarship to the community college in Champaign who offered that to ACT scores of 27 and higher.  Too bad our community college didn’t offer the same academic scholarship, but this illustrates that every college is different and you have to do your homework.
  • Dual Credit High School Classes: Some community colleges offer dual credit programs that allow high school students to take college classes and get high school and college credit at the same time.  Sometimes these programs require parents to pay tuition and sometimes the school district picks up the tab.
  • Good money management skills: Once your high schooler starts working, guide him/her with good strategies for managing money.  Include setting aside a percentage of each paycheck for college expenses.

Whatever strategy you come up with for your family, discuss it early, agree upon it with your spouse, and lead it well.

What about you?  What strategies could you add for pursuing higher education for less?


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16 thoughts on “Living With Less: Affordable College Education

  1. I think that college is getting very expensive!! I have three small kids and we will be able to help a little with college, they will have to figure out much of it on their own, sadly.

    One thing to consider, many college student have to go to a state school for more than 4 years, especially if they are undecided on a major or have any “hiccup” in their education process. That makes it more expensive than a private college where there seems to be a greater percentage of students graduating in 4 years. If you add one less year of income potential. They seem to be about the same.

    I think that I will see if my kids can dual enroll in high school at least a couple classes. If they could even get one semester done before finishing high school, it would be a huge help!!

    Thanks for all you wonderful information. Hope to attend HaH in Rochester again this fall. It makes me a better mommy 🙂

  2. Great post, Jill!! What advice would you give for the young adult that is looking into full-time ministry prep (needing to go to a Bible college, etc.)? Sometimes a few classes will transfer in from a Jr. College, but often the majority has to be done at the Bible college. I would love to hear any insights you have on that! 🙂


    • Shelly,

      My experience when my husband went to Bible college was that more financial aid was available from the school. That would probably vary from school to school.

      These days there are websites that help students determine ahead of time what community/junior college classes will transfer to another college. I would definitely recommend using those sites to lay out as affordable of a plan as possible.

  3. Hi Jill,

    We have the same regret. Our 21 year old has a large college (as opposed to university, since we live in Canada)debt. She has been unable to find full time employment and will soon have to start paying those loans off. Our daughter lived at home, but didn’t always use the loan money wisely. She has learned a valuable lesson but unfortunately has to pay the consequences. We are concerned also about the potential to affect her future marriage plans (only hopes at this point) if a future spouse does not want to start off with debt. We are now putting a small amount aside for our two young (7 and 3) children and will also encourage them to work during high school years (maybe before?)to save up themselves.

  4. Our experience has been different. Our son applied to both state and private schools. He did have over 30 on his ACT and high grades. He was awarded distinguished scholar status at every private school he applied to and those large scholarships made these schools less expensive than state schools. He also was awarded a travel scholarship to Ireland. I don’t think it hurts to apply to both state and private and then weigh your options.

  5. I don’t necessarily think that kids have to go to state school (or to college at all) to make higher education affordable. I went to a private university for 2 years and junior colleges in the summers. After that I dropped out to have a family. When I was done with college I had enough hours to have gone for three years because I took 18 hours each semester, classes over the summers, and some classes in high school. I worked since I was 15 and paid my way through school. When I dropped out I had As in every course but one, so I didn’t drop out due to lack of ability. In the end I had a total of $2800 in student loans. My parents were gracious enough to pay that amount off for me as a wedding present. After my 2 years of schooling, I paid for my husband’s graduate work for the next 3 years. After he graduated we had no debt from my school and no debt from his graduate work. We did have debt from his undergraduate, but it was only 10,000. He went to a state school for 1 1/2 years, private university for 2 years, and 4 years of graduate work at a private university. It is possible to get out of school with little debt and go to a private university. I think that it is great to encourage kids to work for their education and let them know that they should not expect their parents to pay for it. Then, if they decide to go to a private university, they will do so knowing that they have to pay for it on their own. Hopefully that will encourage them to work hard and to get scholarships.

  6. Good article. I was blessed with wise parents. Worked hard in high school, earned some good scholarships and graduated high in my class. Spent two years at a junior college that was completely paid for with scholarships including gas and food money. Finished up at a public university. Commuted from home for both and graduated debt free. Now I’m a SAHM with two young boys and another on the way. Getting a little nervous, but we’re going to give the same strategy a try.

    • Abby,

      It sounds like you have a good example to follow and that’s always helpful for us as parents!

  7. Jill –

    Although this is not an option for everyone, I made a conscious career move (with a lot of prayer and consultation with my husband) to a local private college in my area about 5 years before my oldest child was ready for college. I took a rather significant cut in pay and a longer commute (I am an accountant, not a faculty member). The trade-off? Free tuition for my 4 teenagers. At about $30k a year for tuition for 4 years, for 4 kiddos, my cut in pay and commute more than makes up for the almost half a MILLION dollars I’m saving in tuition.

    There are several women on campus that are highly educated but working in jobs below their ability because of the benefits available for their children.

    3 of my 4 teens are international older adoptees. Scholarships are available for them but because they have many years to make up for, their grades are not stellar enough for them to qualify for many.

    • Helen,

      Thank you for adding this to the conversation! Yes, working at a college can be a huge “scholarship” in and of itself!

  8. Good information if money is the only factor. I am concerned about the Godless world view our students tend to end up with after attending most state colleges and universities.

    • Mary, I can understand your fears with students going to “secular” schools and being exposed to a life without faith. My husband is a youth pastor, and we often encourage some of our students to attend Christian colleges. However, there are a lot of students who are able to be a light to those on their state school’s campus.

      I went to a Christian university for three semesters and after my parents had the conversation with me about school loans I decided to transfer to Illinois State University. There were times I felt like I met stronger Christians on that campus than at the Christian university, just because they had a choice of whether or not they wanted to live like Christ. They were living out the mandate to “go and make disciples” on their campus.

      There are some students who would benefit from a Christian education. However, I don’t think its necessarily for everyone.

  9. Excellent article and comments. We also support & encourage the Community College route. One more criteria my second daughter is using: Does the college accept CLEP credits? She scored very high on reading/writing, has a great memory and is extremely well read. This translates into an ability to study independently and pass CLEP tests for credit. She earns 3-6 credit hours per $75-90 test! That is 1/3 the cost of Community College credits. She is dismayed to find so many state schools, i.e. ISU, U of I will NOT accept most of these credits, but was very happy to discover that some excellent private schools do i.e. Eureka College.
    One more thing, some excellent students do NOT test well on ACT/SAT but they DO get all A’s/B’s in college… at the Community College level, the high grade point is rewarded with an invitation into Phi Theta Kappa, which further translates into scholarship opportunities and a whole web-network for transfer-college searches.

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