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Inflation is on the rise. Everything from food to gas is getting more expensive — and colleges are quickly following suit.
Earlier this year, Stanford University announced a 7% tuition increase for the 2023-24 academic year. Columbia University has also announced a hike in tuition and mandatory fees– up 4.3% for undergraduates over last year. But private universities aren’t the only institutions with rising costs– according to the Education Data Initiative, the average tuition rate at 4-year public institutions ballooned 12 percent between 2010 and 2022.
Even with the rising cost of a college education, there are still plenty of ways for college students to save. Here’s how.
Why is college getting more expensive?
The cost of college has been rising for years. In fact, according to The Heritage Foundation, college tuition at public colleges now costs over 200 percent more than it did in 1987.
There are several reasons for this, including a higher demand for degrees, less funding from state governments and an expansion in student services and amenities.
However, in recent years, inflation coupled with a tight labor market and declining enrollment have forced institutions to increase their prices to keep things running.
How to save money in college amid rising costs
Despite higher sticker prices for everything from tuition and fees to room and board, you could save money as a college student in several ways.
Unless you’re living with your parents, housing will be your biggest expense after tuition and fees. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) reflects a steady increase in the cost of rent nationwide. Rent has risen at an even steeper rate than inflation in other areas of the economy. Depending on your local real estate market, demand may drive costs up more aggressively than the national average.
One of the ways to cut back on rent is to live on campus instead of renting a regular apartment. Let’s say you’re attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Regular apartments in the area go for $1,879 a month, according to RentCafe, or $13,153 for a seven-month academic year. Meanwhile, if you live at one of UNC’s residence halls, that bill comes down to $8,724 a year for a single-occupancy room. That price can go even lower if you don’t mind bunking up with a roommate or two.
Another way to reduce your housing costs is to become a resident advisor. Resident advisors monitor residence and dining halls, serve as mentors to other students and help organize activities around campus in exchange for certain benefits. These include discounted or free room and board.
To become a resident advisor, most colleges require you to be in good academic standing and complete a specified number of credits. Besides that, being a resident advisor requires a high level of commitment, as you’ll be on the job 24/7, so that’s something to consider before signing up.
Food and supplies
Food and other miscellaneous purchases can add up if you’re not careful. “College students can easily rack up expenses on seemingly inexpensive items like coffee drinks, frozen yogurt or ice cream, bubble tea, snacks, etc.,” says Neeta Vallab, founder of MeritMore, a financial aid search tool. “Each purchase is small, but it can be very eye-opening to realize how much money is spent on these items.”
Vallab recommends sticking to your meal plan as much as possible to avoid mindless spending on these things. If the main issue is that you get bored of the meals offered by your dining hall, try getting a flexible meal plan that includes more options on and off campus. Although these cost more upfront, they’re still considerably cheaper than dining out.
If you’re into cooking, buy things with a long shelf life, like pasta and canned goods, in bulk. The same goes for toilet paper, shampoo, soap and other essential items.
Another way to cut costs on food is cooking and sharing meals with your friends, organizing potlucks, and going to places that offer a student discount.
Books and other course materials
According to College Board, college students spent an average of $1,240 to $1,460 on books and supplies last year.
To cut down on book costs, consider buying them used or renting them. You can do this one-on-one with other students you already know or by using a third-party service, such as Chegg or ThriftBooks. Likewise, selling or renting your old books is a great way to earn a quick buck to pay for other expenses.
If you need a new laptop or software for a class, use your student ID to your advantage. Stores like Best Buy, Microsoft and Apple offer students up to 20 percent off their purchases just for showing their IDs when checking out or subscribing to communications using a valid university email.
Finally, tap into your network. Fellow classmates may be able to give you items such as lab coats or textbooks from classes they took in previous semesters.
While the cost of gasoline has dipped over the last year, transportation costs overall are up 9 percent. Vehicle insurance continues to rise, driving up the cost of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft. If you live in a college town where everything is close by, try walking or biking. If public transportation is available, apply for a student pass to save even more.
Clothes, furniture and decor
Need to spruce up your wardrobe or dorm? Go thrifting. Shopping for secondhand items saves money, and you can also get your hands on rare or one-of-a-kind finds. Thrifting is also good for the environment, as it reduces waste, carbon pollution and water consumption from manufacturing companies.
Some thrift shops also allow you to bring your old items to the store and get credit for them or swap them for something else, so it’s a win-win.
Entertainment and more
A big part of going to college is having fun, and your student ID is your golden ticket to do this on the cheap. Movie theaters, restaurants, bars and even theme parks all have “college nights” where you can have fun at a discounted price just by flashing your student ID.
Vallab also recommends checking out what your school has to offer. You may have access to pools, gyms, workshops, exhibitions, concerts and other events without having to spend a single dime.
The bottom line
While rising tuition and living costs can be a source of financial stress, students who think strategically about how to save money can still manage to trim their monthly expenses.
Keep an eye out for ways to cut costs, from buying essentials in bulk to leveraging student discounts in your favor. Saving money whenever possible can help you to offset the cost of an education, which a majority of graduates agree is ultimately worthwhile.