August 3, 2020

Hacking college: How to make your education nearly free

As seen on

In the town where I grew up going to college was never really a decision people thought twice about. Once you graduated high school, everyone knew there were still four more years of education left. And even though it was more school, we were excited (and often took for granted) the fact that we were going. Some people took out loans, others commuted to nearby universities from home, and others were lucky enough to have their parents cover the whole thing. Fast forward 5 years from high school graduation, and as I look around at the people who I made it through college with, I start to get a sense of the crippling debt college has put them in.

I believe the higher education system throughout the United States has become fundamentally flawed, due to one major crack in its foundation. Colleges everywhere are viewed as a business first, and education system second. Although I understand that will never change I feel as though it has created the two fatal issues that are present today. The first being that college does not adequately educate to perform a specific job. It’s fantastic for learning how to think critically, but I’d argue it does nothing to prepare you for the real world. Secondly, politics and opinions aside, college has become exorbitantly expensive.

Let’s break down the cost of one year to attend James Madison University (Va):

Tuition and fees: $10,500 (In state), $26,100 (out of state)
Room and Board: $9,300
Books: $1000
Personal Expenses: $4150

Total 1 year: $24,950 (In state), $40,550 (Out of state)

And JMU is a relatively cheap, public school. Yikes.

Luckily, there are many ways around the sticker price. Let’s take a look at some of the most reasonable options.

Buy used textbooks
Books can cost upwards of $1000 per semester and are essentially useless afterwards. I know there were plenty of times personally where half of them were never even cracked open. So how do you deal with this? First, check with other students who have taken the class before. Some of them may sell their books to you for a fraction of the cost or hook you up for free if they’re kind enough. Others may suggest you don’t need the book at all (but triple check before you take this advice). If you can’t find anyone to get in touch with, hit up sites like Chegg that make book hunting easy and offer serious discounts. If you can rent and return the book, make that your first choice. Otherwise buy the used version and look for places on campus or online that will buyback used textbooks.

Total Potential Savings: $250-1000/year

Apply & Look out for Scholarships
There are so many scholarships available today and most students won’t put in any time to apply. This leads to less competitive pools so more often than not your chances aren’t bad. Many scholarships are specific to certain groups of students and if you’re a fit your chances increase again. There often is no limit to the number of scholarships you can have so the more you go for, the better. Colleges have gotten more lenient about giving out their own awards so you may qualify just by submitting an application. Be on the look out constantly for new contests or applications that may pop up. Even read carefully when you hear back from a school, they may give you instructions on how to claim a scholarship. As far as full academic and sports scholarships are concerned, if you’re going for them try to be the big fish in a small pond. The more you can stand out to a school the more likely they’ll be willing to help you.

Total Potential Savings: $1000+/year

Don’t sign up for the student meal plan
If you’re a lazy piece of crap like me, this one’s going to be tough. And if you went to a school with good food (like me again), it’s even tougher. Cooking is not my strong suit. That’s why I never actually used this piece of advice, but my friends did. Depending on how your individual school works, you may be able to add money to your student account as you need it and pay per meal. If you sign up for the pre-packaged student meal plan, the school will likely make you pay a premium for it. Friends of mine often had dozens of meals left after each semester that did not roll over and they could do nothing with. If you do get off the meal plan, consider making your own food as often as possible. It will save you money and may help you avoid the Freshman 15.

Total Potential Savings: $1500+/year

Take AP credits/dual enrollment in high school
AP and dual enrollment classes are the ones at the top of the totem pole in high school, but it doesn’t mean you need to be a genius to get in them. If your school offers them, take advantage as much as you possibly can. Generally speaking for the AP courses, colleges will only accept them as credit if you score a 4 or 5 on the final exam. And yes, there are costs associated with these courses to get the college credits but it’s at a fraction of the university cost (I think my AP tests were $50 each). If you rack up enough passing scores you can enter college (credit wise) as a sophomore or better. But I will say if you’re interested in this route, do your research on the rules associated with them and how exactly they transfer.

Total Savings: $2500+/year

Work during the summer
Okay, I’ll admit this isn’t exactly a “way to save” but with all the time you get off over the summer there are plenty of options available to make some money and chip in. They may not be high paying jobs but anything is better than nothing. It is relatively easy to make at least $1000/month.

Total Potential Savings: $3000+/year

Live at home if possible
This is pretty obvious but it can detract from the whole college experience. But, if money really is an issue, this can be a huge help. If this is not an option, look into becoming a Resident Adviser (RA). For relatively little work you can get room and board on campus for free.

Total Potential Savings: $5000+/year

Go to a public, In state school
Again, another easy and obvious one but it must be mentioned. Combine this with living at home and you’re already paying about half of what most other college students are. The whole idea of one college being superior to another is generally nonsense. If you get a college degree anywhere in the United States you’ll probably be just fine, you don’t have to go to the school with the most recognizable name in order to land a job.

Total Potential Savings: $8,000+/year

Join ROTC/Go Military
I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know a whole lot about this option. I didn’t use it personally and don’t know anyone well enough who did. But from my understanding joining ROTC can get you a deep discount on tuition while going straight into the military will cover the cost of your college education. If anyone has better information on this please feel free to share.

Total Potential Savings: (Essentially) Free college degree

Remember, there are options out there. You just need to get creative and know where to look.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *