When Paying for College is a Long Shot

Maybe you forgot to think about it, started late or suffered an economic setback. Whatever the reason, you simply cannot plan for every contingency that can rattle your plans for college. Things happen that could derail your savings goals (think: economic meltdown or job loss), your plans for college and your ideas of what the immediate future looks like. Therefore, no matter how carefully you have scrimped and saved for school – either for your kids or for yourself – it is not a bad idea to have Plan B in place should your Plan A explode on the launch pad.

Fortunately, some options exist for students and their parents to help accomplish the ultimate goal of a college education. Such options may not always fit your vision of what a college experience should look like, but a little flexibility (and frugality) can keep your dreams on track.


If you’ve been saving but its doesn’t look like you’ll have enough to pull the trigger right after high school, or whenever you initially planned to start classes, it may be worthwhile to wait a year or two. Use the time to get a full time job, explore career and degree options for when you get to college by volunteering and let the time value of money work in your favor. Between your earnings and gains on savings, you should have enough to get started in school after a year. Moreover, if you found work or a volunteer gig in your chosen career path, you’ll have valuable experience under your belt to enhance the value of college education in the eyes of future employers once you graduate.

Attend School Part-time

Another good option, especially for people who work full time, is to attend classes part time. It may take a little bit longer to earn a degree, but you’ll also be earning a living that will help offset the expense of going to college. This can even be an attractive option for students right out of high school, because most colleges charge by the credit (or credit hour); the fewer credits you take, the less college costs. If you start part time while working to defray some of the costs, you can always transition to full time status once you’re financially comfortable doing so. You may even find that you enjoy going to school part time, instead.

Choose a Cheaper College

Many times, public universities offer a level of education that is on par with all but the most prestigious private institutions: at a fraction of the cost. This is particularly true if you attend a school that offers subsidized tuition for residents or reciprocity for students from neighboring states. Granted, you may not be attending the school that you had hoped to but the “college experience” at large public universities is pretty much that which is considered stereotypical. In addition, the opportunities for student involvement and experience at larger schools can far exceed the experiential capabilities of smaller colleges.

Another good option for saving money at the outset of college is to start at a community college. Many accredited junior and community colleges offer transferable credits at a price much less expensive than that of even a public university. Community colleges are an excellent way to get some of your core requirements out of the way. After a year or two, you will likely be able to transfer those community college credits to your chosen school. You’ll ultimately be able to graduate with a degree from the college of your choice, with a significant cost savings.


Loans are almost always an option — not that loans necessarily even have to be a last resort. It seems many, if not most, students (or parents) these days need to borrow at least some money to keep up with the rising costs of college. It’s just that if you’ve worked hard saving for college, you may feel that borrowing money to attend is somehow admitting defeat. It’s not. Just be prudent and frugal in your borrowing. Don’t borrow more than you absolutely need; and try, at all costs, to avoid private lenders as they will charge more on the front end in the way of interest and origination fees. Private lenders also tend to be less flexible when it comes to repayment options after graduation. Many of the federal and state loan programs now offer income-contingent repayment plans that base your payment amounts on the amount that you actually earn.

The most important thing to remember is that college is a flexible dream. It is a worthwhile destination, and there are many different paths you can take to reach it. If circumstances prevent you from going exactly where you want, when you want and how you want, don’t despair. Just alter your route – you’ll find the way.


  1. Another option is postponing for a year or two and then spending the time working and studying to take CLEP tests. A lot of universities will accept a number of these tests as substitutes for certain core courses. They cost as little as $20 per credit hour and are relatively easy pass/fail multiple choice exams.

    I was in an unusually good position to take advantage of these and spent about $800 and one semester earning 40-ish credits.

  2. I worked a year taking classes and then eventually attended a very expensive East Coast school. My kids are in the UC system. #1 got through UCLA in 3 years. #2 is attending UCDavis. #2 is running into a deliberate cost inflation. Required courses are “full” thus delaying by a semester at least graduation schedules. Buyer beware.

  3. Rent or dorm fees are generally the second highest education expense, after tuition. Any good idea how to save money from dorm fees?

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