College can be a huge expense for students and families. According to The College Board, the average cost to students for the 2016-2017 school year after financial aid was $14,210 for public college and $26,100 for private college. Four years of tuition adds up fast — Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Cappex.com, a website that matches students with scholarships, said the average 2016 graduate who took out loans has about $37,000 in debt.
Marketplace Weekend spoke with Kantrowitz about the best ways to finance a college education and save money. Here are his top tips:
1. Open a 529 account, and start saving early.
Kantrowitz recommends opening a 529 savings account as soon as possible to start saving for college. If you open an account when your child is born, earnings on the investment will finance one third of the college savings goal. The rest will be funded by contributions. If you wait until your child is in high school, less than 10 percent of the savings will be financed by earnings. That's a big difference. You're not restricted to your state's 529, and Katrowitz recommends shopping around for a 529. Different states offer different incentives and taxes, and you could save money by searching for the best fit directly on state websites.
2. Search for scholarships.
Kantrowitz said that there is about $6 billion in private scholarship money available for college, and one in eight students wins a scholarship. The average scholarship is $4,000 per year, which won't cover tuition completely, but can be a big help. Kantrowitz advises students to narrow their search by using a free scholarship matching service, like the one his site provides. One catch? You should never pay money to win money. Kantrowitz recommends avoiding services that require payment and scholarships that charge an application fee.
3. Live like a college student.
Living like a student while you're in college will help you avoid living like a student once you graduate, Kantrowitz said. Depending on each student's individual situation, that means eating at the dining hall instead of buying meals off campus, seeking out secondhand textbooks and finding affordable housing. Even a weekly late-night pizza could have a long-term impact on finances: $10 a week spent on pizza is $2,000 after four years, and that $2,000 will cost $4,000 to pay back if you used student loan money. Keeping in mind the cost of loan repayment even for small purchases is important.
4. Don't bite off more than you can chew.
How much loan debt is OK? Kantrowitz said the best way to determine how much you can pay back comfortably is to think of your future earnings. Don't borrow more than the amount of your anticipated salary after graduation, he advises. If you expect to make $40,000, then $40,000 in loan debt can be paid back in 10 years without becoming overwhelming.