Want to Save Money on Your Kid’s College Tuition? Don’t Pay It

“Have you started saving for college?” a co-worker whispered apprehensively when I announced my first pregnancy at the office.

The question wasn’t unreasonable… even though my kid will be in the graduating class of 2037.

The average bill for the current school year looks like this for four-year colleges, according to the most recent Annual Survey of Colleges from The College Board:

  • Public (in-state): $20,846 
  • Public (out-of-state): $35,329 
  • Private: $45,170

Those figures reflect tuition, fees, room and board, as well as books and supplies billed by the school.

Couple those staggering numbers with the fact college tuitions have consistently increased faster than the national inflation rate, and my kid is looking at a massive bill two decades down the road.

Do sobering numbers like these keep you up at night, wondering how you’ll ever foot the bill?  

Try this concept on for size…

Don’t pay for college.

Grab your smelling salts. You can absolutely do it.

My parents were educated beyond college and wholeheartedly believe in the importance of higher education. Still, while they offered to pay for room and board for their five kids, they gave us the responsibility of handling the rest of the bill.

At the end of the day, we all managed to enter excellent college and graduate programs, land great jobs and do it all with little or no debt.

How Students Can Pay for College — Without Their Parents’ Help

Here’s how you can help your kids do the same:

1. Give Your Kids Information Up Front

Tell your children long before they’re 18 what you do and don’t plan to contribute to their college educations.

Let them know you won’t be paying for college.

Their high school academic performance and extracurricular activities weigh heavily in the acceptance process and decide many scholarships. So make sure your kids know they need to make the most of those years.

If you haven’t started already, teach them important financial responsibility skills, like saving, budgeting and managing debt.

2. Reduce the Costs

College doesn’t have to cost a fortune.

Consider high-performing, lower-cost state schools, particularly those in your state. Buy textbooks used — or rent them.

Room and board costs an average $10,000 to $11,000 annually, according to The College Board. Save some money by finding an on-campus or near-campus room that allows your child to make their own meals.

Have them get a roommate or three. College is more fun with roommates anyway.

If you’re all willing, have your kid live at home during college for free or a minimal cost.

3. Take Advantage of High School

Fewer required courses needed in college means a smaller tuition bill.

Make sure your kid takes as many college preparatory and Advanced Placement classes as possible. Have them sign up for the CLEP exams their desired schools accept.

By taking these steps, they can bypass introductory college classes and even receive college credits before matriculating.

Additionally, consider investing financially in a private high school education to set your child up for success.

Explore your local high schools’ college placement programs, their guidance on scholarship applications and statistics for money awarded and National Merit scholars. Look into the extracurriculars college admission boards love, like leadership opportunities, service clubs and honor societies.

A small investment in a quality high school education can give your kid the personalized resources to prepare for AP and CLEP exams, craft those all-important personal statements for college applications, require fewer (if any) remedial classes in college and connect with influential alumni — all of which can help save big sums of cash in tuition costs.

4. Major in a High-Paying Field

Admittedly, your vote on your kid’s major is pretty minimal if they’re the one footing the bill.

However, encourage your child to major, minor or at least take a number of courses in STEM subjects, even if their dream is to be a world-class painter.

If they have skills in a lucrative field they can use (or fall back on) after college, they’ll be better equipped to support themselves financially and repay any loans.

5. Get Involved in Finding Money

Not paying for college doesn’t necessarily mean you should leave your children twisting in the wind.

Together, work on identifying scholarships and contests that award money to students.

Think outside the box by looking for low-competition scholarships, like those offered through your employer, church or community groups. Every little bit helps.

Be sure to accurately fill out the FAFSA and any school-specific aid forms and submit them on time.

One mom’s system helped her son earn more than $100,000 in scholarships!

6. Be Smart About Loans

If you own property or a car, you’ve likely taken out at least one loan in your life — while your kid probably has no such life experience.

Use your know-how to help intelligently filter through loan options.

Crunch some numbers or use an online calculator to estimate post-college monthly payments and determine a reasonable maximum amount your kid should borrow.

7. Consider Loaning Money to Your Kids at No (or Low) Interest

This one isn’t for the faint of heart.

If you fully trust they will follow the repayment terms and the loan won’t impact your relationship, consider alleviating some of your child’s financial burden with a small personal loan at low or no interest… but only if you can afford it.

Put it all in writing and keep meticulous records to avoid confusion down the line.

8. Get a Job

It’s tried and true.

Have your kid get a part-time job or freelance during the school year and pick up extra hours during summer and winter breaks.

Urge them to save their earnings from part-time jobs in the years leading up to college so they have a financial cushion.

9. Look Into Tuition Reimbursement

Many companies, volunteer organizations and military groups will contribute toward or reimburse you for significant portions of your college costs if you work within their ranks.

Have your child consider the possibility of taking reimbursed night classes while working during the day. Or, delay college for a year or more to serve in an organization that will pay college costs.

Do You Plan to Pay for Your Kids to Go to College?

Don’t listen to your friends who are sacrificing their retirement funds for college savings plans.

Ensuring your children get high-quality educations doesn’t mean you have to foot the bill or that they have to go broke in the process.

My husband and I are still discussing how much — if any — of the first college bill we’ll cover in 17 years. The thought of paying nothing more than living expenses is still unnerving to him, but we’ve seen it work.

My parents never opened their wallets for any of my college bills. Without their money — but with the priceless tools and guidance they gave me — I got myself through those four years debt-free and have an enduring sense of accomplishment.

That’s what I want to give my kids.

Your Turn: Will you try this with your kids?

Megan Nye is a freelance writer and blogger who paid out less than $1,000 to earn her math and engineering degrees. She offers practical advice on seizing control of your time, making smart money choices, and saving your home from the brink of chaos on her blog, Prioritized Living.