• Ken Ilgunas

How to afford college

Just this afternoon, a couple high schoolers writing for the youth section of an Indianapolis newspaper interviewed me, seeking ideas about how to afford college. Because my mind is on the subject and because the fall semester has just begun, I thought I’d put down, in one post, all my ideas on how to afford college. The Atlantic has recently reported that The College Board has the average student debt at $27,650, which is far more than the $24,000 total I’ve been using for a while. By the time a freshman today leaves college, it’ll probably be more than $30,000…. So if you’re thinking about leaving school with little-to-no debt, here are a couple ideas that might help.


1. Pick an affordable school. Too often are we lured to certain schools for the wrong reasons: successful sports teams, lavish accommodations (gyms, climbing walls, elegant dining options), and, worst of all, prestige. Some of these things are, no doubt, nice, but are they worth an extra $20,000 of student debt? While some colleges are better than others, there are great professors everywhere, and oftentimes the best ones are not at your priciest and most prestigious schools. (I’ve had mediocre professors at Duke and stellar ones at SUNY Buffalo.) I don’t think it’s a terrible idea to go to community college for two years and transfer to a state school to finish up your degree. 2. Commute from home. Room and board for a year at many colleges is around $11,000. Which is just ridiculous. It does not cost $11,000 to house and feed yourself. In my first semester in the van, I lived on $103/week. Over the course of the school year, that’s about $3,700, and that includes EVERY cost in my life—entertainment, transportation, clothes. Every cost but tuition. Let me breakdown how much housing and feeding and transporting yourself costs depending on your style of home… Living in a dorm: $11,000 / academic year (includes mandatory housing and meal plan) Living in an apartment: $7,733 / academic year (includes rent [$550 x 10 months=$5,500], food, all vehicle costs). Living in a van: $2,233 / academic year (includes food and all vehicle costs). Living with parents: $1,524 / academic year (includes vehicle costs, but not food.) The above costs only reflect the cost of food, housing, and vehicles (gas, insurance, and repairs). Of course, each of these numbers will get bigger when you factor in cell phone bills, entertainment, clothes, haircuts, etc. And the estimates are by no means perfect because—during my first semester at Duke—I ate very cheaply and drove very little. But the estimates should indicate just about “how low you could go” and highlight just how ludicrous the costs of a dorm/apartment/meal plan are. Over the course of four years, you could pay $44,000 to live in a dorm versus $8,932 in a van or $6,096 in your parents’ home. 3. Manage your finances meticulously. Find out where your money’s going. Write everything down. My first semester I kept track of my every cent. I wrote down, in a Microsoft Word file, what I bought, how much I bought it for, and when I bought it. By the mid-point of the semester, I could see how much of my money was going to food, to gas, to insurance… If you watch your money carefully, you’ll quickly see how much of it goes to unnecessary luxuries, and you’ll be enlightened as to which costs are bleeding you dry.

4. Don’t buy crap you don’t need. We desire things less because we need them and more because other people have them. And we think we can climb to their social status by looking the way they look, acting the way they act, or having what they have. That’s nothing but nasty, weak-kneed conformity. It’s what Thorstein Veblen calls “emulative desire.” Don’t sacrifice your independence and freedom to fit in with the mass of materialists. Be comfortable as yourself. Be comfortable having a friend cut your hair, buying your clothes at secondhand shops, or cooking noodles and vegetables for $5 instead of going out to eat for $20. 5. Speaking of food, avoid campus dining plans. Campus dining is a crime. At Duke, it costs as much as $25 a day to eat. A day! That’s highway robbery, and I’m sure it’s just as bad at most other colleges. I ate healthily, deliciously, and abundantly for $4.34 a day. Here’s what it looks like over the course of an academic year: Duke’s priciest meal plan: $5,500 / academic year Spaghetti stew meal plan: $1102 / academic year ($4.34 x 254 days) 6. Live in a van. Live in the woods. Live in a tent. Live in three-foot by six-foot box. I know a girl who lived in a tent and a sailboat at college. I know another girl who lived in a yurt at Duke. I know a guy who lived in a tipi. There are lots of ways to live creatively, boldly, and cheaply that will not only save you—literally—tons of money, but will give you, arguably, a more valuable education than the one you’ll get in the classroom. 7. Realize that you will not get a good, honorable, well-paying job when you leave school. It is easy to think that you’ll be one of the exceptions, but it’s probably more responsible and realistic to think that you won’t. In 2008, 17.4 million grads with B.A. degrees had jobs that required less than a B.A. degree such as waiting tables, answering phones, and mopping floors. Your starting salary will not be in the high 40’s. More like the high 20’s, or, at best, the low 30’s. Plan accordingly. 8. Maybe don’t go to college at all… There are a million things we could do after graduating from high school, but it’s been pounded into our heads so much that we don’t consider any option except going to college. It’s a rare opportunity to be young and free and debtless. We can use that freedom to volunteer, travel, hitchhike, hop trains, live in a van, work odd jobs. We can join WWOOF and travel and learn about organic farming. College is great, but there’s a much larger, and far cheaper classroom that we can learn from: the world at large. And if we go out and learn how to camp, how to save, and how to manage our money, by the time we finally enroll in college, we’re probably not going to be so willing to thoughtlessly take out a giant loan and go $50,000 in debt. 9. Get good at saving money If you’re just leaving high school, you’ve probably yet to have the chance to learn how much it costs to house and feed and transport yourself. Unless you do something extreme, a large chunk of your salary will go to apartment rent, food, and the other basics. Finding jobs that offer room and board are key. Lodges and working camps often offer free room and board, as do AmeriCorps programs. In many cases like these, you won’t need a car. In other words, every dollar you make is a dollar you save. In one year at Coldfoot Camp in Alaska, I made, at $9/hour, $18,000 and saved almost every dime of it. I forgot exactly how I did the math then, but I determined that my saving capacity ($18,000) was equal to the saving capacity of someone making $42,000 in a conventional home-dwelling, car-driving, supermarket-shopping lifestyle. It goes to show that, when you have room and board, getting paid a little can mean saving a lot. Resources Coolworks.com — Great website for finding working camp, lodging, etc. jobs. Americorps.gov — Lots of great opportunities for young people (18 to 24 year olds) to do good, honorable work for a small, though not insignificant, amount of money. Wwoof.org — World Wild Opportunities on Organic Farms gives travelers a place to eat, sleep and see culture in return for a bit of work. [PS: If anyone else has any useful tips, please feel free to share in comment section!]