College tuition is rising at a rate far higher than inflation.  There are many reasons for these increases, which I won’t go into here, but I can help you plan ways to help you or a loved one get the most bang for your educational buck.

Having taught at a public university for many years, as well as having one attended one myself, I am well aware of how painful it can be for students and their families to come up with the funds to afford not only the tuition, but the many other costs involved in completing their coursework.  I have also seen many students make poor decisions in an effort to cut costs that only end up making their situation far worse than it would have otherwise been. However, I am confident that by following these 7 very simple and straightforward steps, you can maximize the value of your education.

1. Selectively choose colleges to apply to

(You can skip this step if you're already in college, but just keep in mind the major point that it costs a lot just to get into college). The college application cost can be expensive, setting students and their families back some hundreds of dollars. To make the most out of the application process, you should gear your applications to colleges that realistically would take a serious look at you. There’s no point in spending extra money to try to get into a college that won’t even look at your application.  

However, if you set your sights high and decide you want to aim for that “reach” school, then you need to take practical steps to help make sure that someone opens up your application. If your grades aren’t high enough to meet their minimal standards, then you need to consider taking a course that will help you raise your SAT or ACT scores. This may set you back several hundred dollars (or more), but it will save you money in the long run if you can improve your test scores enough to make the minimum criteria for that school. You may also become eligible for scholarship money, which would save you thousands of tuition dollars. Therefore, weigh the costs of college prep courses against the potential value of getting your dream school and even getting financial help.

While we’re on the topic of applications, it’s important to figure out how to put your best image forward in your written essays and record of extracurricular activities. Don’t leave this to the last minute because your work won’t be as good as if you take your time to develop a polished application. Also, don’t be afraid to ask people for feedback on your essays. When it comes to writing, the more critical eyes who view your work, the more effective it will be in making you a competitive applicant.  This is true for any application, by the way, not just for college.

2. Buy your required textbooks

Let’s assume that you’ve now gotten in to your college of choice. You’re starting to plan how to pay for this education you’ve worked so hard to make possible. Here is where many students make poor decisions. They’ve forgotten how much they paid for their college prep class (possibly), application, and campus visits. Those hundreds or thousands of dollars behind them, they try to figure out how to cut corners on the costs that they see as optional. 

The most significant of these “optional” costs, in the minds of many students, are the required texts.  Students go to the bookstore, or the online book source, and decide that there is no way they’re going to shell out the $500 or more that their semester’s books will cost. Instead of buying the book in its current edition, then, they’ll go to eBay or Amazon and buy a much cheaper used book that is an earlier version of the same title. When they get their course syllabi, they are in for a shock. The page numbers don’t correspond to the assigned readings. Worse still, if the book comes with optional online activities, that used book doesn’t give them the access code they need to complete their homework assignments. They can’t even borrow a friend’s book because that friend has a unique access code that can't be shared.

It is now federally required in the U.S. for professors to post their course text information along with other information about the course.  When they do so, they must indicate the edition, the cost, and where to purchase the book.

Students may not realize this, but most professors agonize about how to make their book as cheap as possible. Everyone blames publishers for charging too much for these texts, but the problem is not with the publishers- it's with the bookstores and used book resellers. For example, the college store buys a book back from a student at 50% of what the student paid for the book. Then they turn around and add a 30% markup back onto the used book before they sell it to the next batch of students. The publisher makes nothing on all of those used books. The only recourse is for the publisher to charge more for new books to make up for their losses on the hundreds of thousands of used books for which they get no returns at all. Each dollar spent on a used book is a dollar that the publisher has lost and has to make up with other new books. Each of those profit dollars goes directly into the hands of the used book reseller. I don’t intend to write a lengthy defense of textbook prices, and I’m sure I won’t change the practices of these bookstores. However, I want you to understand why book prices are so high.

Let’s move on to find out how to get the most bang for your textbook buck. The most important thing you can do is get the actual book the professor has required.  If you can’t afford it, tell the professor immediately and in person (not in an email). Perhaps he or she can put an extra copy on reserve (most professors do this anyway). You could also ask if the professor or teaching assistant can allow you to work from their own book copy during office hours. There are ways to make those books more affordable, but the worst thing you can do is to not get or – even worse—read the book.

Think about it. Why did you spend all that money on your college prep, applications, visits, and now tuition? You want to learn. What will you learn from? Of course, your professors will do their best to teach you what they can in the classroom or online, if that’s the case. But they are relying on the assumption that you’re doing the background work that will prepare you for their lectures or discussions. If you don’t do the reading, you stand a good chance of failing the class. Then you’ll be wasting far more than the cost of the textbook. Not getting the required materials is a foolish way to try to save money in college.

The final thing I’ll say about textbooks is that, though they can be expensive, they’re a fraction of the cost of most laptops, iPhones, headphones, downloaded music, and other personal items that students spend far more on than they do on their books. Many students will think nothing about buying their third pair of Uggs but refuse to spend the equivalent (or less) on a text book. They may spend more on spring break vacations than the total cost of their textbooks for their entire college career. I don’t mean to offend you by implying that you’ve got lots of money to spare, because most students don’t. However, if you live a frugal life and still have trouble paying for your books, then you should take some of the above steps. If you are in decent financial shape, you still need to put textbook costs into your budget. Then you can plan how much you can afford to splurge on the fashions you feel you need to look good in your college crowd.

3. Read the syllabus (and keep it)

I wish I could tell you how many times I’ve had to console tearful students who, at the end of the course, realize that they missed a huge chunk of work and will fail as a result. Although my heart goes out to them, it would be unfair for me to give them credit for not doing the work that was completed by the vast majority of the class. When I asked these failing students why they didn’t complete those assignments, they admitted that they had never read the syllabus. I’ve also sat on academic honesty boards where students plagiarized the work of other students in a group project, not realizing that the professor explicitly stated, in the syllabus, that such group projects were considered cheating. I'll talk more about academic honesty later.

A syllabus contains, at a minimum, the teaching staff’s contact information, required reading, outline of course requirements, a course schedule of classes and assignments, and the instructor’s various policies, including a statement about academic honesty.  Many professors post the syllabus online, meaning that even if you lose the paper copy, you’ve got a permanent reference source you can check. Obviously, you are taking more than one course, so it is easy to make a mistake and forget about one course’s assignments or mix up the dates with another. To avoid this unnecessary confusion, copy all the course dates into your personal calendar or day planner, and put each syllabus in a separate notebook with the other materials from the course.

After the course is over, you should file the syllabus along with your notes and any other materials from the class.  You may need this syllabus to show to a later professor, employer, or recommender. It’s also nice to keep a syllabus as a reminder of what you actually learned in your college career.

4. Go to class

The textbook discussion was a little painful, because it means you have to spend money to save money. It’s much less stressful to think about saving money by spending nothing at all. This next tip does exactly that. The very best way you can save on your college expenses is to go to class. Not only should you go to class, but you should get to class on time, stay for the whole class, and actually stay awake during class. I heard a professor refer jokingly to the quote by W.H. Auden that a professor is someone who talks in someone else's sleep. This professor was not a boring person and neither, I assume, was W.H. Auden.

I also heard a professor from a very VERY prestigious Ivy League school tell me that it’s a tradition for students to arrive late to each class. The tradition is so ingrained that many professors feel it’s useless to start teaching on time either.  When you don’t go to class, or when you don’t pay attention in class, you’re wasting your precious tuition dollars. Would you, in contrast, buy concert tickets and then simply not go to the concert? Of course not. Yet, many students think nothing of skipping the classes which they clearly have paid to take. To make it worse, by skipping classes, they further guarantee that they’ll fail that course.  Now they’ve not just wasted their money but they increase their risks of becoming a college dropout. Another professor joke also comes to mind with regard to this situation: "Undergraduates are the only consumers who want less than what they've paid for." Also less than what their parents are paying for, in many cases.

By the way, getting your hands on the notes from other students (or worse, paying for those notes), is not going to make up for your missed attendance. I’ve seen those pay-for-play notes, and trust me, they are a pale imitation of what I actually said in my class. 

Why do students skip or come late to class? The main reason is that they don’t get enough sleep. If college students had their way, all classes would be taught between the hours of 10pm and 3 am. For some reason, perhaps developmental, college-age individuals are more likely to be “night people” rather than “morning people.” Unfortunately, class schedules are designed to accommodate the hours that classroom are open (and that professors want to teach). If you want to succeed in college, you simply need to get enough sleep, at night, to allow you take maximum advantage of your school’s class schedule.

The second reason that students skip class is that they drink too much the night before. A study by Philip Wood and his associates (2007) showed that students with early morning classes on Friday’s are less likely to drink on Thursday night when the weekend officially starts for some students.  Scheduling those early classes may help you restrain your drinking, helping you overall maintain your class performance.

5. Don’t cheat

I will not comment on the ethical and moral problems involved in cheating, only the practical ones. You’re in college to learn information that you want to have in your brain. This is what you’re paying for. If you cheat by plagiarizing, copying test answers from someone else, or using the Internet to supply your assigned essays, this is work that is not going into your brain. College is supposed to improve your own intelligence and knowledge about life, not your ability to copy someone else's work. Taking an end run around the actual material you’re supposed to be learning means that you’ll be losing out on the information that, stored in your brain, will make you more effective at your job and ultimately in your life as a whole.

6. Look for campus-based ways to make money

If you’ve taken the advice I’ve already given, you will earn good- maybe great- grades. The better your grades, the greater your chances of qualifying for financial aid, scholarships offered by your college, a national funding source, or even your hometown. College advisors often send emails around to students telling them about these scholarships. Resist the temptation to delete any emails that come from the campus administration and see if you match any of the criteria for these scholarships. To boost your qualifications for these scholarships, you should also look around for volunteer or leadership opportunities that will give you valuable extracurricular qualifications for these competitive grants. If you’re in the sciences, look for a lab to work in that takes in undergraduate research assistants. Not only might you get paid, but you’ll get hands-on training that you can use later to make you more attractive to employers or other funding agencies..

When it comes to making money in college, many students take jobs that, unfortunately, cause them to have to keep late hours or to prevent them from having enough time to study or engage in those extracurricular activities.  I find this to be very frustrating in my work with students who decide to apply for prestigious national scholarships that include volunteer, service, or leadership in their criteria. If you’re in the situation where you must work to support yourself during college, look for opportunities that will give you exposure to campus personnel who can then write letters of recommendation to help you qualify for grants, awards, or scholarships. One faculty member of campus dean’s recommendation is worth 10 of an outside employer’s, unless that employer is specifically in your major field.  You should also take heart in the knowledge that many granting or scholarship agencies will ask you about your employment history just to level out the playing field when comparing you to more affluent students who could afford unpaid internships.

7. Ask for help when you need it.

And now, my final piece of advice for making the most economic sense of your college education.  Don’t waste your money by trying to go it completely on your own. When you’re in trouble, ask for help. Even when you’re not in trouble, seek out your instructors for individualized assistance.

Your tuition includes the cost of the teaching and advising staff. Why not get the most out of your tuition by availing yourself of their help?  College professors are in this business because they want you to learn. They could be in many other professions, but they’ve chosen the life of an educator. In fact, one of their most frequent complaints is that no one ever comes to see them in their office hours. They also find it difficult to understand how students can more or less disappear for an entire semester, realize that they’re going to fail, and then plead for mercy. You will be more likely to find a sympathetic and helpful ear when you ask your professors or teaching assistants for help as soon as the problems start. If you do ask for help from another student, make sure it’s a student who’s doing well in the class. You’d be surprised how willing your fellow classmates are to help students who are having difficulty.  The best way to learn is to teach others, and these expert students are often more than happy to share their knowledge with you. If you're having trouble finding such a generous tutor, ask your dorm's resident advisor, the library, your departmental advisor, or the college learning center for help.

Students have many goals for themselves when they decide to embark on their college education. Your motivation may be to have a chance for a better career, learn for the sake of learning, play college sports, or enjoy the campus social scene. To stay in college, you have to spend your hard-earned dollars as wisely as possible. The bottom line is that to achieve your college goals, you have to stay in college. By taking advantage of these seven tips, you'll not only stay in college but get the most out of these important years of your life.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. 

 Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, 2012


Wood, P.K., Sher, K.J., & Rutledge, P.C. (2007). College Student Alcohol Consumption, Day of the Week, and Class Schedule, Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 31,  1195-1207.

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