10 Big and Small Ways to Save Money on College

There are steps both parents and students can take to relieve some of the burden.

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JULIE: It’s been exactly one year since my daughter, Lindsey, headed off to the University of Kansas as a freshman. Since then, one thing we've all learned a lot about is saving money on college costs. And we're lucky—Lindsey is a practical girl. While I was busy finding ways to save big money on college, she tackled making her money go farther once she got there. Here’s what we've learned:

Five big ways to save:

1. Stay in state: There's simply no denying that having your child attend an in-state, public university can be a huge money-saver. For our family, the final college decision came down to one private school, St. Louis University, and the University of Kansas, a public, in-state school. The cost difference was significant, even after scholarships. [Discover other hidden ways to save on college costs.]

2. Consider community college: When money is tight but college is a priority, a community college can be your best friend. Even if your child to goes straight to a four-year school, any community college credits you can accrue in high school or over the summer can be a great help.

Lindsey was able to get 18 hours of college credit while still in high school. We had to pay community college rates for her classes, but some states, such as Florida, offer these credits for free.

3. Look local for scholarships: Think your student has to have off-the-chart intelligence or exceptional athletic ability to get a scholarship? Think again. Scholarships exist for all kinds of students, including those with a particular passion, strong leaders, and service-minded kids.

Don’t overlook smaller, local scholarships, too. They all add up and these scholarships tend to be less competitive, so your child's odds of winning them is higher. A local softball league in our town gives out $500 scholarships to several college-bound players each year. Those are the kind of opportunities that are easy to miss.

4. Keep your student on track: Nothing can cause college cost overruns like having to stay in school an extra semester, an extra year, or more. Sometimes it's unavoidable, but encouraging your child to take a full class load, keep up with graduation requirements, and stay focused on making grades will all go a long way toward helping him or her finish on time.

5. Don’t make assumptions: You may figure that your family won't qualify for need-based aid, but go through the motions just in case. Start by filling out the FAFSA. Certain things like having more than one child in college at the same time may swing the numbers in your favor.

[Find out other overlooked ways to pay for college.]

LINDSEY: Five little ways to save:

1. Know your priorities: Avoid making a huge Target or Wal-Mart run before you leave for school. Bring only the necessities and make a list over the next few weeks of what you really need. After I got to school, I realized that some of my must-haves, like a printer and a desktop mirror, weren’t necessities at all.

2. Make the most of your meal plan: At the end of my first semester at school, I still had 50 meals that I hadn't used, which made me regret all those trips to Chipotle and McDonald's. Many dining halls offer take-away lunches that you can use instead of buying lunch on campus or picking up snacks at the grocery store.

3. Identify local student discounts: Many college town businesses, such as local shops and restaurants, will offer great savings if you show your student ID. When visiting my friend at the University of Tulsa, she managed to score us half-price breakfasts at a restaurant near campus by using her student discount.

4. Skimp on the small stuff: When it comes to school supplies, pretty floral notebooks and sets of 24 highlighters may be tempting, but these can be double the cost of more basic items. During my freshman year, I stuck with 87-cent notebooks and made my own note cards out of regular printer paper.

5. Know when to say "no": It's a hard pill to swallow, but you can’t buy every last t-shirt, baseball cap, or tote bag that your club or organization offers. In my sorority this year, I had to make a conscious effort to buy only the apparel that I loved—and even then I ended up regretting some of my purchases. Limiting yourself is also a great way to keep your closet (and that tiny dorm room) clutter free.