How to save money on college: 3 clever ways Gen Z is managing high tuition and other costs

How to save money on college: 3 clever ways Gen Z is managing high tuition and other costs
Teens and their families are finding smart ways to pay less for a university education. Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Teens and their families are finding smart ways to pay less for a university education. Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

Headlines about crushing student loan debt seem to have made a pretty strong impression on college-bound students in Generation Z, defined as a more-than 70 million strong cohort of teens and young adults born after 1996 — or more generally as those who can’t remember 9/11. How, exactly?

A new report from Sallie Mae and Ipsos shows families of Gen Zers are finding more innovative ways to pay for college. The study points to parents and students becoming craftier and more defensive when it comes to financing education — learning from the plight of deeply indebted millennials.

“Students and parents are sharing more in the responsibility of paying for college, which is one of the newest trends we are seeing,” Rick Castellano of Sallie Mae told Mic by phone. “Families are also becoming savvier consumers and are more value-conscious by taking proactive steps to make college more affordable.”

Even beyond ballooning college costs, the financial lessons of the last decade have had an effect on today’s teens, as a recent TransUnion report found Gen Z to be increasingly informed on spending, saving and credit, though they’re still learning.

“Overall, the Generation Z report suggests that teens are committed to sound money management, but still lack crucial experience in credit and borrowing,” Heather Battison, vice president of consumer communications at TransUnion, said in an email. “Given that 84% of teenagers learn about money from a parent or guardian, it’s crucial they continue to receive the hands-on guidance they need... spending less than they earn and learning responsible credit card use can help teenagers build and maintain their financial health as they prepare to embark on their college journey.”

One big shift? An increasing number of college students work during the school year to defray costs and rack up less debt. A study by the Center for Generational Kinetics found millions of students plan to work while in college, which is supported by Sallie Mae’s research: At least 76% of the students in the Sallie Mae report said they planned to do so, with 55% working year round.

This surprised Castellano. “In the past it wasn’t uncommon to get that summer job while in college, but we’re seeing more students work year round to help pay for expenses,” he said.

What are other smart ways the current college-bound generation is making college more affordable? Here are three big moves that are growing more popular, according to the Sallie Mae report.

1. Getting more mileage from scholarships and grants

One of the biggest trends is that scholarships and grants are covering the largest share of college expenses in at least a decade. Approximately 35% of college costs are being paid through scholarships or grants, and while some grant and scholarship resources are new, the majority of the money has actually been available for years.

“Over the last 10 years some states have introduced new scholarships, but there’s nothing new with federal funding,” Julia Clark of Ipsos said to Mic by phone. “About 87% of these scholarships are coming from the schools.”

Awareness of scholarships may be increasing, with many different sources making funds available: 75% of students are receiving scholarships from private, nonprofit or community-based organizations, whereas 65% earn scholarships from state or local governments.

How can you score some grant or scholarship money? Advice is to start searching as early as you can, Mark Kantrowitz of scholarship search site Cappex told CNBC: But, as Mic has advised before, it can pay off to try again for tuition help even after you are already in college, as new sources of funding can open up unexpectedly.

Don’t forget to check your school’s policy on outside scholarship money, and file that FAFSA. Sallie Mae also offers a free scholarship research tool that offers access to five million scholarships.

Broken down how American pays for college
Broken down how American pays for college Sallie Mae and Ipsos/Sallie Mae

2. Reducing needed coursework ahead of time

Approximately 26% of incoming college students enrolled in accelerated courses while in high school, which can help to reduce costs if it means you can knock out some required credits before you land on campus.

One word of warning, though: Taking AP courses or CLEP exams in high school can certainly shave some expenses, but you should have realistic expectations. Approximately 1.1 million students took at least one AP exam in 2016, according to College Board, with only about 22% scoring a 3 or higher, the score typically required to be considered for college credit.

And alas, not all colleges recognize or give credit for AP coursework or recognize certain scores, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. Here’s a list of colleges and universities that typically accept AP credits, but always check with your particular school to confirm up-to-date rules.

3. Measuring value in smarter ways — and learning to compromise

Choosing more affordable educational options seems to be a trend among Gen Z students and their parents. While 55% of families said they believe paying more for college leads to a better education, 45% argue a costlier college doesn’t impact quality. In fact, 69% of families in the new survey said they eliminated schools from their list because of cost — as opposed to only 58% who said the same in 2008.

Indeed, approximately 73% said they are choosing an in-state school, and half of students said they’ll live at home to reduce expenses. At least 19 states currently offer free college to residents, according to Time, through “promise” programs.

Another helpful shift? With Gen Z applying savings habits early in life, more young people are contributing toward their own college expenses than ever. Sallie Mae found student income and savings contributed 11% of costs, whereas parent income covered about 23%.

While borrowing is still part of the equation, parent borrowing is only contributing toward 8% of the costs and student borrowing about 19%. And even friends and other family members are helping to kick in, as they provided 4% toward costs.

So what else can you do to reduce costs, especially if you are packing up your room to move to school in a few months? Slash book costs by buying used books and wait a beat to get the actual housing bill. Sometimes those estimates are higher than what you actually end up paying.

If borrowing is part of your college plan, consider paying student loan interest ahead of time and get cozy with your financial aid officer. A face-to-face meeting could bridge any communication gaps and allow you to negotiate on things like deposits. Finally, don’t drag your feet on forming a strategy. While 86% of families anticipated their child would attend college, only 39% said they have a concrete payment plan, according to Sallie Mae.

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