Some students are college-bound before they even hit high school. They know they want to shoot for the Ivy Leagues, and map out plans to get there. But while there's a certain degree of pride that will come from landing a spot in the freshman class of that East Coast institution, the sticker shock that comes with attending a prestigious university is often inevitable.
This isn't meant to discourage you. Many private and expensive four-year schools offer generous financial aid packages to make up for the high cost of attendance there, and scholarship opportunities could offset some of those costs as well. But sometimes that isn't enough, especially in a struggling economy where parents are saving less for their children's educations and tuition costs continue to rise. If you're set on what you want to be when you grow up, consider looking at programs offered by schools rather than their reputations. Some smaller, less costly schools are known for certain fields, so do your research through a college search on schools that specialize in education, nursing or forensic science, for example, if you're sure about your future career.
Factor in your cost of living, as well. A college in a big city may seem like a grand adventure, but how much fun can you really have if you can't afford to leave your dorm room? A less expensive school in a college town may not seem very exciting, but most of those towns cater to young people, offering diversions outside of your academic calendar at a much lower cost to you than big cities. You'll also be competing against other students for part-time jobs rather than a few million city-dwellers. Look at your in-state options - you can still be far enough away from your parents' house that you'll get the privacy you're craving while enjoying home state tuition.
If you have your heart set on the big school that is perhaps just out of your reach financially consider doing your general education requirements at the local community college. Although you'll be sacrificing some of that typical college experience, two years in you could be ready to transfer to your dream school with fewer student loans and a better idea of what you want to study. Chances are you'd change your major several times your freshmen and sophomore years anyway, or go undecided until then. Just make sure your intended college will approve the courses you completed at the community college so that you aren't forced to retake any courses.
Tomorrow, we'll take a closer look at how low-cost options like community colleges can help you get the job skills and career opportunities that remain in demand in a tough economy.