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Posted at 06:39 PM ET, 08/30/2011

Bad ways to cut college costs

For many years, I have tried to spend my money — more accurately, not spend it — the way Washington Post personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary tells me to. Like many Singletary readers, I follow every maxim of her late grandmother Big Mama, the column’s guiding light.

But last week Singletary wrote something uncharacteristically off-kilter about college spending. Big Mama wasn’t mentioned, so I have summoned the courage to suggest that, for the first time, Singletary is wrong.

Some of her suggestions made sense. She said parents are right to insist that their kids maintain at least a B average if they want tuition, room and board paid.

But she also suggested that parents ask their children to graduate in less than four years and live at home to save money. “I hear parents say all the time that they want their child to have a certain kind of social experience in college. They argue that it’s important for their child to live on campus or an apartment near campus,” Singletary said. “Really? Is it important enough to double the expense of college? Is it important enough to mire your kid or yourself in debt for decades? . . . You are teaching them that they are entitled to a certain lifestyle even if they can’t afford it.”

Room and board at most colleges costs no more than $10,000 a year. With careful food budgeting and wise selection of housing with roommates, living expenses can be cut far below that figure. My college girlfriend (my wife since graduation day 1967) lived in a cooperative dorm in which food costs, shopping and cooking duties were shared. Such cooperative housing today can cut a student’s annual expenses to $5,000.

If a family can’t afford even minimal living expenses, fees and tuition, and would be crushed by debt if they borrowed to pay for them, then living at home and finishing college in three years may be worth examining. But families shouldn’t assume that this is the best choice for them without considering the long-term benefits of a full four years taking advantage of everything colleges and universities have to offer.

I spent much more time at my college newspaper than I did in class. In the process, I learned a trade that has kept me happy and solvent for 40 years. Many people have discovered extracurricular interests — entrepreneurial clubs, humor magazines, independent research projects — that turned their lives in deeply satisfying directions they would not have considered if they had not had the time to look around. Challenging campus or off-campus jobs that start as volunteer work may also have that impact. It is difficult to find time for these extras if you are on a forced march to a degree in three years.

Want to avoid college debt? Don’t cut back on the time you spend at college. Instead, pick a school that does not cost so much. President Obama’s new nominee to be chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Alan Krueger, co-authored in 1999 a paper, “Estimating the Payoff to Attending a More Selective College,” showing that expensive big-name schools add little if any value to a college education. He and co-author Stacy Berg Dale demonstrated that the character traits that bring success — such as persistence and good humor — produce just as much income with a degree from Delaware State as one from Cornell.

Zac Bissonnette’s book “Debt-Free U” shows how to get the most from a cut-rate college, and how to avoid borrowing altogether. Singletary has recommended it. Parents should be firm about money, but they should not be stupid about the value of time. Seeing college as something more than a collection of courses can bring opportunities that pay for themselves many times over and make the rest of one’s life not only sustainable but fun.

By  |  06:39 PM ET, 08/30/2011

 
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