Columnist

Every once in a while, I like to go through the leftover questions from my online discussions and address issues from readers.

Following a recent discussion, one issue in particular caught my attention. It deserves a response.

I had written about ways that parents who send their children to college could cut their expenses. One tip — that students live at home and commute to classes — seems to have generated a fair amount of criticism. Even one of my Washington Post colleagues, education columnist Jay Mathews, thought I was wrong to suggest this.

“Room and board at most colleges costs no more than $10,000 a year,” Mathews wrote. “With careful food budgeting and wise selection of housing with roommates, living expenses can be cut far below that figure.”

Others also challenged my advice to commute.

“You said that parents could save money by having the kids live at home while attending college,” a reader wrote. “Honestly, I think that most college kids would be better off living on campus car-less rather than living at home and having to pay for car ownership and related costs.”

Here’s the reader’s math to support this theory. “The cost of room and board at my liberal arts alma mater is currently $7,400 per year, and I’ve seen estimates that the cost of car ownership is about $8,000 per year. Even if you can cut the car ownership number in half, once you add in commuting costs and increased food bills at home, it seems pretty close, financially speaking.”

This reader makes some assumptions that I find wrong. The costs are not that close in many instances.

First, what increased food bills? If the child is living at home, food that the parents purchased is already being consumed. But perhaps the person meant commuting students would eat out more. That’s fixable. Just make a lunch and take it to college to avoid the cost of eating out.

Now, as for the annual figure the reader quotes for car ownership: AAA’s annual “Your Driving Costs” survey estimates the overall cost of owning and operating a typical new sedan is $8,776. AAA estimates annual driving costs based on a number of factors, including gasoline costs, insurance and, most importantly, financing.

In the 18 years leading up to college, it’s quite possible to save up and purchase with cash a reliable car for your college-bound child that will cost far less to operate than a new vehicle. And if he or she drives safely and lives at home, which cuts the cost of auto insurance, commuting expenses can total less than the almost $30,000 (plus the interest on the student loan) it would cost to live on campus for four years.

The other underlying argument critics bring up is the belief that if students don’t live on campus or near campus in an apartment with roommates, they are settling for an inferior college experience. So, as this theory goes, it’s worth it for students and/or their parents — or both — to go into debt if that’s what it takes to avoid missing out on this rite of passage.

Certainly, it’s easier for students living on campus to become more engaged in various university activities. But I argue that rather than racking up debt for room and board, motivated commuter students can rack up priceless experience in self-discipline.

If the weather outside is frightful, the extra effort to drive to campus takes self-motivation. If I were an employer, I certainly would appreciate a graduating student who excelled in college while commuting to school every day.

Mathews is right that with careful budgeting, students and their parents can cut the living expenses for college. But many don’t even try. And they don’t try because student loans are so easy to get. Families just assume this debt is necessary. Many students attend expensive schools even if that choice means they have to pile on debt for living expenses and even when there is a school closer to home that has a good and similar degree program.

If you have the financial resources, dorm life can be a great experience. I loved living on campus while at school, and it’s something I want my children to do, too. However, they won’t be staying on campus if we don’t have the cash to pay for it.

I know what I argue is controversial. I know telling people they shouldn’t borrow for college is heresy in our debtor nation. I’ve heard parents say, “Honey, go where ever you want, and we will figure out how to pay for it later.”

But for too many families, later comes and there isn’t enough money to pay back the loans.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Her e-mail address is singletarym@washpost.com. Questions are welcomed, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses might not be possible.