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Move over baseball! America has a new favorite pastime: Saving money.

The days of living in and unapologetically seeking luxury have yielded to “Extreme Couponing” reality shows, wildly popular save-a-buck websites like Groupon and LivingSocial, and a culture where we all search tirelessly for the best possible deal.

We’ll scrimp to save a dime on everything from cars and coats to shoes and soap, so…

Why should the search for the perfect, most affordable college be any less thorough?

College is an invaluable learning experience and the perfect intermediate step between high school and “true” adulthood.

Unfortunately many of the choices people make in financing their college education end up costing them more than paying dividends on their educational investment. As my gift to you (no thanks necessary!), here are three elementary yet practical considerations to keep in mind during your future educational shopping:

1. College is a market with no shortage of vendors, all selling nearly perfect substitutes.

According to the US Department of Education, as of 2009, there were 6,632 post-secondary institutions (4-yr and 2-yr) in the nation. With such a vast array of choices, there’s a great likelihood that more than one institution can meet all your needs.

In researching schools, be sure not to become so set on the idea of attending a particular one—because of its reputation,your family legacy there, etc.—that you exclude many others which might provide the same experience without the price premium. By and large, a quality education can be received at most schools in any discipline.

Remember: English, math, and basket-weaving are the same everywhere; don’t pay more than you have to!

2. Loans are not FREE money; “Out of sight, out of mind”≠ out of DEBT.

Despite the relative ease of qualifying for and receiving student loans, they should be taken seriously. If taken without serious contemplation, they can prove a financial shackle for much of your post-graduation life. In determining which school provides the most complete package for you, consider which one will require you to take out the least loan money.

Also consider whether you will take public or private loans. There are significant differences in repayment schedules and consolidation between the two. Research all of your options and carefully calculate your projected costs. Consider realistic starting and median salaries for those with your future degree and career. Finally, in addition to scholarships and grants (for which you should apply, apply, apply!), consider other means of paying for school including work-study, paying out of pocket, and high school dual-credit programs.

Remember: Think smart now, pay less later!

3.There are other options besides college.

This is by no means an attempt to dissuade you from seeking a college education. There is great value in having a college degree, obviated by the fact that degree earners earn considerably more over their lifetimes. Nonetheless, college can be a very expensive way to “find” oneself.

There is a fundamental distinction between being sure you want to attend college but not sure what you want to major in and not being sure you want to be in college at all. This distinction is especially important in light of a February 2011 study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education which stated that by 2018 roughly 30 percent of jobs will require only an associate’s degree or post-secondary occupational credit.

Examine whether you really want to be in college and during that process, destigmatize trade professions and other options. There is no shame in being a plumber, mechanic, or anything else you may desire to become. These occupations are just as necessary as any requiring a degree and may cost you much less en route to reaching your goal. College alternatives like the military and the Peace Corps may also provide an enriching learning experience in an environment better tailored to your individual goals and aspirations.

Remember: Time is money. Don’t waste yours with college if you don’t really want to be there.

In conclusion, just be smart! Preparing to attend college is one of the most exciting and rewarding feelings in the world. By all means, enjoy it! Just be sure to think critically and carefully about each step so your education fully enables you to actualize your dreams.

Remember: Live HOPE. Give HOPE!

Matthew Manning
Guest Blogger

About the Author

Matthew S. Manning is a third-year law student at The University of Toledo College of Law (visiting at the Texas Tech School of Law for the 2011-2012 school year) and a 2008 alumnus of Howard University. Mr. Manning can be reached via Twitter (@ManningLaw) or email at mattsmanning@gmail.com.