Before we start, let’s get one thing straight. Colleges are run as businesses. There is no getting around this fact. And because of it, colleges try to squeeze as much profit out of each student as possible.

Everyone knows that college can be one of the most expensive things you pay for over the course of your life, leaving you saddled with debt for more than a decade or two. But in a bad economy, the cost of college can seem even more extreme. And coming up with the money to finance your college or university education can seem daunting or maybe even impossible.

Despite this massive challenge: don’t let money get in the way of your dreams.

By being creative, there are steps you can take to make your college finances manageable and make your college education a reality. Any strategy for handling the cost of college needs to take a two pronged approach: A) Lower costs B) Identify diverse sources for funding.

Below, we’ve listed five ways that you can get the best college education for the best price.

5 Tips To Keep College Expenses Down

1. Start At Community College – Cut Costs

As a former college professor, I can tell you that in today’s world of higher education, the quality of education that you will receive depends on both your enthusiasm for learning and the individual professors that you learn from. There are plenty of young, vibrant and enthusiastic professors at Community Colleges.

A community college is the perfect place for you to spend the first two years of a four year education taking foundational courses and exploring your options. The fact of the matter is that most students do not end up knowing what they will major in when entering college and even when they do, most students do not start specializing until their third year of college.

Why spend tens of thousands of dollars more on tuition and room & board for a private college when you can live at home, get a quality education, and pay affordable tuition? There’s no good reason, especially when times are tight. Don’t spend beyond your means if you do not have to.

Plus, if you find that your community college is especially good, you can finish your education there and possibly emerge debt free and well positioned for a high-paying job. Most people don’t know this, but in the corporate world, a practical community college education is often thought of more favorably than an ivory tower degree in folklore literature from Harvard.

2. Leverage Your High School’s Connections

Talk to your high school guidance counselor and find out whether graduating seniors can receive any performance based scholarships. Often times, the scholarships will be available to students who choose to go to a local university or college. In a down economy, you cannot and should not stick with the idealism of going to your dream college. Instead, you should go to the best college that you can afford. If your high school has connections with a local college or university and offers a substantial scholarship, you should find out the performance criteria, set that as your goal, and strive with all your might to get there.

3. Leverage Your Family’s Connections

Find out all the organizations that your mother, father, grandparents, uncles, aunts, etc. belong to and whether they offer any form of scholarship or grant programs. Many community organizations like Churches, Rotary, Eastern Star and VFW offer generous amounts of money to family members of their members.

Don’t be afraid to ask around. Networking is the single biggest thing you can do to improve your chances of paying for college.

4. Work and Save

Like it or not, many people in our country have become accustomed to receiving things without hard work. With our economic crisis, those days are over. Spend your summers working and saving. Put as much effort as possible into finding a well paying job and then take as many hours as you are able. Consider taking less credits during the school year and maintaining a 15-20 hour work week. It will be grueling and will take a lot of commitment, but at least you will be taking ownership over the cost of your education.

Working to pay your college bills has many benefits, not the least of which is a greater appreciation for the value of your courses and a tendency to take them more seriously.

5. Low-Interest & Subsidized Loans

The Federal Government and some states offer very low-interest loans, some of which are fully subsidized while you are in college. Take advantage of these loans. Not only is the interest paid for while you are in college, but most of the time their interest rates are close to or below the rate of inflation.

One word of caution: do not take out loans beyond your means. When you take a loan, you are using someone else’s money and you are responsible for paying that money back. Only take out what you are confident that you will be able to pay back.

Things To Avoid

The number one rule when paying for college is to live within your means. Only spend on college what you will be able to pay for. For this reason, we strongly advise against using credit cards to pay for college unless you have the money on hand to pay off the credit cards immediately. Using a credit card to pay for something without having the money in the bank is often the first sign of living beyond your means. In a bad economy, the most important principle is to live within your means. Only spend what you can afford to spend.

While we believe that everyone should get a college education, we also believe that everyone should be wise about the price they pay for college. After identifying all the sources of funds that you have, choose a college that fits your budget.

There is nothing wrong with choosing a low-cost college if the quality of education is solid. Employers look for evidence that you are a smart, responsible, reliable and capable employee. They do not care whether you were wealthy enough to afford a private university or not.