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One way to cut student debt: Choose a college closer to home

How to save your kids from student debt hell: Persuade them to attend university or college in town instead of going away to school.

Going away doubles the cost of getting a postsecondary education. It's not worth the added expense unless a student lives in a rural community with no postsecondary schools nearby, or has been accepted in a demonstrably superior program that will improve his or her chances of having a great career. Going away to school is also fine if it can be done without incurring serious debts.

Otherwise, forget it. Whatever great life experience a young adult gains while away at school will be crushed by the drudgery of what could easily be a decade or more of post-graduation student debt repayment.

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The added overall cost of attending college or university out of town has been pegged at roughly $45,000 in More Money for Beer and Textbooks, a Financial Guide for Today's Canadian Student (read an excerpt of the book) co-authored by Kyle Prevost and Justin Bouchard. This number is based on the results of a survey by the RateSupermarket.ca website that suggests it costs $35,435 to live at home while earning a four-year university degree and $78,817 when not living at home. The difference here is accounted for by the cost of room and board, and by an estimate of the extra interest a student would have to pay to finance going away instead of staying home.

Live at home, minimize debt. Various estimates tell us that among the 60 per cent or so of postsecondary students who graduate with debt, the average amount owed is in the range of $28,000. There's no indication in the headline numbers of the role played by selecting an out-of-town school, but it has to be considered carefully at a time when financial matters are weighing ever more heavily on young adults.

Bank of Montreal's 2013 student survey found a sharp drop over the previous year in the number of kids getting help from their parents to pay their costs, and a smaller, but still notable decline, in the number relying on their own savings. Finances ranked as the top source of stress for students, ahead of achieving financial success.

Students who attend school out of town often have a choice of living in residence or off campus. Mr. Prevost, a high school teacher in Birtle, Man., estimates that the cost of residence runs as high as $12,000 per year or so with a meal plan. Living off campus may or may not save a student some money.

"If you are focused on being frugal and cutting costs, you can live off campus more cheaply by $2,000 or so a year," Mr. Prevost said. For the average student living the average lifestyle, it's pretty much the same."

Going away to school definitely puts pressure on students to manage money wisely. Are they up to it? "It's one of those things where you never know until you do it," said Kevin Cochran, co-founder of enRICHed Academy, a home study course for young people on personal finance and investing. "When a lot of people get that first taste of freedom, they can't handle it. There's no accountability in their lives any more."

Students themselves concede they could do a better job of managing their money. In a recent student survey published by Toronto-Dominion Bank, 43 per cent of undergrad participants said they wished they had spent less on discretionary items like gadgets and going out with friends. There's enough pressure to spend when a student lives at home. Living away, it's magnified because there's no family to fall back on for meals and socializing.

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Full disclosure: We live in Ottawa and my 19-year-old son is going to university in Toronto. One reason is that he got accepted into a good school there for what he wants to study, and another is that we can afford it without debt thanks to his hard work in summer jobs and the registered education savings plan his mother and I have been contributing to for the past 18 years or so. A lot of parents believe it's important for their kids to have the experience of going away to school. Making regular contributions to an RESP makes that goal a lot more realistic.

As for the argument that going away to school makes sense if you have a chance to study at a top-ranked university, Mr. Prevost is skeptical. "People will say something like, well, this school has the best law program. As if there's never been a successful lawyer from anywhere else."

Did you live at home during your student years in order to save money? Or did you go away to school and rack up debt? To share your story, click here.

For more personal finance coverage, follow Rob Carrick on Twitter (@rcarrick) and Facebook (robcarrickfinance).

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About the Author
Personal Finance Columnist

Rob Carrick has been writing about personal finance, business and economics for close to 20 years. He joined The Globe and Mail in late 1996 as an investment reporter and has been personal finance columnist since November 1998.Rob's personal finance columns appear in The Globe on Tuesday and Thursday, and his Portfolio Strategy column for investors appears on Saturday. More

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