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Saving thousands on college tuition with creativity, flexibility (and a little bit of hard work)

Paying for college is a ridiculously expensive investment for students. With tuition, room, books and other fees rising north of $60,000 per year (on average for private schools), it is no surprise that students and parents alike are pulling their hair out. The most obvious solution to this problem is applying for and winning loads of scholarships. The problem with this approach is that scholarships are typically focused on need, super high academic achievement and special interest, criteria excluding many students. Now, I am not knocking scholarships (in fact, I have co-founded the Scholarships360 website that connects students to scholarship opportunities), but they leave a lot to be desired for the motivated, well-rounded student who does not possess a genius IQ or an extraordinary ability.

When applying to college, I was just another middle-class student who was not spectacular in any way (despite what my parents say). However, through my four years of college, I was able to save over $50,000 without applying to a single scholarship or any other form of aid. This seemingly miraculous feat was accomplished with creativity, flexibility and a little bit of hard work.

One of the most effective ways of saving money in college is also one of the most straightforward: Graduating early. By graduating in 3.5 years instead of the traditional four, I was able to save roughly $25,000 in tuition and other expenses. I did not go into college with the expectation of graduating early, although I enacted a plan to do so late in my junior year and was surprised at how effortless the entire process was. I dusted off a few credits for AP classes from high school, took an extra class for two semesters, and, just like that, I was able to graduate early.

Residential Advisors (RAs) are often portrayed as villainous figures who seek to destroy all that is fun on college campuses; for me, however, working as an RA was a wonderful job opportunity and a way to put a serious dent into my college expenses. The biggest perk to working as an RA at my school was that, in return for fulfilling my duties, my room fee was completely waived. This alone saved me about $6,000 a year! Additionally, RA’s at my college received a monthly stipend of $300 to be used for books and other personal expenses. When we total that up the savings comes to over $21,000!

While in college you have quite a bit of time off because of the winter holidays (roughly 3-4 weeks) and of course the summer.These two times coincide with a great opportunity for employment. Many businesses, especially in retail and food service, are at their busiest around the holidays and during the summer so they tend to hire seasonal workers. Including the summer before freshman year, you have a total of eight breaks in order to make some extra cash. The other benefit of having a job is that you are spending time earning money that you are not using to spend money. Idle time is not only wasted time, but it is also wasted money (and in my case over $5,000).

There are certainly other ways to save money here and there, but these three methods (graduating early, working as an RA and seeking vacation employment) had the biggest impact on the final tuition bill. Yes, I still graduated with some loans, but this minimized the financial windfall from my tuition and still allowed me to have a wonderful and fulfilling college experience.

This post originally appeared on USA Today College