Editor's note: This article originally appeared on Hearts at Home on Feb. 2, 2011. Used with permission.

As Mark and I state in the first few sentences of our “College: Higher Education at Lower Cost” chapter in Living With Less So Your Family Has More book…”If you want to know one Savage parenting regret, just ask us about our experience leading our older children through college.”  Both Anne and Evan have school loans that they will be paying off for a long, long time.

Bottom line, we didn’t discuss our strategy for college for our kids until it was too late.  And when we did discuss it, we didn’t agree.  And quite frankly, we had too many kids and too little income to be able to give them the finances for college.

However, after early mistakes and lessons learned from those mistakes, we do have a plan now that we both agree upon.  It’s not a nest egg for their college tuition, but it is the strategy and guidance they need to successfully find an affordable college education.

In a recent newspaper article by Claudia Dreifus and Andrew Hacker, authors of the book Higher Education?, state that “After so many years of researching the American Way of Higher Education, we’ve come to believe that when parents are selecting a college for Jennifer or Jason, their primary target should be a school that permits their child to graduate debt-free.  That means thinking creatively and forgoing dreams of luxury or prestige.”

Indeed this is what Mark and I have discovered.  In our case, assuming there are no full-ride scholarships on the table, our local community college has become the default first two years of college for our kids.  After that, a state school trumps a private university any day.

Check out the tuition differences:

Average Community College: $88/credit hour = $1320/semester

Average State University: $350-$400/credit hour = $6,000/semester

Average Private University:  $850-$900/credit hour = $12,000/semester

If Mark and I had just educated ourselves better, we could have better led our older children in their higher education choices.  You can bet we’re leading our younger ones differently.

In addition to two years of community college, these strategies can also be pursued to keep higher education affordable:

  • Commute: Living at home and finishing your education can save thousands of dollars of education.
  • Grades/ACT/SAT scores: Grades and scores do make a difference…sometimes.  When Anne went to Taylor University for 3 semesters her good grades helped a little…about $1000/year off tuition–not much, however, when you consider the $24,000 price tag.  When Erica scored a 27 on her ACT we learned that if we lived one county over, she could have had a full-ride scholarship to the community college in Champaign who offered that to ACT scores of 27 and higher.  Too bad our community college didn’t offer the same academic scholarship, but this illustrates that every college is different and you have to do your homework.
  • Dual Credit High School Classes: Some community colleges offer dual credit programs that allow high school students to take college classes and get high school and college credit at the same time.  Sometimes these programs require parents to pay tuition and sometimes the school district picks up the tab.
  • Good money management skills: Once your high schooler starts working, guide him/her with good strategies for managing money.  Include setting aside a percentage of each paycheck for college expenses.  If you need a template for money management for teens, check out my free Financial Notebook download on my Free Resources page.  Click HERE to find it!

Whatever strategy you come up with for your family, discuss it early, agree upon it with your spouse, and lead it well.

Jill Savage is the founder and CEO of Hearts at Home, an organization for moms.  Jill is a sought after speaker and the author of 8 books including Real Moms…Real Jesus and My Heart’s at Home. Jill and her husband Mark are the parents of five children, four biological and one adopted. The Savages make their home in Normal, Illinois.