MONEY Student Loans

How to Pay Off Student Loans Without Surviving on Ramen

graduate eating ramen on the floor
Datacraft/QxQ images—Alamy

Recent grads: You don't need to live off instant noodles or buy only the cheapest beer. What you really need is a plan.

For some federal student loan borrowers who graduated in May, the time has come: It’s the end of your loan repayment grace period.

If you’re about to start shelling out monthly loan payments, just started or are hoping to aggressively tackle your debt, there are a lot of things to do before you start transferring money.

1. Get a Grip on the Basics

Let’s start with the fundamentals of loan repayment: You owe a certain servicer a minimum amount of money at the same time every month. Make sure you know how all that works. You should have received notification from your student loan servicer, but if you’re not sure who you’re supposed to pay, you can access your federal loan information in the National Student Loan Data System. It’ll tell you who you owe. Private student loans won’t be found in that database, but will likely show up on your credit reports with information about the lender so you can contact them.

Make sure you understand exactly what you’re required to pay each month and your payment due date. Jodi Okun, founder of College Financial Aid Advisors and Discover Student Loans Brand Ambassador, recommends organizing your student loan information in a document and setting up calendar reminders for when the payments are due. Look into automatic payment options with your servicer, as well, but you’ll still want to make sure the payment goes through every month. Forgetting about it could accidentally lead you to miss a payment.

2. Figure Out What You Can Afford

As a new graduate, you may be dealing with more life expenses than you have in the past, or you might still be in search of a job you want. Paying your student loans needs to be a priority, because once you fall behind, it can be very difficult to catch up, and missing loan payments will seriously hurt your credit score. You can see how your student loan payments affect your credit score from month to month by getting two of your scores for free on Credit.com.

If you’re concerned about being able to afford your payments, look into student loan repayment options. Federal loan borrowers are often eligible for income-based repayment or loan forgiveness. The application process might take a few months, said John Collins, managing director for GL Advisor, a student loan debt consultancy. Servicers are dealing with a lot of repayment program applications this time of year, so it could take you 60 to 90 days to enroll, Collins said. In the meantime, make sure you can afford your payments.

3. Make a Plan

You may hate the idea of paying debt off over the course of a decade, racking up interest along the way, but before you decide to throw as much money as possible at your debt, consider your entire financial picture.

“What we’ll recommend to everybody is right out of school, limit your required payment as much as possible,” Collins said. “They need to have an emergency savings fund in case something happens. That should be a goal before you start paying down debt.”

Once you have enough socked away to cover three to six months of expenses, then you can consider upping your loan payments, though you’ll want to make sure you won’t incur penalties and your extra payment goes toward the principal loan balance.

Figure out if you want to consolidate or refinance your student loans and what it would take for you to qualify. There are a few companies offering competitive refinancing rates for private loan borrowers with qualifying credit histories, and that could save you a lot of money in the future.

Federal loan borrowers have some decent options for making payments affordable, and all it requires is a little planning. For example, when you’re gathering documents to prove your income level, make sure you’re providing the most accurate information — your earning situation may have changed drastically since you filed your taxes — so your loan repayment is accurate, Collins said.

“Ultimately I think borrowers have a great opportunity to reduce their debt payments through the federal loan repayment options,” Collins said. “A lot of people recommend eating only Ramen, and live in a studio apartment, and only buy toilet paper if necessary. You should never feel that pressure. Use the many tools that are out there, educate yourself on what they are, and if you need help, there are plenty of resources out there.”

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

MONEY College

Why It’s So Tough To Find Out the True Cost of College

calculator missing keys
Good luck finding your college's net price calculator. Larry Washburn—Getty Images/fStop

Schools are supposed to help prospective students figure out the real price in advance. Actually finding the calculator is another matter.

U.S. colleges have started, however reluctantly, to share more information about what students might actually pay to attend—the so-called net price. But the calculators that Congress has forced schools to provide since 2011 are often hard to find, vary widely in quality, and should be used with some caution.

The idea behind the law was to give families a rough, individualized estimate of what college might cost them once scholarships and grants are deducted from the sticker price. (Loans are not supposed to be included in the net price figure since borrowing increases rather than decreases the cost of education.)

A realistic estimate of costs would give families much better information before a child applies. Previously they only got true cost information after the student was accepted and had been offered financial aid.

But many people, including parents and even high school counselors, are not aware the calculators exist, said college consultant Lynn O’Shaughnessy, who runs TheCollegeSolution.com website.

Some colleges do not seem eager to enlighten them, even though the U.S. Department of Education last year urged schools to post the tools prominently in logical places.

One quarter of the 50 colleges randomly selected by the Institute for College Access and Success did not have links to their calculators on the financial aid or costs sections of their sites. Even when the calculator was on a relevant page, it was rarely posted prominently, the survey found.

Five of the 50 schools confused matters further by using some other name for the tool, such as “education cost calculator” or “tuition calculator.”

The survey was conducted in 2012, but not much has changed, TICAS president Lauren Asher said last week.

To find New York University’s calculator, for instance, users must click on three tabs—”Admissions,” “Financial Aid and Scholarships,” and finally “Financial Aid at NYU.” At University of Pennsylvania, it takes four clicks to find the net price calculator, which is highlighted in a small blue box.

Harvard College, by contrast, posts its calculator on its financial aid home page, under the headline “You Can Afford Harvard.”

Families often can find the elusive tools by entering the college’s name and “net price calculator” into a search engine.

Another place to find links to net price calculators is on each college’s information page on the College Board’s Big Future site. This provides other critical aid information, such as the percentage of financial need each college meets.

One other potentially helpful tool is average net prices by income, or what other people actually paid. It can be found at the National Center for Education Statistics.

The Wide Range of Results

The relevance and accuracy of all this information can be questionable, though.

The difference between calculator estimates and actual costs for many families will be as little as $500, but for some, the gap could be as wide as $5,000, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of education resource website Edvisors.com.

The TICAS report said many colleges used outdated cost information in their net price calculators. In addition, 40% included estimates of “self-help,” including work study and loans, and most made this lower “estimated remaining cost” figure more prominent than the federally required net price.

The calculators also vary dramatically in their design and the amount of information they require. The number of questions range from eight to 70, as some schools want the calculator to be as easy to use as possible, while others try for the most accurate results.

College access advocates such as TICAS worry that fewer families will complete the calculator if it is too complex or requires information that can only be gleaned from tax returns.

On the other side, consultants like O’Shaughnessy say the simplified versions’ estimates can be far off base.

“Generally, the more questions asked by a net price calculator, the more accurate the results,” Kantrowitz says. But he cautioned families against relying too heavily on the result of any calculator.

“Net price calculators provide a ballpark estimate of the real cost of the college,” Kantrowitz says. “They tell you whether the college is inside or outside the ballpark of affordability but do not distinguish between home plate and center field.”

More on college costs:

 

MONEY College

Good News: There’s a New Way to Get Out from Under Student Debt

Wells Fargo signage
Peter Foley—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Wells Fargo and Discover plan to offer new loan modification programs to help borrowers who are suffering temporary financial hardship.

Two of the biggest private student loan providers have welcome news for struggling grads: Soon, some distressed borrowers will be eligible for lower interest rates and lower monthly payments.

Wells Fargo announced on Wednesday that it would launch a private student loan modification program for customers who are experiencing financial distress, like a job loss.

“Through the program, Wells Fargo private student loan customers experiencing a hardship will have their financial situation reviewed on an individual case-by-case basis to determine eligibility for a short- or long-term loan modification, as appropriate,” Wells Fargo says. “If eligible, Wells Fargo will lower the customer’s interest rate to achieve a student loan payment that is determined to be affordable based on the customer’s income level.”

For eligible borrowers, Wells Fargo plans to decrease interest rates to as low as 1% and lower monthly payments to be about 10% to 15% of each borrower’s income, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Likewise, Discover plans to offer a “repayment assistance program” early next year, though the details have not been finalized, public relations manager Robert Weiss says.

Today, the average college student graduates with $28,400 in debt. Only about 20% of that debt is comprised of private loans, according to The Institute for College Access & Success. The rest is comprised of federal loans. But private student loans are a lot more expensive. The Department of Education found that private student loans have variable interest rates of up to 18%. And private loan providers aren’t required to offer the same relief as federal loans — so private loan borrowers and co-signers who face unexpected hardships are often out of luck.

“With federal loans, you have built-in insurance in case of job loss or disability or death,” says Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Financial Aid Administrators. “These are protections provided to every borrower. Those protections don’t always exist in the private student loan market.”

That’s why these new initiatives are good news, Draeger says. “The fact that they’re willing to look at loan modification is a good thing,” Drager says. “You just have to see the whole picture before you see whether this is good news or if it’s great news.”

Deanne Loonin, director of the National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project, says she is also cautiously optimistic. Other student loan providers, like Sallie Mae, have offered similar relief, and the devil is always in the details, Loonin says.

“It’s a good first step, but as with many things, I want to know more details,” Loonin says. “Which loan you have, how delinquent you are, what your income status is — those kinds of things can end up limiting who can benefit quite a bit.”

Wells Fargo’s head of education financial services, John Rasmussen, told the Washington Post that 600 to 1,000 borrowers should be able to get loan modifications by the end of this year. He said Wells Fargo will also offer help to people who are not yet late on their payments but foresee financial problems that may limit their ability to pay in the near future.

Struggling to repay private student loans? First, read your loan agreement. Private loan providers are not required by law to offer relief, but some do, Loonin says. Your loan agreement should explain if you have any recourse.

If not, call your loan provider, whether it’s Wells Fargo, Discover, or someone else. “It’s definitely worth contacting your creditor and finding out what they offer,” Loonin says. “It may not be totally obvious. Some make modifications on a case-by-case basis.”

Otherwise, consider bankruptcy. Borrowers have been told that it’s nearly impossible to discharge student loan debt in bankruptcy, but that’s not quite true. In fact, 39% of people who tried to get their student debt discharged in bankruptcy received at least partial relief, according to research by Jason Iuliano, Ph.D. candidate in the Politics Department at Princeton University.

But almost no one bothers: Only 0.1% of student loan borrowers in bankruptcy even tried to discharge their student debt. Iuliano estimates that an additional 69,000 debtors would have been eligible for student debt relief. At the very least, if you file bankruptcy, you can wipe out credit card, car loans, and other kinds of debt, which should free up money for you to pay off your student loans.

Finally, know that you’re not alone. “This is still a widespread problem,” Draeger says. “This is a lagging indicator from the recession. People are still having trouble making ends meet.”

Related stories

TIME Education

America’s Best College Towns

Syracuse, NY
Syracuse, NY Wainwright Photography

Visit these thriving college towns for a crash course in live music, craft beer, art, and history

“Depending on how you look at it, Santa Cruz is either the best or the worst place to spend your college years,” says Keijiro Ikebe, a Silicon Valley visual designer who graduated from the University of California Santa Cruz in 2002.

“With the town surrounded by shimmering water and lush forests under sunny blue skies, the last thing you want to do is spend a beautiful day taking notes in a lecture hall.”

After all, ivy-covered walls, stately libraries, and cafeteria meals don’t make a great college town. It’s more about the distractions—and Santa Cruz is overflowing with them. There are miles of beaches with some of the best surfing in the country; mountain-bike trails at Wilder Ranch State Park; artisanal coffee bars almost as numerous as craft-beer taps; and your nightly choice of any genre of live music.

This kind of lively atmosphere earned Santa Cruz a place among the top 20 college towns in America, as chosen by Travel + Leisure readers in our latest America’s Favorite Places survey. They evaluated hundreds of towns for live music, pizza, dive bars, hamburgers, and other qualities that add up to a great college town.

Syracuse, NY, takes home top honors, thanks largely to an abundance of choices for such collegiate necessities as beer, good, cheap food, and strong coffee. Lafayette, LA, was a close runner-up, with high marks for its live music, cocktail bars, and singles scene.

Read on to discover which other college towns scored big.

No. 1 Syracuse, NY

Syracuse earned top marks for things that fuel your typical university student. It was voted No. 1 for both pizza and hamburgers (sharing the latter honor with Lafayette, LA), No. 2 for coffee, and No. 4 for both food trucks and craft beer—apparently consumed by an abundance of hip locals, for which this Finger Lakes town rates No. 2 in the country. You’re likely to find aforementioned hipsters at Faegan’s Pub on Tuesday nights, when patrons earn their name on a plaque after completing a “tour” of some of the 44 brews on tap. Syracuse also ranked in the top 20 for its historic sites; start that sort of tour at Hanover Square, surrounded by buildings dating back to the Civil War era.

No. 2 Lafayette, LA

Lafayette made the grade for its plentiful extracurricular activities. The Acadian town ranked No. 1 for both its concerts and live music scene, and came in second for its nightclubs, cocktail bars, and singles scene. Music has deep roots in the heart of Cajun Country; tap into it with some “swamp pop” at the Blue Dog Café, a zydeco dance party at Vermilionville, or a Creole jam at the Blue Moon Saloon. When you’re done dancing, curl up with a good book—Lafayette was voted second best for bookstores like husband-and-wife-run Alexander Books.

No. 3 Charlottesville, VA

The University of Virginia was not only designed and founded by Thomas Jefferson, but it’s also the only beautiful campus named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That stately attractiveness extends to downtown Charlottesville itself, where a brick-paved pedestrian mall is the place to meet for shopping, gallery-browsing, dining, and drinking. You might start the day with a currant donut at the Albemarle Baking Company, then slip into your running shoes for a jog up Observatory Hill. Come evening, slip over to the Whiskey Jar, featuring more than 125 kinds of bourbon, rye, whiskey, and scotch. It’s a decidedly grown-up spot to strike up a conversation with locals, voted No. 1 for intelligence, yet still approachable—among hundreds of towns, Charlottesville came in at No. 24 for friendliness.

No. 4 Fort Collins, CO

The untamed Cache La Poudre River apparently isn’t the only thing to run wild through Fort Collins: the home of Colorado State University was also voted No. 5 for “wild weekends” by T+L readers. Some credit goes to the abundance of destination breweries, both big (Anheuser-Busch, New Belgium) and small (Black Bottle, Equinox). At the Bike Library, check out a free set of wheels and pick up an itinerary for an eight-stop brewery tour. End the day at Social, an underground speakeasy in Old Town serving a toothsome menu of nibbles, including blistered shishito peppers, roasted bone marrow, and charcuterie plates.

No. 5 Duluth, MN

Duluth grew up around the world’s largest freshwater port, Lake Superior, where captains of industry built magnificent mansions (many are now B&Bs), and immigrant dockworkers loaded ships with ore from Minnesota’s nearby Iron Range. Today the waterfront Canal Park is Duluth’s most popular destinations for tourists and locals alike, who grab a seat on the deck at Grandma’s Saloon & Grill to sip one of the dozen or so local microbrews and watch the Aerial Lift Bridge rise to let ships through, just like it has for nearly 110 years. And while the winters are frigid in Duluth, you’re bound to get a warm welcome from this town ranked 22nd for friendly people.

Read the full list HERE.

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TIME faith

Christian Colleges Need to Remember Their Biblical Values

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Getty Images

Our trans community deserves our love, too

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

Title IX protection of transgender students on college campuses is clashing with Christian colleges’ claimed right to religious expression. What to do?

How do we accommodate trans students and protect these colleges’ stated values? It’s a huge question, and it’s not going away.

This Huffington Post piece gives an overview of the battle in many university campuses, including George Fox, Simpson and Spring Arbor.

In a letter to the Department of Education, interim Simpson President Dr. Robin Dummer wrote that the school cannot “support or encourage” an individual who lives in “conflict with biblical principles,” noting that students who violate campus standards for biblical living are subject to disciplinary measures, including expulsion. For example, Simpson would not permit a “female student presenting herself as a male” to use the restroom, locker room and living accommodations of her choice or to participate in men’s athletic programs, Dummer wrote.

Alright, got it. Dummer wants to protect Biblical principles. He did not specify which Biblical principles he means, but I don’t think he included all the relevant principles values in his letter — I found a few more.

  1. 1 Samuel 16:7 People look at the outward appearance but God looks at the heart. We do not know others’ hearts, we can only guess. God sees things we do not see. You may think that being transgender is just an act of defiance or something you can stop by drawing a line in the sand. But God sees more than we do, which is one reason God does not tell us to draw those lines.
  2. Romans 8:1 So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. Why are we so quick to condemn when God does not condemn? Do we know better?
  3. Matthew 7:3-5 “And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.” That’s really the point. We have so much going on, so much we don’t understand, so much we give a pass on for ourselves but not for others, that we really are in no place to ever determine right and wrong. It goes all the way back to the Tree of Knowledge.
  4. Luke 18:13 But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ This is to be our posture. Humility. Gratitude. Love. Period.
  5. Micah 6:8 He has told you, O man, what is good;And what does the Lord require of you
 but to do justice, to love kindness,And to walk humbly with your God? Could that be stated any better? It is enough to fill our plates for the rest of our lives.
  6. Matthew 7:12 “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets.” If you were transgender, you would not want your school to draw the lines you are drawing — no doubt about it. And to think you could not be there, well here’s another verse for you.
  7. 1 Peter 3:8 Finally, all of you should be of one mind. Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude. Figure out a way to make this work for your transgender students. Don’t just stand on your predetermined ideas here. Be tenderhearted toward these people. Sympathize with what they must deal with and all they have gone through. If they were just being belligerent to cause trouble, that would be one thing, but they are not.

Clearly, these Biblical values are not part of many Christian college policies towards transgender students – all stated “in Jesus name.” And they are not part of how much of the church treats anyone they deem as somehow “less than.”

Why not?

If you understand transgender students, or any human being from a place of humility, God might indeed show you something you have not yet seen.

At the very least, you would glimpse God’s heart toward God’s children.

That reflects true Biblical Values and the “astoundingly good news” that is the gospel.

Susan Cottrell is a speaker, author of Mom, I’m Gay—Loving Your LGBTQ Child without Sacrificing Your Faith, and founder of FreedHearts.org.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: November 17

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. America needs a national service year: “Citizenship is like a muscle that can atrophy from too little use; if we want to strengthen it, we need to exercise it.”

By Stan McChrystal in the Washington Post

2. It’s time to pay college athletes.

By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Jacobin

3. So-called ‘conversion therapy’ to change someone’s sexual orientation is discredited, dangerous and should be classified as torture.

By Samantha Ames in The Advocate

4. Wikipedia searches are the next frontier on monitoring and predicting disease outbreaks.

By Nicholas Generous, Geoffrey Fairchild, Alina Deshpande, Sara Y. Del Valle and Reid Priedhorsky at PLOS Computational Biology

5. Many kids lack an adult connection to spur success in school and life. A program linking them to retired adults with much to offer can solve that problem.

By Michael Eisner and Marc Freedman in the Huffington Post

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY Kids and Money

4 Costly Money Mistakes You’re Making With Your Kids

parents cheering softball players
Yellow Dog Productions—Getty Images

Help your kids become financially literate.

When you’re a parent, it’s easy to get caught up in day-to-day money issues: Which brand of milk is a better value? Is Old Navy having a school uniform sale? How much lunch money is left in the kids’ accounts? But parenting is ultimately about the long view, with the goal of raising capable, self-sufficient adults. Dealing with daily details, we sometimes neglect important money issues that can have a huge impact on our kids — and on our finances — as they prepare for college and adult life.

The mistake: Not talking enough about money

Too many parents don’t talk about money with their kids at all. Others skirt topics they don’t know much about, like investing and debt. Parents are the main source of money information for children, but 74% of parents are reluctant to discuss family finances with their kids, according to the 2014 T. Rowe Price Parents, Kids, and Money Survey. That’s too bad, because ignorance about money can set your kids up to make bad decisions — and eventually pass those bad habits on to your grandkids.

The solution: Make financial literacy a family value

In her book, Do I Look Like an ATM?: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Financially Responsible African American Children, Sabrina Lamb details “the business of your family household.” Lamb, founder and CEO of WorldofMoney.org, says all families should work together on five financial topics: learning, earning, saving, investing, and donating time or funds to causes you value. She recommends a daily diet of business news, occasional meetings between the kids, your banker, and other financial advisors, and support of your older kids’ entrepreneurial goals.

The mistake: Believing in the “Scholarship Fairy”

A lot of parents pin their hopes on pixie dust when it comes to funding their kids’ college educations. Eight in 10 parents think their kids will get scholarships. In the real world, less than one in 10 U.S. students receive private-sector scholarship money — an average of $2,000 apiece, according to FinAid.org.

Even more unrealistic is the myth that great grades and high test scores will lead to a full scholarship. The truth, per scholarship portal ScholarshipExperts.com, is there are many more 4.0-GPA students than there are full-tuition awards, and only one-third of one percent (0.3%) of all U.S. college students earn a full-ride scholarship each year. The time to learn this hard truth is now, not when college acceptance letters start arriving.

The solution: Save something now (or accept that you can’t)

Accurate, real-time salaries for thousands of careers.

There’s a considerable body of literature out there on the merits of 529s, trusts, and other college savings options. Don’t let the details distract you from the real issue, which is that if you want to help finance your child’s higher education, you must save regularly, starting now.

If there’s no money to save, be honest with your kids about it. You can start educating them about ways to finance college through loans and cut costs with community college transfer credit and placement tests. It’s perfectly acceptable to expect your kids to take responsibility for their own higher learning as long as you prepare them properly to face that reality.

The mistake: “Investing” in extracurricular activities

Everyone’s heard about overscheduled kids with too many after-school activities. Not as much is said about the huge dent extracurriculars can put in your budget — hundreds or thousands of dollars each year for lessons, league fees, uniforms, and more. If you’re sacrificing because you think these activities will pay off when your child gets an athletic scholarship, remember that the Scholarship Fairy is rarely seen. The odds of any particular student getting even a small athletic scholarship at a Division 1 school aren’t significantly better than the odds of a student getting a full-ride academic scholarship.

The solution: Treat extracurricular activities as extras

If your child loves soccer, piano, or hip-hop and you have the time and money to spare, that’s ideal. But if it’s a choice between paying for extras and saving for college, save for college. Find cheaper after-school options for now, and don’t apologize for making that decision.

The mistake: Not teaching your kids to negotiate

There’s a big distinction between a child who’s been taught how to speak up when appropriate and one who’s been trained to be passive in the face of authority. The kids who know how to negotiate tend to earn more money as adults, even when they’re doing the same jobs as those who keep quiet. Salary.com found last year that workers who negotiated a raise every three years earned a million more dollars over the course of their careers than workers who simply accepted whatever they were offered.

The solution: Teach your kids how to deal

Show your kids the ins and outs of deal making through trading games, doing some haggling at garage sales, and expecting them to keep their word. You can find specific age-appropriate suggestions here.

By talking about money and business a little each day, being realistic about college planning, and giving your kids the skills to advocate for themselves, you’ll give them long-term advantages when it comes to understanding and earning money. That’s a valuable legacy to pass from one generation to the next.

MONEY College

The Best and Worst Places to Live for a Low-Cost College Education

Classroom with map of United States on chalkboard. Wyoming is shaded pink.
Want to save $50,000 on your kids' college education? Move to Wyoming. Sarina Finkelstein (photo illustration)—John Kuczala/Getty Images (classroom); Tuomas Kujansuu (chalkboard)

With a wide spread in tuition and tax burdens, the cost of sending your children to local public schools can come to just over $40,000 for four years—or more than $130,000—depending where you live. See where your state ranks.

Want to cut your family’s college tuition bills by more than $50,000? Bring up your kids in Wyoming. Or Florida. Or even New York. But not New Hampshire.

Using new College Board data on the average cost of tuition and fees at public colleges in all 50 states and the average amount of state tax dollars that go toward higher education, MONEY calculated where parents would spend the most and least to raise two children and send both to an in-state public university.

Wyoming, which the Tax Foundation reports has the lowest total tax burden in the country, is also the nation’s best bargain in higher education, thanks to the lowest public-college tuition in the U.S. Yet low taxes alone aren’t enough to make a state a good deal. Although New Hampshire has the sixth-lowest tax burden in the nation, Granite State parents face the highest college-related bills.

To estimate the total cost of a public education in each state, MONEY calculated how much a family earning $50,000 a year would likely pay in state taxes earmarked for higher education over 25 years, and added that to four years of in-state tuition for two children. This back-of-the-envelope analysis, of course, assumes no change in prices or taxes, nor any financial aid.

The results, while rough, do a reasonable job of showing the impact of different philosophies toward government services, says Andy Carlson, senior policy analyst at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

You’ll generally pay more if you live in a state where the students who earn the benefits of the degree have to pay the bulk of the costs, Carlson says. And you’ll usually—though not always—face lower overall college costs in states that view access to higher education as a public good, and as a result direct significant tax support to public universities.

The Best Places to Live

For families, how this difference usually plays out is in higher or lower in-state tuition. And you’ll end up paying the most for your kids’ education in states with high in-state tuition, even if those states have comparatively low college-related taxes.

New Hampshire has no tax on earned income. It funds government services with taxes on things like investment income, real estate, and liquor. For a family earning $50,000, the amount of state revenues that support the state’s colleges equates to about $82 this year, or a little more than $2,000 over 25 years. Not surprisingly, New Hampshire has the highest average public college tuition in the country—$14,712 this year—pushing total higher education tuition and tax spending for parents of two children to more than $132,000 over two decades.

Wyoming, which has low direct taxes on its residents, funds much of its government services with taxes on mineral and energy mining. Out of those revenues, it allocates the equivalent of nearly $600 a year per family to higher education, the highest subsidy in the nation. As a result, tuition and fees at the University of Wyoming are just $4,646. The total higher education taxes and tuition costs for a typical Wyoming family adds up to just $42,000—or $90,000 less than New Hampshire families pay.

Some high-tax and high-subsidy states are bad deals for parents, however. Illinois taxpayers, for example, spend 13% more than the national average on higher education support—about $340 a year per middle-class family. And Illinois public colleges charge some of the highest tuition in the U.S. As a result, Illinois has the nation’s fifth-highest combined tax-and-tuition bill for a typical family—$115,000.

In contrast, a middle class household North Carolina contributes about $500 worth of state taxes to higher education annually. That high level of taxpayer support helps keep North Carolina’s in-state tuition, $6,700 this year, below the national average. The total higher education tax and tuition costs for parents with two children comes in at about $60,000.

One last surprising note: You don’t have to travel far to reap big savings. Moving across the river from high-tax New Jersey, for example, to slightly higher-tax New York cuts the public college tuition you’re likely to pay by about $5,000 a year, and a family’s total lifetime higher education bill by more than $50,000.

The 50-State Ranking

Here’s how the math plays out in all 50 states. For more on finding a great college value, check out our Best Colleges rankings, including the 25 Best Public Colleges.

State State higher-ed spending per $1,000 in personal income 25-year total state higher-ed spending for families earning $50,000 Average in-state tuition 2014-15 Estimated total tuition costs for two children Total estimated tuition + taxes
1. Wyoming $11.92 $14,896 $4,646 $37,168 $41,814
2. Alaska $10.48 $13,101 $6,138 $49,105 $55,243
3. Utah $7.63 $9,537 $6,177 $49,416 $55,593
4. New Mexico $11.51 $14,387 $6,190 $49,523 $55,714
5. Montana $5.70 $7,125 $6,279 $50,233 $56,512
6. Florida $4.84 $6,048 $6,351 $50,808 $57,159
7. Nevada $4.49 $5,616 $6,418 $51,341 $57,759
8. Idaho $6.59 $8,236 $6,602 $52,816 $59,418
9. West Virginia $7.80 $9,753 $6,661 $53,292 $59,953
10. North Carolina $9.62 $12,027 $6,677 $53,418 $60,096
11. Mississippi $9.50 $11,877 $6,861 $54,888 $61,749
12. Oklahoma $6.52 $8,145 $6,895 $55,157 $62,052
13. New York $4.91 $6,134 $7,292 $58,338 $65,631
14. Louisiana $5.98 $7,471 $7,314 $58,510 $65,824
15. Nebraska $8.07 $10,093 $7,404 $59,234 $66,638
16. North Dakota $10.02 $12,522 $7,513 $60,106 $67,620
17. Arkansas $8.01 $10,013 $7,567 $60,535 $68,102
18. South Dakota $5.04 $6,303 $7,653 $61,224 $68,877
19. Iowa $5.92 $7,402 $7,857 $62,857 $70,714
20. Kansas $6.06 $7,577 $8,086 $64,684 $72,770
21. Georgia $7.31 $9,139 $8,094 $64,753 $72,847
22. Missouri $4.02 $5,023 $8,383 $67,068 $75,451
23. Tennessee $6.25 $7,810 $8,541 $68,324 $76,865
24. Maryland $5.42 $6,771 $8,724 $69,790 $78,514
25. Wisconsin $4.51 $5,632 $8,781 $70,248 $79,029
26. Texas $5.78 $7,226 $8,830 $70,637 $79,467
27. Oregon $4.01 $5,018 $8,932 $71,453 $80,385
28. Indiana $6.69 $8,363 $9,023 $72,182 $81,205
29. California $5.84 $7,306 $9,173 $73,381 $82,554
30. Kentucky $7.44 $9,301 $9,188 $73,508 $82,696
31. Maine $4.99 $6,243 $9,422 $75,378 $84,800
32. Alabama $8.18 $10,220 $9,470 $75,759 $85,229
33. Colorado $2.78 $3,479 $9,487 $75,897 $85,384
34. Hawaii $8.08 $10,106 $9,740 $77,921 $87,661
35. Ohio $4.42 $5,526 $10,100 $80,799 $90,898
36. Arizona $3.57 $4,468 $10,398 $83,181 $93,578
37. Minnesota $5.42 $6,780 $10,527 $84,217 $94,744
38. Connecticut $4.63 $5,782 $10,620 $84,957 $95,577
39. Washington $4.81 $6,017 $10,846 $86,765 $97,610
40. Virginia $4.40 $5,503 $10,899 $87,192 $98,091
41. Rhode Island $3.45 $4,316 $10,934 $87,469 $98,403
42. Massachusetts $2.88 $3,605 $10,951 $87,608 $98,559
43. Delaware $5.44 $6,798 $11,448 $91,581 $103,029
44. South Carolina $5.38 $6,729 $11,449 $91,594 $103,044
45. Michigan $4.31 $5,386 $11,909 $95,271 $107,180
46. Illinois $6.77 $8,467 $12,770 $102,156 $114,926
47. New Jersey $3.99 $4,993 $13,002 $104,020 $117,022
48. Pennsylvania $3.02 $3,775 $13,246 $105,967 $119,213
49. Vermont $3.21 $4,018 $14,419 $115,353 $129,773
50. New Hampshire $1.64 $2,050 $14,712 $117,698 $132,411

Sources: College Board, MONEY calculations

TIME Education

College Application Essays Don’t Matter as Much as You Think

There's good news and bad news when it comes to college essays

Correction appended, November 14.

Parents: sit down before you read this. Kids: deep breaths. You know that beautifully crafted, deeply felt, highly unusual college application essay you’ve been polishing? It might not make a difference for your college admission chances.

Stanford sociologist Mitchell Stevens spent 18 months embedded with admissions officers at an unnamed top-tier liberal arts college and found that, even in cases where students were within the admissible range in terms of scores and grades, officers rarely looked to the personal essays as a deciding factor. He wrote about his experience for The New Republic, and here’s the most interesting part:

Yet even in these middling cases, personal essays rarely got even cursory attention from admissions officers. There were simply too many files to consider in too small a time frame, and too many other evaluative factors that mattered much more. How likely was an applicant to accept our offer of admission? Had we already accepted anyone from his or her remote zip code? Had the applicant received any special endorsement from a college alumnus or a faculty member? Did someone in the office owe a favor to the applicant’s guidance counselor? Those are the questions that get debated before a verdict is reached. But during the hundreds of deliberations I sat in on over two admission cycles, I literally never heard a decision made on the basis of a personal essay alone.

The good news? Three former admissions officers I spoke to told me that, contrary to Steven’s observations, officers read every essay that comes across their desks. “We definitely read the essays,” says Joie Jager-Hyman, president of College Prep 360 and former admissions officer at Dartmouth College. “You don’t do that job unless you enjoy reading the essays. They’re kind of fun.” Elizabeth Heaton, senior director of educational counseling at admissions-consulting firm College Coach, and former admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania, says she took notes on every single piece of writing a student submitted, whether she advocated for them or not.

The bad news? No matter how gorgeous your prose is, you can’t get into college based on the strength of your essay alone. “No-one ever gets into college because you write a great essay,” Heaton says. “You can not get in because you write a really bad one.”

And even Joan Didion herself wouldn’t get into college on her writing skills if she had lackluster grades or scores. The officers told me they did sometimes look to the essays to explain weaknesses in the application (like if there was a year of bad grades that coincided with an illness,) but they said that kind information was usually best kept in the “additional information” section of the application.

Some officers recalled moments when they were so moved by an essay that they advocated for the student to be admitted despite other weaknesses on the application, but none had ever recalled a time where that strategy had worked. “There were a couple of incidents were I really wanted to admit a student and recommended that they move forward because their writing and personal qualities were so interesting, but I was not successful,” says Shoshana Krieger, a counselor for Expert Admissions who formerly worked in the admissions office at the University of Chicago and at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX. “There are certain cases where if a student is simply too far off academically, it’s then just not going to make a difference.”

“I never saw a phenomenal essay suddenly make up for everything” Heaton agreed. “These days, there’s just so little wiggle room to be able to make that call.” She also noted that it looks suspicious when a kid with mediocre grades and scores submits a spectacular essay, and raises doubts that the student might not have written it herself.

Later in his piece, Steven notes that the college essay may be more of a psychological outlet than a practical asset in the college application process, since it’s one of the only things that’s still in the applicant’s control during the fall of their senior year (most of their transcript and scores are already behind them.) Joie Jager-Hyman said she agreed with that assessment. “There’s so much anxiety right now in the air,” she said. “It’s the thing they feel like they have power over.” She also noted that focus on the essay could help kids become better writers in the long-run, even if it might not necessarily make or break their college admissions chances, and “that’s not totally a bad thing.”

So even if all the revising and nitpicking on the college essay may not help your kid get into college, it will almost certainly make him or her a better writer. So don’t put away that red pen yet.

Correction: The original version of this post misstated the location of Trinity University in Texas. It is in San Antonio.

TIME Education

West Virginia University Student Nolan Burch Dies

West Virginia Mountaineers Campus
General view of the Woodburn Hall on the campus of the West Virginia University Mountaineers circa 2011 in Morgantown, West Virginia. West Virginia/Collegiate Images/Getty Images

Greek organizations at many U.S. colleges have come under scrutiny in the wake of several deaths and injuries of pledges in the past year

The West Virginia University freshman who was found unconscious and not breathing inside a fraternity house — leading to a suspension of all Greek activities on campus — has died, university officials said Friday afternoon. Nolan Michael Burch, 18, of Williamsville, New York, had been in critical condition in intensive care at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, police and a hospital spokesman said.

“Words cannot describe the heartache we, as a West Virginia University family, feel at the loss of one of our own — Nolan Michael Burch — who passed away today,” WVU President E. Gordon Gee said in a…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

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