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5 mistakes that can make university more expensive

If you’re of a certain age, you may remember a commercial for ABC detergent that said, “Why pay more? Buy ABC.”

It was a great line. I mean, who wants to pay more?

I hate to pay more when I can pay less, and I bet you do too. Yet many people are unnecessarily paying more than they need to for a university education.

Here are 5 mistakes that can make university more expensive:

Mistake #1: Not applying for scholarships

Grade 12 is your child's best opportunity to get scholarships. There will never be a time with more opportunities and less competition.

Scholarships are free sources of money that students do not have to pay back.

Let me repeat: FREE money. Don’t have to pay back.

In case you aren’t aware, you don’t have to be a top student to win a scholarship. There are opportunities to win for students with solid (but not stellar) grades, and some scholarships are based on various other factors such as financial need, community involvement, geographic location, ethnicity, disability, place of work, etc.

Some awards might be entirely based on an essay and no grades or activities are necessary. For example, there is an essay contest sponsored by banks and credit unions called "The Dumbest Thing I Did with Money". What student couldn't come up with a story about how they did something stupid with money? I'm sure we all could write that one!

The essay can be up to 1000 words and there are 20 awards between $500 - $5000. One thousand words is only TWO PAGES of writing. Two pages wins someone $5000!

Some scholarships are relatively small, but even a $1000 award means borrowing less and having less debt. Looking at it another way, depending on where you live in Canada, a $1000 scholarship saves your child about 90 hours working in a part-time minimum wage job. That’s 90 hours they can use in university to study.

Put another way, if your child puts in 3 hours to work on a $1000 scholarship and wins it, they just made about $333 per hour.

Mistake #2: Not taking co-op

  • University co-op students report lower mean debt amounts than their peers ($19,000 compared to $23,000), and are also significantly less likely to report carrying above-average debt loads

  • Two years after graduation, university graduates who completed a co-op program on average earned $8,000 a year more than graduates who did not participate in co-op

  • 69% of co-op graduates believe their experience was instrumental in finding employment following graduation

Do your research when shopping for a degree program; some universities offer a program as a co-op, while others do not. Take the one with co-op if possible.

Mistake #3: Taking the wrong program

Switching degree programs (or even majors), especially after second year, can have a significant impact on the student’s ability to graduate on time (on time = 4 years for most programs if attending full-time, and 5 years for most co-op programs). Playing catch up usually means paying more in tuition for missed courses in the new program. It also delays graduation, which delays employment to make money and pay off student debt.

Mistake #4: Not taking the right courses in high school

If a university student is missing a high school pre-requisite course, there are options to make it up, but it will cost you. Once a student has graduated, they will need to make up missing pre-req credits on their own dime, and courses like pre-cal math, chemistry and physics can run around $300 - $500 each.

Mistake #5: Not saving for post-secondary through an RESP

Where else can you get a guaranteed minimum 20% return on your investment? Why would anyone save money for post-secondary in any other kind of account when they can get an extra 20% through an RESP? Yet, about 50% of Canadian parents are not using it, and leaving free money on the table.

These are just some of the ways students and parents can save money on university.

Want to learn more about how I can help you win scholarships? Please visit my services page.

Best wishes!

About the author

Janet MacDonald is a Scholarship Coach with mycampusGPS Education Consulting. She is a former Canadian university admissions officer. For seven years, she was the coordinator of a scholarship program at a major Canadian university. Janet has helped her student clients win hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships.

You can find her online at, and on LinkedIn.

Learn more about Janet MacDonald by visiting the About Page.

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