Money College: Free and low-cost living for college students

vanIn early 2006, Ken Ilgunas was a college graduate who moved back in with mom and dad to get from under the crushing debt he had accumulated at school. To pay off his college debt he'd taken a job in Alaska as a tour guide and was not above taking any job that included room and board.

He was distressed that at the age of 24, he was unable to find work and refused to stay in debt. The article he wrote about the experience drew jeers from people who could not relate to the plight of the poor college graduate.

In 2009 Ilgunas wrote another article titled "I live in a van down by Duke University" at Salon.com. With his previous college debts repaid, he returned to college to secure a graduate degree. This time he refused to go into debt, paid for college with the cash he had earned, and thus gave the words "roughing it" new meaning.

He purchased a 1994 Ford Econoline van that he would use as his home for the duration of his studies. Living in a van meant many cold nights and a few overheated days as well. It also meant ants in his laundry, and living without luxuries like a TV, and basic necessities like a toilet. This time his exploits gained him a following.

Money College tracked down Ilgunas on Facebook to ask how he was doing. He reports that he's still living in his van and plans to stay there until he graduates in May 2011. Talk about parking his money where his mouth is.

For their part, officials at Duke University seem to have no problems with his parking-lot living arrangements. While no one else at Duke is currently living a similar existence, his story had prompted other people with creative living arrangements to contact him.

Ilgunas said he discovered that "There's a gal at a school in Washington who lives in an Arctic Oven tent." He also learned about "a guy at Appalachian State living in a tipi, [he] met a professor [at Duke] who had a tipi of her own here 30 years ago, and another gal who lived in a yurt in Hillsborough, a town near Duke, just two years ago."

He adds: "I bet there's someone living like me on many campuses, in fact."

He's right. Many smart, cunning and hearty students have shown themselves willing to sacrifice luxury in exchange for free and low-cost college living -- and others who wish they had the guts to try it. For the student who wants to cut college costs and still maybe have a real bed and indoor plumbing, there are ways you can manage to get free and low-cost room and board for college.

Read on, and take notes: There will be a test following this article ... the one involving your bottom line, that is.

Become a resident adviser (RA): Becoming an RA is not easy. After all it's a big job with major responsibilities involving the welfare of other students. As an RA, you oversee the behavior, safety, and happiness of students in the dorms -- you're part chaplain, part cop, part troubleshooter.

You're always on call, and may experience many late nights and lots of stress. You are also the life of the party, in charge of dorm activities. Because of the economy, and the fact that the RA gets free room and board, applications are up, so it is important to have a successful interview to get an RA position. Show the powers that be your maturity and resourcefulness.

Work for room and board: It is not difficult to find an ad where the landlords offer free room and board in exchange for cleaning, handy-man work, and babysitting. Families living near colleges are well aware of this valuable resource.

But take note: Students must be very careful when looking for a room and board job. You need to make sure the people whose home you'll inhabit are trustworthy, and that you have a good understanding of what is expected of you. Get that down before you sign a lease, in writing if necessary.

You must also make sure that you will have time to study, a good deal of privacy, and time for a social life. Also: Have an exit plan just in case things don't work out. Six-month leases with the option to renew at the same rent represent a good measure to keep everyone (including you) on their best behavior.

Become a volunteer firefighter: Alarmed? Don't be. Some fire stations give volunteer firefighters room and board while they work on a college degree. This station in Camp Hill, Pa., and another station in Allegheny County, Md., are just a couple of stations that offer such a programs.

Get an RV: Many colleges have nearby RV parks. Others have RV parks on-site or nearby, including the University of Texas/Austin, Baylor College, Toccoa Falls College in Georgia, Feather River College in Quincy, Calif., and Oregon State University. Student are responsible for securing their own RVs and many incoming students purchase them from graduating seniors. Some college-based RV parks are nicer than others, but the cost of living in an RV is significantly lower than a dorm room, plus they are a lot more private. Compared to living in an Econoline van, an RV is the height of luxury.

So now you know something more about where to live -- as for which choice ranks best for you, remember that you're going to college to learn how to use that brain of yours. Find the connection between it, and your heart, and make a smart decision: the place you call home, no matter how humble, will touch everything else you do as a student.

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