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Financial Tips for College Applicants Without a Major

Wes Wilbur, 21, went to Hamilton College in New York expecting to major in psychology and minor in economics, but after a couple of classes, he realized that psychology wasn't right for him.

"My sophomore year , I had no idea what I wanted to do," the Connecticut native said.

Like Wilbur, many students enter college without a clear track in mind or change majors once they get there. Reports vary, but estimates suggest that more than 50 percent of students start out as undecided or change their majors. And while enrolling as an undeclared major can give students the opportunity to explore a variety of different career options -- students at Hamilton College can't declare a major until the second semester of their sophomore year -- indecision can lead to more time in college and extra student debt.

Undecided students should be diligent about using campus resources to find a career path and graduate on time to limit their financial burden, experts say.

[Learn how undecided majors can vet colleges. ]

"You may want to go to graduate school later on," says Joseph Orsolini, president of College Aid Planners, a consulting organization in Illinois that helps families navigate paying for college. "It's best to conserve as much money early on as you're figuring all of that out in the process."

He encourages students to get their degree "on the cheap at a solid school" and wait until grad school to spend money on a brand name.

In-state, public schools are generally the cheapest four-year options, but private schools can be less expensive for students who receive aid.

"Students shouldn't be afraid of the higher-priced school, because if they are eligible for financial aid they can bring their expected family contribution down," says Jodi Okun, founder of College Financial Aid Advisors, a California-based consultancy that guides families through the financial aid process. "They may not have to pay that full ticket price."

[Learn about paying for private colleges as a low-income student.]

Attending community college is one way to save money, earn core credits and learn about career options before transferring to a four-year university, experts say.

But community college isn't the right fit for everyone. Undecided students who want the complete four-year experience, should look for colleges and universities that offer a wide variety of programs to reduce the chances of losing credits if they need to transfer, Orsolini says.

Prospective students should also apply to schools that can help them graduate on time.

Since some majors require a specific course load, or can be more difficult to get in and out of like nursing or engineering, declaring a major sooner can help students save money in the long run, experts say.

An extra year of college can cost students an estimated $18,598 at a public school or $26,815 at a private college, according to a NerdWallet Inc. study released earlier this year.

[Follow these five tips to avoid an extra year of college.]

As students weigh options, they should pay attention to graduation rates and look at what specific resources colleges offer to help students pick a major and graduate. Those resources can include supplemental or required courses like freshman seminars that introduce students to a variety of career options, campus events that highlight programs and majors offered by the school, personality assessments that help students pinpoint their interests and narrow down their choices and a strong and accessible advising department.

Unsure of what track to pursue, Wilbur took advantage of one of Hamilton's noncredit courses designed to help students discover their passions and choose a major that fits their interests.

"It kind of just focused everything for me," he says. "It was really interesting and got me excited about life after college." Wilbur will graduate with a degree in economics in May and plans to work in money management.

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.

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