College is an exciting time: a new chapter of your life, new opportunities, new places. This might be the time when you start considering car ownership for the mobility and convenience it gives. If you enrolled in college out of state, you might want to have an independent means of transportation to haul your seasonal clothing back and forth or visit home for emergencies. Even if you study locally, you will need to commute. Moreover, university campuses, especially urban ones, might be dispersed, so not everything is within walking distance.
On the other hand, a car comes with many responsibilities and expenses. Is this the right choice for you? Let’s try to figure it out together.
Benefits of getting a car as a student
First, let’s see why a car might be an attractive option for you.
- Offers convenience
You don’t have to rely on public transportation schedules to travel wherever and whenever you want, so you won’t have to plan your day around the availability of buses. I studied locally but had to take the morning bus to get to the campus from my parent’s house on time for the classes. Not to miss it, I woke up at 5.45 each morning. Believe me, this was no mean feat for a night owl paper writer who studied well past midnight. The glowing numbers on my alarm clock are burned into my mind forever. The bus, however, didn’t feel obliged not to miss me – it could depart a couple of minutes earlier or be late for 20. You won’t have to deal with that kind of nightmare if you drive.
- Saves time
Driving around is usually much faster than commuting on public transport. This includes not only trips to classes and back but also library, extracurricular activities, social events, and even grocery shopping, making it easier to buy bulk weekly instead of daily. You know what you can do with all this time? Sleep to your heart’s content! I mean it. However, if you so wish, you can study more, hang out with friends, or get a part-time job.
- Allows more job opportunities and internships
Speaking of jobs, unless you have applied for an on-campus position, you will need to attend a lot of interviews, and a car makes it easier to fit them into your schedule. A car also allows you to consider wider geography and expand your employment options. Some part-time jobs, such as delivery, are only available for you if you have a car. Internships also require regular commute off-campus, and a car makes it possible.
- Gives safety
Having your own means of transportation provides a sense of security when you attend parties, go on a date, or study late at a friend’s place. Leaving an uncomfortable and potentially threatening situation is much easier when you have a car.
- Creates a feeling of independence
Owning a car gives you greater independence and control over your life. From exploring natural landscapes and discovering new places with friends to moving in and out of dorms and apartments, the car makes it simpler, enhancing your overall college experience.
Downsides of getting a car as a student
While owning a car as a student can be very advantageous, it’s important to consider all the associated costs and tradeoffs.
- It costs money
Cars are expensive, and you may have limited financial resources as a student. Even if you consider getting a used car and have some money put away enough for the down payment, you should also keep in mind the operating costs that come on top of the initial purchase: fuel, maintenance and repairs, insurance, etc. David Bell from BrokerLink, a Canadian insurance company, shared his experience as a parent buying a car for his son. According to him, the car’s convenience might not outweigh the money and hassle you put into gas, parking, repairs, and insurance. “Public transportation and carpooling become good options very quickly,” says Bell. Sure, the car opens more possibilities, but if the work you drive to provides only enough money to keep driving, what’s the point?
- Parking can be a royal pain
Before you decide on buying a car, check if your campus and place of residence offer affordable and convenient parking options – this is vital. Some universities charge high for parking permits. As for residential halls, the fees for parking lots can be extortionate. Yet that’s just half of the problem. Add to that constant stress of looking for a parking space everywhere you go – from the gym to a quick coffee with friends – receiving an occasional parking ticket for parking improperly on a sidewalk, disputes over “ownership” rights to a parking space on a public street with neighbors, looking for your car on a busy parking lot of a mall or sports arena… Need I go on?
- Traffic is terrific
Remember I said, “saves time”? That comes with a small print clause. Depending on your location, traffic congestion, and limited parking spaces can make driving more trouble than it’s worth. In big cities specifically, driving is often more stressful and time-consuming than biking, walking, or relying on public transport. Imagine standing in a traffic jam and seeing your classmate pass you by in a bus on a bus-only lane, reading a book, with no care in the world. Aargh.
- Environmental impact
If you are environmentally conscious, you might want to consider the carbon footprint of your transportation choices. Private transport is among the world’s biggest sources of greenhouse gasses – and emissions keep rising every year. Of course, a personal electric vehicle is twice as eco-friendly as a public bus, but let’s be honest, as a student, you’re hardly considering buying a Tesla, are you? Anyway, in the US, compared to the rest of the world, we tend to drive even for short journeys, which could easily be made on foot or by bike. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, our short car trips of under a mile add up to nearly 10 billion miles per year, which equals the entire population of Chicago driving to Las Vegas and back. That’s 4 million metric tons of CO2 emissions per year, which could be avoided if we just chose to walk for trips under a mile. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
- Relegates you to a designated driver role
Remember I told you that a car gets you around and allows you to participate in social events? Yeah, that comes with a caveat. As a driver, you aren’t supposed to drink at parties. No, not even a small beer. Put that glass down! Of course, if you are under the legal age or don’t drink for personal reasons, there is no problem. However, if you want to relax and have fun with friends, you will have to navigate around this: deciding when to leave your car and call a taxi or when to stay sober and be the one who drives everyone safely home after a riotous night at a club.
- It’s a big responsibility
Overall, a car is a big responsibility – not only for your own life but for the life and well-being of others on the road and sidewalks. You might feel you are up to it but search your soul. One of the riskiest behaviors you can engage in behind the wheel is texting and driving – and that’s where high school and college students are the worst offenders. Over a third of all teen drivers admit to texting and driving, even though 94% of them say they understand the dangers. While fatality rates have decreased since 2016, hundreds still die each year in accidents connected to texting and driving.
This also adds up to significant economic consequences for all. According to Ezra Peterson, senior director of insurance at Way.com, a car-focused app, premium surcharge for distracted driving ranges from 6 to 8% of the total market. That means every insured person is paying that much just to cover the insurance losses attributed to the reckless behavior of texting drivers.
Of course, the weight of each argument above depends on your unique situation’s particulars. While some students may feel pressured to own a car by peer expectations, it’s vital to make this decision based on your needs and circumstances.
Things to consider in a car
Let’s suppose that you have weighed all the pros and cons, and the pros won. You need a car, it will make your life more comfortable. What’s next? What type of car? It all depends on your individual needs. Here are the main factors to consider.
It’s essential to find a car within your financial constraints. Consider both the purchase price and ongoing monthly expenses. As a student, you might not qualify for an auto loan on your own, so you would need a co-signer (a parent or a trusted friend) who agrees to repay your loan if you won’t be able to.
- Used vs. New
While new cars come with warranties and the latest features, used vehicles are more budget-friendly. However, the cheapest upfront isn’t always the best choice. Make sure to balance the initial savings with the costs you might bear later in repairs and replacement parts of a derelict old car.
- Fuel efficiency
To save money on gas, you want a car with good fuel efficiency – that is, a smaller, compact vehicle. Also, newer models tend to offer better efficiency than older ones.
You need a car that is dependable while requiring minimal maintenance. Look for models with a reputation for simplicity and reliability.
Safety features are crucial, especially for those new to driving. As a student, look for a car with advanced safety features: airbags, antilock brakes, electronic stability control, etc.
Insurance premiums tend to be higher for young drivers, so it’s wise to get insurance quotes before committing to a purchase. Some cars have lower insurance rates than others – usually due to their reliability and safety, which is a win-win for you.
Consider your daily needs, including luggage, passengers, weather conditions, and parking space availability. For example, if you need to transport sports equipment, a hatchback is a practical choice. All-wheel drive will be a benefit if you live or study in a snowy area. A compact vehicle will be a wiser choice for the urban environment with scarce parking space. Moreover, compact or subcompact cars are easier to maneuver, especially for a new, inexperienced driver.
Our pick of 10 best cars for a college student
You might need some personal considerations and preferences that will influence your choice, from the room available inside to smartphone integration and sound system. However, based on the parameters I have briefly overviewed above, the following cars should make a perfect companion for students and first-time drivers.
- Honda Civic. This car has been a popular choice as a first car for new drivers for decades. It’s safe, reliable, and fuel-efficient. Moreover, it has good visibility and is relatively easy to park. It is a go-to choice for parents who buy the first car for their teenagers. Sounds boring, I know, but Honda Civic looks good, so everyone is happy.
- Toyota Corolla. Named by some drivers as one of the best sedans you can ever choose, Corolla is comfortable, reliable, and has a good reputation for retaining resale value. Its fuel efficiency and low maintenance costs make it perfect for students.
- Mazda3. This five-door car is perfect for beginners. It’s fuel-efficient, with excellent performance, reasonably stylish, very safe, and affordable – hence, a popular option for students. Plus, it moves smoothly but not too fast. As I said, safe.
- Volkswagen Golf. VW Golf comes close after Mazda3, with a bit less power and fuel economy, but it’s still a good option. It is popular for learner drivers for its excellent safety and smooth maneuverability.
- Kia Forte. Affordable, with a good warranty and a range of user-friendly technology features, this is a decent choice for first-time drivers and students on a budget.
- Hyundai Elantra. It is an affordable, compact sedan with standard features, good fuel economy, and a generous warranty. Easy to maneuver and pilot, so good as a first car. However, the 150kW Sports model might be too powerful for new drivers, so it’s better to stay away from this one for now.
- Subaru Impreza. Subaru cars consistently have stellar safety ratings, earning Top Safety Pick+ awards, and this model is even safer, with all the best accident avoidance tech plus improved crash energy absorption. Moreover, it has an all-wheel drive, so seriously consider this one if you live in a snowy area.
- Nissan Versa. This is one of the most budget-friendly options with decent fuel efficiency. Moreover, safety features and diver-assist perks make it a great first car. It engages emergency brakes when it detects obstacles (pedestrians, large animals, etc.), prevents collisions when backing with rear automatic braking, and turns off the brights when sensing oncoming vehicles to avoid blinding other drivers.
- Chevrolet Spark. Small and affordable, this subcompact is well-equipped, economical, and easy to park and maneuver. Many new drivers enjoy it and continue driving it for years.
- Ford Focus. It is a compact car with a comfortable interior and many handy features. It is quite decent as a first vehicle but might have problems with maintenance after hitting the 100,000-mile mark, so check the mileage when buying used.
Before you buy, make sure to shop around and test-drive at least several models because cars have character of their own. Many things cannot be measured and depend on individual taste. Sometimes, the car that looks like the best option from characteristics on paper just doesn’t make it for you. The seat, the placement of the dashboard features, and the overall feel can impact your driving experience greatly, so it should factor in when you make the purchasing decision.
Buying a car should be a mindful, responsible choice. It’s no longer a must just because you go to college. While it offers many benefits, such as convenience, saving time, and independence, it comes with downsides like costs, traffic and parking challenges, and responsibility. Make sure you do what is best for you, depending on your needs, budget, and lifestyle. Good luck, and drive safely!