Your guide to back-to-school shopping

From computers to cars and for grade school to grad school, we've got you covered

Last updated: August 2014

Electronics gear & computers

Photo: Travis Rathbone

19 top free apps for college students
College students will soon be heading back to school—with their mobile devices in hand. We've compiled a list of our favorite free back-to-school apps that can help you score an A in College 101.

5 great, cheap headphones for back to school
You may not be able to do anything about the high cost of tuition, but you don't have to spend a bundle to get a great set of headphones. But with so many models out there, which one should you choose?

5 laptops for college students that won't break your budget
College may be the best investment for the future, but it certainly doesn’t come cheap. To help stretch your budget, we combed our computer Ratings to find some of the best laptops in terms of price and performance in the $600 to $800 range.

5 best laptops and tablets for back to school
Students need a lot more than pencils and notebooks in today’s classrooms: The way they learn has changed radically since computers and the Internet arrived. As an educator and tech advocate, Vicki Davis, told us, “Tablets and laptops are the new paper, the new textbook, and the new podium from which teachers share with their classes.”

Best electronics gear for college students
For college students, one harsh reality of dorm or small-apartment living is that space can often be severely limited. Their budgets are also unlikely to be too grand, which means that no matter how much an undergrad wants high-end name-brand electronics, that gear might not be worth enduring an endless diet of cheap supermarket ramen noodles. Check our suggestions for the space-starved, budget-minded student who doesn't want to compromise on quality electronics equipment.

Small appliances & laundry

Best small appliances for college students
If you are among the parents packing college students off to school for the first time, you may be tempted to equip their dorm rooms with all the creature comforts of home, including small appliances to satisfy their needs. But before you do, check the university’s website for what to bring and what not to. Typically, small appliances with exposed coils, such as toasters, are prohibited. For example, the University of Indiana at Bloomington says not to bring toaster ovens but allows irons, while New York University permits the use of  blenders, hand vacuums, and humidifiers, but not hot plates. Of course, students living off-campus can bring whatever they need. Here are some affordable, top-rated small appliances from Consumer Reports tests.

Laundry tips for college students help them take a load off
With all the studying and, ahem, extracurriculars that are part of campus life, doing laundry is the last thing college students want to do. Still, unless you're going to pay to get it done or wait until an upcoming break to wash your clothes at home (who has that many pairs of underwear?), it's a necessity. But if you don't do it right, all kinds of problem can ensue.

College dorm sheets that will last until graduation
College students will be off to campus in the coming weeks and are shopping in earnest to furnish the rooms where they'll be spending the next nine months. Towels? Check. Pillows? Check. Sheets. Not so fast. Before investing in a good set of bed linens, check the size of the dorm bed. Most college dorms have beds that are five inches longer than the standard twin so regular twin sheets won't cover them. The extra-long twin sheets aren't sold everywhere so you may want to shop online in advance. Here's how to find sheets that'll last until graduation.

Shopping & personal finance

Amazon's prices for used College textbooks are consistently low
College students shopping for used textbooks online this semester should first check out Amazon. In Consumer Reports' first-ever college-textbook shopping test of five popular websites for college textbooks, Amazon's used-textbook prices were consistently low. Barnes & Noble generally posted higher prices for used textbooks.

Should you buy college tuition insurance?
With the average total cost of college tuition, fees, and room and board now running around $41,000 a year at four-year private institutions, you might be tempted to buy tuition refund insurance, which is offered by more than a hundred of the biggest names in higher education for $200 to almost $600 a year, depending on plan details.

How to handle a college student’s money needs
Your child is heading to college this fall. After you’ve figured out the big spending issues—tuition, room, meal plan, and fees—you need to consider how your scholar will handle spending on everyday expenses, such as toiletries, supplies, laundry, travel, activities, and entertainment. Here are some smart ways to handle transferring funds and teach your child how to manage money.

Ways to save with student discounts
With the start of school just around the corner, you may be fretting about how much you'll have to spend on clothing, electronics, and other back-to-school must-haves. Luckily, if you or your child is a college student, many stores and services offer discounts that make purchases more affordable. Some even extend the invitation to high school or even kindergarten through 12th grade students.

How to go to college free
Starbucks made headlines recently with its plan to help finance four-year college degrees for employees. A deal between the coffee giant and Arizona State University covers the cost of tuition—full or partial, depending on credits completed—for employees enrolled in the school's online degree program.

But you don't have to be a macchiato-making maven to get a free college education. Consumer Reports has identified many ways to go to college free, no matter your household income.

How to minimize student debt
With each passing year, college costs are increasing. By one estimate, they will continue to rise at a rate of 5 percent annually for at least the next 15 years. Debt may be unavoidable, but there are several steps you can take to minimize the amount of money you will owe when you graduate.
As a rising junior at a state university, here’s what I’ve learned.

Student loan rates set to rise
Certain types of federal student loans will cost borrowers more beginning next month, as their interest rates adjust to reflect the higher borrowing costs of the federal government.

How to insure your college student's stuff

College students take a lot valuable stuff with them to school: computers, printers, TVs, bicycles, cell phones, digital music players, and more. So it's important to protect your kid's possessions against loss. Several insurance options exist, and the one you choose depends on where your son or daughter goes to school and the type of coverage you want.

Best everyday products for college students
When children are in elementary school, teachers typically send home a list of school supplies that parents should buy. When they go off to college, students need some of the same everyday items but this time you have to come up with the list. Keep in mind that students will be moving into unfurnished spaces and will want familiar things such as paper towels, tissues, batteries and laundry detergent within easy reach. The experts at Consumer Reports scoured our labs and found some extraordinary everyday products.

Best cars and car safety

Tips for safe carpooling
As summer winds down, kids will soon return to school, complete with hectic schedules and extra-curricular activities. For many families, dealing with the logistics of an active child means sharing transportation duties in a carpool. But not every parent adheres to safe practices when it comes to strapping young children into safety or booster seats and that can put your child in danger. Likewise, many are content to buckle a child in an adult three-point belt before they are large enough.

5 best used cars for teen drivers
School's out for summer, and teens have places to go. Whether heading to a friend’s house, commuting to work, or preparing for school in the fall, many young drivers need (or at least want) their own car. While there can be the temptation to buy whatever cheap model is being advertised in your neighborhood, or to provide a hand-me-down car, choosing the best used cars for teens warrants a bit more strategy.

Smart car-packing tips for heading back to school
After endless trips to stores to stock up on back-to-school supplies and dorm essentials, you’re ready to send your child off to college. Of course, it never looks like a lot of stuff until you try to fit it in a car. College necessities don’t just include clothes and toiletries, but bigger items such as computers, electronics, furniture, and small appliances. The challenge is to pack your car safely in a way that doesn’t interfere with visibility and secures all items so they don’t become dangerous projectiles. Use our tips on how to pack up your car for a back-to-school road trip.

Best new cars for teens
If you are looking to buy a new car for your teen driver, there are some good options that are safe and reliable, and won’t break the bank. Plus if you buy one this summer, you can take advantage of model-year-end deals on 2012 vehicles before the 2013s arrive in showrooms.

Our list also highlights models that perform well in our testing and government and insurance-industry safety tests, plus have average or better predicted reliability, based on our subscriber surveys. (Consumer Reports maintains reliability Ratings on our website going back 10 model years.) Making selection easier, all 2012 cars offer standard electronic stability control, a proven lifesaver that is especially beneficial to less-experienced drivers.

How to choose the best GPS navigator for back to school
As families prepare to send their students off to college, most have a mile-long shopping list filled with essentials for independent living. One great gift that may not be on the radar is a GPS navigator to help the student get around campus area and back home safely.

Does your child use a booster seat when carpooling?
Most parents routinely strap their young school-aged kids into boosters, even for a 1-mile trip to the supermarket. But when it comes to carpooling, parents are a lot less consistent in their use of booster seats, according to a study published online in January 2012 by the journal Pediatrics.

School bus safety tips for motorists
Riding the bus to school is a safer mode of transportation for children than driving or walking, but the real risk for injury is from motorists who don’t follow the proper laws and procedures when driving near a bus. Here are some rules to make sharing the road with buses safe for everyone.

Health advice

6 back-to-college health tips
Staying healthy at college is no easy task between busy schedules, limited budgets, and lots of germs. Here are six ways to maintain your well-being when you head back to college.

Healthy food choices for students on the go
Raiding the refrigerator is a cinch when you want a late-night snack at home. But when you’re living in a dorm without a full kitchen, it can be slim pickings. Fortunately, there are plenty of good, healthy choices that take little or no preparation and can be easily stored in a dorm room or compact refrigerator. Here are some breakfast foods, snacks, and frozen entrees that received high marks from the food testers at Consumer Reports.

How to get rid of lice
For parents, back to school means packing lunches, getting kids out the door in the morning, and countless other tasks big and small. For students, the return to the classroom brings the joy of seeing friends as well as the burdens of homework, class projects, tests, and more.

And for parents and kids alike, back to school can also include one major nuisance in a tiny, sesame-seed-size package: head lice, which are wingless insects usually transmitted by head-to-head contact. If you notice your child scratching his or her scalp a lot, especially behind the ears or at the back of the neck, check for head lice.

There’s a chance that the itching could be caused by eczema, dandruff, or an allergy. But if it is a case of lice, it will not clear up on its own, so treat it right away.

Make healthy school lunches your kids will love
You won’t necessarily save money by packing lunch for your kids—school cafeteria fare is pretty cheap. And the lunchroom offers choices that can be just as nutritious as anything you pack. Ah, but will your child choose the salad bar and an apple? Or is he more likely to grab the chicken nuggets with a side of fries? Making lunches at home can help you keep control of your kids' school-day meals and also ensures that picky eaters will have something they like to eat.

Sure, the do-it-yourself approach takes time. But we have good news: By following the guidelines below, you’ll not only shave precious minutes off of your lunch-making routine, you’ll also get new ideas for healthy, palate-pleasing meals—plus expert tips on food safety and cool gear to transport lunch to school in style.

6 tips for keeping off the pounds during college
According to a recent study in the journal Social Science Quarterly, most first-year college students don't gain the "freshman 15." But they do pack on some weight, typically about three pounds. Those numbers, like student-loan debt, grow over the four years of college: Men add on about 13 pounds; women, about 9 pounds. Here you'll find easy solutions to common dietary problems faced by college students.


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