College Students Empty Parking Lot

Choosing A Car For A College Student? Read This First

Fall is coming, the leaves are changing colors and the kids are heading off to college.

Many proud parents are now looking to buy or lease a car for their grown children. If you are a parent of a college student, or a student looking for your own car, there’s a lot to figure out.

How do you choose the right car? How can you find the best deal? Is it even a good idea to have a car on campus?

Find answers to these questions and more in this article. Let’s take a look at everything you need to know about buying a car to bring to college.

Should your kid have a car?

college student

Before asking what car to buy for your college student, better to ask, should this kid have a car?

Driving wasn’t always a part of the college experience, but these days up to 70% of college students have cars on campus, and that number is growing.

However, you should consider carefully and do some research before you start looking for cars.

Many schools don’t allow freshmen to have cars on campus, for a few reasons. Check if it’s allowed at your student’s school. These are important points to consider even if your student is past freshman year already.

  • Cars are a big distraction, making it all too easy to stay out late and miss precious hours of sleep, or to blow off studying when there’s a big party in the next town over.
  • College in general and freshman year in particular are times of exploration, including exploration of alcohol. There are obvious safety concerns in letting 18-year-olds get behind the wheel in this context.
  • Not having a car also encourages new students to get more involved on campus. Students who are active in clubs and on-campus life tend to be happier and do better academically than those who mostly go off campus to socialize.
  • Finally, parking is an issue on many campuses, so colleges have to draw the line somewhere.

Cost is also a drawback. Gas, repairs and parking permits can get pretty heavy for a college student’s budget.

This said, there are also plenty of reasons why a student should have a car. For example:

  • Working or volunteering off campus. Having a car opens up a whole new world of possibilities, especially for students in their later years of study.
  • Many students stuck on campus start to feel claustrophobic after a while, especially at small schools in rural areas. I can say from experience that it’s a huge boost to mental health just being able to drive into town and see some new faces every once in a while. (At a large university, this is less of a problem, but it’s still nice to catch a break.)
  • Teaching responsibility. Taking charge of their own car is a great way for young people to learn responsibility and financial awareness. Just make sure they’re ready for it!
  • This one’s a bit of a toss-up. On the one hand, having a car makes it easier to drive drunk or end up in the wrong situation. However, it might save a student from getting stranded somewhere late at night.
  • Visiting home. Keeping a car on campus makes it much easier for a student to come home and visit the family. For many parents, this is a big plus!

How to choose a car for a college student

new Range Rover

If you’re a college student or the parent of a student looking to buy their first car, you might be wondering what to look for.

For young drivers, safety and reliability always come first.

A small, cheap vehicle may be tempting, but they aren’t the best at keeping people safe in an accident. An SUV or heavy mid-sized car is much more steady on the road in an emergency and more likely to protect the driver and passengers in a crash.

Check for weight, low center of gravity, performance in crash tests and the latest safety features.

There are two organizations that perform safety tests and issue ratings independent: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Neither tests every new vehicle on the market but between the two of them they cover most prominent brands and models, and cars that have been significantly redesigned.

You can find full safety reports and ratings on (for the NHTSA) or the IIHS website.

New auto safety technology has made huge strides in just the last few years. All new cars now have electronic stability control (ESC), which senses when the driver loses control and activates to brake each wheel separately. This can prevent a vehicle from skidding off the road or into a tailspin.

Other life-saving features include:

  • Traction control
  • Lane departure warning systems
  • Automatic emergency braking
  • Curtain airbags
  • Crumple zones

When it comes to safety, new cars beat used cars hands-down. Even a few years of age makes a big difference.

If your budget only allows for a used vehicle, try to find as recent a model as possible and look out for essential features like ESC and antilock brakes (ABS), at the very least.

Reliability is also very important. The last thing you want is for your student to waste time at the mechanic shop instead of the library, or on the side of the road if the car breaks down.

The most reliable brands these days are probably Toyota, Lexus, Kia, Audi, BMW and Subaru.

To check on a specific cars, look for reviews for previous years’ models and see how they have stood up after a few years on the road.

Incentives for students and recent grads

If you’re a student looking to buy a car for yourself, your budget is probably very limited.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that many car companies and dealerships offer generous discounts (known as “incentives” or “rebates” in car dealer jargon) to recent college graduates and soon-to-be grads.

Usually you have to either have graduated within the last two years or be set to graduate within the next six months.

To buy or to lease?

A final common question is, is it better for a college student to buy or lease a car?

There are a few factures to consider.

Finances: Leasing tends to involve lower monthly payments than financing to buy a car. If you have very good credit, you might even qualify for a lease with no down payment.

However, at the end of the lease you have to return the car and walk away empty-handed. (Though this might be a plus, depending on your plans!)

Just keep in mind that students with little money or credit history will have trouble getting approved for a lease or a loan, unless they have a parent or someone else as a co-signer.

Plans after graduation: Does your student plan to stick around after college, or are they likely to move across the country or join the Peace Corps?

If they’re likely to keep using the car after graduation, you might as well buy it.

If they won’t, you can spare yourself the trouble of selling the car later by going for a lease.

Responsibility: How responsible is the driver? Be honest!

Leasing means you have to keep the car in perfect condition. The lessee is responsible for maintenance and must pay for any damages at the end of the contract. Some companies will let you get away with a few dents and scratches, while others will bill you for every little mark.

If you own the car outright, there’s less pressure to keep it pristine.

Use of car: Leasing contracts include mileage limitations. You’ll have to pay for every mile above the limit, usually $0.10 to $0.30 per excess mile. It doesn’t sound like much but it can really add up!

Most college students will only use their vehicle to go around town, so it might not be a problem. But if your student is planning a summer road trip – or if their school is far away and they want to drive home to visit sometimes – distance is something to consider.


college campus

College is such an exciting time of life! Having a car while at school just adds to the adventure.

It might be a little nail-biting at first for parents of a young driver, but if your child is prepared, it’s a great way to teach responsibility and independence.

Just make sure that you get a vehicle which is safe, steady and trustworthy – not the first flashy ride that your kid lays eyes on.

Capital Motor Cars specializes in finding great lease deals on the best new cars. We have special offers and new deals every month. If you’re looking for friendly, expert help in leasing a car for your college student, contact our team today.