With college costs on the rise, families are getting creative about how to pay less while still ensuring that their children get a top-notch education. Here are six clever ways that you can cut costs and make higher education more affordable.
It has become commonplace for private universities to charge upwards of $50,000 in annual tuition. As states cut funding for education, the cost of attending college—even a public institution—has ballooned.
These rising costs have naturally led to increased demand for financial aid. There are, however, many people who need financial aid but are ineligible to receive support from universities or federal programs. If you know you don’t qualify for need-based aid but still want to cut college costs, these six cost-savers can make college more affordable, regardless of your financial status.
One of the great myths about saving for college — and about college attendance in general — is that starting your college education at a community college is a bad thing. On the contrary, attending community college is a great way to make significant headway in reducing overall higher-education costs. Even if you only attend community college for a year or two, the combination of living at home and enrolling in a local community college can knock many thousands of dollars off of the total bill.
While two years at a community college may not signify the same level of achievement as four years at a university, time at community college doesn’t necessarily hinder a student’s ability to transfer to a four-year college—or to seek gainful employment once he or she has graduated. In fact, attending community college can allow a student to improve his or her academic record. If you feel as if your high school transcript does not fully represent your capabilities, then attending community college and performing well there will allow you to prove that you are a serious and focused student. If you’re planning to transfer to a four-year school, you can strengthen your academic record by spending a year or two at community college first. When you’re ultimately looking for a job, remember that future employers are likely to look only at the school from which you received your degree.
In short, spending two years at a community college can both save you from overwhelming tuition costs, and prove to four-year universities that you are a competitive and capable applicant.
A Word of Caution
While community college can serve as a great gateway to a four-year university, there can be instances in which not all of your course credits are accepted by your four-year college. Before applying to transfer, you should check your community college’s articulation and transfer agreements with four-year colleges. Your community college may not have agreements with all schools, but its existing partnerships can give you an idea of similar institutions that are likely to give you credit for your work. If schools are similar enough, then they’re likely to accept the same coursework.
AP and IB Courses
For students who are not yet in college but believe they will need financial aid in order to attend, taking AP or IB courses in high school offers a chance to reduce college costs. By taking high school classes for college credit — along with online courses, summer courses, and a few extra college courses each semester — students can earn enough credits to graduate early, and thus cut overall tuition costs. For example, my daughter was able to graduate a semester early after receiving AP credit and adding a course or two to her schedule each semester.
The Four-Year (or Less) Plan
Regardless of whether you plan to graduate early, you should do everything in your power to graduate within four years. Not doing so can have drastic financial consequences. The Complete College America Alliance of States calculated that, on average, an extra year of college at a public university costs a student $22,836. Between 19 and 36 percent of students graduate on time from four-year universities — meaning that a majority of students are paying for an extra year of college, to their own financial detriment.
There are numerous reasons why it might be necessary to take an extra year or two to graduate, such as family or work commitments. That said, you should stay on top of your graduation requirements so that you don’t end up sticking around — at a high cost — because of a mistake like failing to complete your distribution requirements. Always check in with your academic advisor regarding your academic track — especially when you change majors, study abroad, or drop a course.
Need-based financial aid isn’t the only way to get financial assistance from colleges and universities. Most schools also offer merit aid as a means of attracting students and supplying financial aid where needed.
Colleges constantly want to attract students whose GPAs and test scores rank relatively high within their incoming classes, as a means of improving the schools’ rankings and stature. In other words, colleges have an incentive to reward students with relatively strong academic profiles. Let’s create a hypothetical example:
You find out that the SAT range for a certain school is 560–650 for math, and 540–640 for reading and writing. That is: 50 percent of first-year students have scores that fall into these ranges; 25 percent have scores below the lower limits of the ranges; and 25 percent have scores above the upper limit of the ranges. Someone who applies to this college with a math score of 670 and a reading and writing score of 660 is much more likely to receive merit-based aid than an applicant whose scores fall in the middle or lower part of the ranges. This doesn’t mean that students with lower scores aren’t going to receive financial aid—it simply means that the higher your score is relative to the upper range, the more likely you are to receive a greater sum of merit-based aid.
It goes without saying that you should apply for as many academic scholarships and grants as you can. Such aid is offered by tons of different organizations, a reality that can make the process of applying for merit-based funding complicated. It’s a good idea to use websites like Edvisors and FinAid, which allow you to search databases for scholarship opportunities. It’s an obvious point, but one worth articulating nonetheless: You can’t get an external scholarship that you haven’t applied for.
One of the most straightforward pieces of advice is also one of the most difficult to follow. The easiest way to manage the cost of college is to save—something that’s easier said than done. Tuition expenses, over the course of time, amount to such a large sum of money that it may feel like no amount of saving can help cut the cost. The simple truth is that the less you save, the harder it is to pay for college.