If you thought the rise in prices we’ve seen over the past year has been steep, it’s nothing compared to the rising cost of a college education. In fact, college costs have risen at a rate that’s five times faster the rate of inflation.
But while the cost of a college education is high, the earning potential it offers indicates it’s worth it. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the average college graduate with a bachelor’s degree earned nearly $78,000 compared to $45,000 for the average worker with a high school diploma. So, instead of mulling over whether to go to college or not, let’s look at how to lower college costs.
Most of the tips you’ll find below will work no matter where you are in life. So, whether you’re a parent trying to lower the cost of your kids’ education or a returning student advancing your own career, you can follow most of the advice below. To make things easy, we’ve broken things up by group.
Table of Contents:
Tips that help any student, even if you’re older
Apply for scholarships
When it comes to applying for scholarships, the time is worth the effort. Yes, hunting for scholarships, completing applications, and writing essays takes time. But every scholarship award you win is less money you pay out of pocket.
So, apply for all scholarships you can find, even the little ones because they can add up. Find as many scholarships as you can—go through your intended school, look for corporate scholarships, or if you have any special talents or interests, check for scholarships for those as well. You can use online search databases like fastweb.com or ask your school guidance counselor.
Also, keep in mind that you can apply for scholarships while attending school. So, don’t stop applying once your first semester starts. If you want to return to school to get a degree, you can also find scholarships for that. In other words, no matter where you are in life or your education, this idea can help you.
Take time to thoroughly read through the requirements and make sure you check all the boxes. Be thorough in your responses with essays and submit any additional things each scholarship requires promptly. Follow instructions carefully!
Just beware of scholarship scams that will take your money rather than give you funding. You shouldn’t ever pay to apply for a scholarship. After all, the whole point is that you receive help and not the other way around.
Explore all your aid options, not just federal
Financial aid is a tool that makes higher education possible for students who cannot afford to pay out of pocket. It can allow you to continue your education when you otherwise would not have been able to do so. Or it could mean being able to attend that more expensive out-of-state college or private institution you’ve been dreaming of attending. You have a few options to consider before deciding which financial aid best suits your needs.
Federal aid comes in three forms:
- work-study programs
The first two help you lower out-of-pocket college costs and we’ll cover them in more detail further in this article. The last, of course, is what you’re trying to avoid. But it’s important to apply for federal aid to see what you can potentially use.
To apply, fill out the FAFSA form (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid) available through StudentAid.gov. If you prefer paper applications, they are available on any college campus in the financial aid department. Your will provide information to calculate your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is the amount you or your family must contribute to the cost of education.
Since funds are on a first-come-first-serve basis, it’s important to apply as soon as possible. Once your FAFSA application gets processed, the Department of Education will send you a “Student Aid Report.” The schools you are interested in attending will also receive a copy, which they use to prepare a financial aid package of what they’re willing to offer you.
Although most financial aid comes through federal sources, the school you plan on attending may also offer “institutional aid.” Make sure to schedule a meeting with the financial aid office to learn about additional aid that may be available.
Many states offer assistance to residents and sometimes even to non-residents who study at a college in their state. Certain states have specific applications you must complete before they will consider you for state assistance. Check with your financial aid office to see what state aid programs you may be eligible for.
Get all the grants you can
Grants are possibly the best piece of Federal Aid when it comes to reducing college costs. Much like scholarships, grants do not require repayment but they do depend on financial need. There are federal grants available to students attending community college, trade school, and four-year institutions through the U.S. Department of Education.
The Pell Grant is the Department of Education’s largest grant program, geared to help students with significant financial needs. Funding for the Pell Grant changes on a yearly basis. In 2021-2022, the maximum Pell Grant award is $6,495.The amount you can receive depends on your:
- enrollment status
- cost of attendance
- Expected Family Contribution (EFC)
- the duration of study
It’s also worth noting that receiving other forms of aid will not impact your ability to qualify for a Pell Grant. So, getting scholarships won’t mean that you lose the opportunity for a Pell Grant. However, Pell Grants are often awarded in combination with other federal financial aid, like work-study programs.
Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant (FSEOG)
The Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) is another type of grant for students who have exceptional financial need. Individual grant awards get calculated by:
- overall financial need
- time of the application filing
- total financial aid
- availability within your college
Although the Department of Education funds the FSEOG, participating schools administer the program. Not every university or college participates, unfortunately. Contact your college’s financial aid department to find out if FSEOG is an option for you.
Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants
If your parent or guardian died while serving the U.S. armed forces in Iraq or Afghanistan after 9/11, you may qualify for a service grant. However, this death must occur prior to you turning 24 years of age or prior to you being enrolled in college. Grant funding is equal to the maximum Pell Grant award. So, for the 2021-2022 season, grants can be up to $6,495. But the amount will vary depending on your financial need and the cost of attendance.
If you pursue a career in teaching, the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant program offers awards of up to $4,000 per academic year. But be aware that TEACH grants have more stringent requirements.
To qualify for a TEACH grant, you must attend a participating school and maintain high academic standing (either a 3.25 GPA or college admissions test scores above the 75th percentile). You must also participate in counseling sessions and sign a TEACH Grant Agreement to Serve.
Recipients must also fulfill a service obligation of teaching in a high-need subject area at a school or educational service agency for at least four academic years. This must be completed within eight years of completing the TEACH grant-funded studies.
Otherwise, the TEACH grant gets converted to a direct unsubsidized loan that must be repaid in full, along with an interest accrued from the initial date of the award.
Start at a community college
It’s never a bad idea to start at a community college before transferring to a four-year institution. It makes sense when you consider the first two years of college usually cover basic required college courses.
You can take community college courses for general education classes like writing or history. Just make sure to be in touch with the school Registrar at the school you want to eventually transfer to, so you can make sure your course credits will transfer.
If you’re young, this will also give you time to decide on a major before you officially start taking the required course load for the particular degree you eventually decide on. On top of that, you’ll save thousands by spending your first two years at a community college. So, what we’re saying is: This is a win-win situation.
Take college placement tests
When you enroll in a university, take all available college placement exams you can. Why? Because many colleges offer placement exams in subjects like language, math, and writing. If you can test out of a few requirements, you’ll be in a better position to graduate early.
Unlike things like AP and IB programs that will explain later, which are restricted to high school students, college placement exams are available to everyone. And your test score determines whether you may need extra developmental courses, or you may be able to get ahead and start in a higher-level class.
Avoid buying new textbooks
We get that a lot of people love the smell and feel of new books but save that sentiment for when you read leisurely. When it comes to textbooks, they are often overpriced and don’t change much from year to year. To avoid overspending on new books, there are a few options you can try:
- find used copies online or try renting textbooks from websites like Chegg.com
- use a website like Scribd.com to get digital copies of books
- scour the internet for PDFs of textbooks
- head to the library to see if you can find the textbook and then print or scan it
- ask a classmate to print or scan theirs, or check with friends that took the same class a previous semester
Tips for returning students advancing their career
Employer tuition assistance
Sometimes employers will offer tuition reimbursement if your college courses align with your career path. Check with your employer’s HR department to find out more about tuition reimbursement.
For example, Amazon offers tuition benefits to employees who have one full year of continuous employment under their belt. You can study to earn certificates or get an associate degree in top fields, like nursing or engineering.
Starbucks also offers a tuition program called the “Starbucks College Achievement Plan.” This program covers the full cost of a bachelor’s degree for employees that have worked at least 240 hours. But you must continue working at least 20 hours a week while studying. However, this program only covers a degree from Arizona State University’s online program.
So, make sure to check with your current employer or any future employer regarding their tuition assistance. And even if you work for a smaller employer that doesn’t have a set program, it doesn’t hurt to ask. The next time you have a review, bring up your goal of continuing your education and see if they’re willing to negotiate. Paying for college is possibly more lucrative that a straight raise.
Take advantage of employer-school partnerships
Even if your employer doesn’t offer tuition reimbursement, they may still have avenues that can help you lower college costs. Some employers have partnerships with local schools. You can get a discount on taking classes and earning credits from a specific school. You’ll still pay out of pocket, but at least you won’t pay full price.
Work for a school
Most colleges give employees free undergraduate tuition. So, depending on your current skills and future career path, you may be able to get hired by a college and then get your education for free. This will work regardless of how expensive the school is and even for private schools. Some schools also let you pursue graduate degrees for free.
This tip also works for parents and people supporting dependents. Your children or dependents can enjoy free tuition too if you’re an employee of the school.
Consider private student loans for a grad degree if you have a stellar credit score
Typically, we would not recommend using private student loans. They don’t offer the same protections and forgiveness options that you get with federal loans. However, depending on your credit score, private student loans can be a lower-cost option than federal.
As a returning student, you may have a credit score that can get you a lower interest rate than you’d get with federal loans. All federal loans have the same interest rate. It’s set each year and based on the 10-year Treasury index. For instance, in 2021-22, the interest rate on an unsubsidized graduate loan is 5.28%. That’s the rate you pay whether your credit score is 500 or 800. Private loan interest rates are currently around 3.25-3.5% if you have excellent credit.
So, it’s a much lower interest rate. That means lower payments while you’re enrolled in school since the payments are generally interest-only. It also means you can pay off any debt faster once you graduate or with extra cash from things like tax refunds while you’re going through school.
This doesn’t work as well for undergraduate degrees, where the federal loan rate sits at 3.73% for the 2021-22 academic year. But, if you have one of those perfect credit scores, ask for quotes and see what lenders are willing to offer. If the rate is lower than the federal rate, it could be a good idea.
Just make sure to only use this advice if:
- you are financially stable with job security, so you won’t need deferment, forbearance or an income-based repayment plan
- you work in the private sector – i.e. for a for-profit company – and would not qualify for student loan forgiveness
Find solutions to boost your credit so you can increase your borrowing power.
Tips for young adults getting the full college experience and parents
If you’re still in high school, then one of the best ways to cut expenses is to take Advanced Placement (AP), enroll in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IB), or consider dual enrollment.
A nonprofit organization, known as the College Board runs the Advanced Placement (AP). AP courses help high school students be better prepared for the rigors of college-level work.
You can also take an AP test without having taken a class if you are home-schooled or if your school doesn’t offer the particular AP course you require. As long as you score well, you will earn credit for the exam. Just be aware it will cost $119 per exam, but it will save you thousands down the line if you can pass the test.
The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IB) is an internationally recognized diploma as a symbol of high academic standards. The IB Diploma gets acknowledged as an admissions credential at universities in over 100 countries. But the main benefit is that your high scores on IB exams (priced at $93 each) are transferrable for university credits.
Dual enrollment allows you to earn credits from a local college through a specially designed high school class instead of earning credits through a standardized credit system. Dual-credit courses are also much cheaper than college courses.
Dual enrollment can cost anywhere between $0 – $400 per class, and you have to consider the costs of textbooks, as well as getting to and from classes. And it can cost you $96 to take AP exams. However, depending on the college, you may be able to take dual enrollment courses free of charge.
For example, Broward College, a community college in Florida, offers dual enrollment to students while offering exemptions on application fees, tuition and laboratory fees.
Work harder, graduate earlier
A typical college load is four classes a semester, that means you’ll have eight classes per year. To get ahead of schedule by a year, you would need to acquire eight classes worth of credits.
If you can, take an additional course every semester so you can get ahead. Generally, 12 credits per semester grants you full time status. But if you want to graduate sooner, you’ll need a slightly heavier course load of 15 credits per semester. This tip is especially useful for students that aren’t working through school because you have time to take a heavier course load. If you’re working, it may be difficult to manage a job and a heavier course load.
Another option is to take summer classes to help you fulfill all of your academic requirements sooner.
School choice matters
Often people get lost in the idea of what student life should look like and what the highest quality education has to offer. And for many, going to an elite college may be the dream because a family member, mentor or role model may have graduated from said college. But a degree, at the end of the day, is what you make of it. So, choose your school wisely and save.
It’s a no brainer that attending a less expensive college means less student debt. And the most expensive mistake you could make is paying too much for your education. Consider this as a basic rule of thumb: Your total debt by graduation should be less than your expected starting salary. So, if you don’t think you’ll be able to pay $100,000 after graduating, don’t get into that much debt in the first place.
Compare off-campus and on-campus housing options
Before you decide on either living on-campus or off-campus, compare the options. Generally, it may be cheaper to live on campus than renting an apartment on your own. Why? Because you don’t have to pay for utilities, you’ll always have access to Wi-Fi, and there are no security deposits. However, if you choose to study in-state and you are close to home, you may be better off commuting from home even though it may be tempting to move out.
You may even want to explore campus affiliated housing. Sometimes you may find cheaper housing options through these types of programs. Many universities provide students with resources to help them either by offering a database of available housing or providing a roommate forum. Reach out to your school’s Office of Residential Affairs to find out more.
If you have friends going to the same school, you can rent out a place together off-campus and that may be cheaper than getting a dorm. And if you don’t know anybody, you will get to know people in due time. If they are in the same boat as you, consider bringing up the idea of being roommates to help you both save a little more.
Explore college meal plans
Often, campus meal plans are much more convenient and cheaper than buying groceries and cooking. And since your meal plan connects to your other college accounts, you won’t have to worry about paying every time you eat. So, explore the various meal plans your institution offers to find out which has the best value.
And yes, we realize that college meal plans cost money. In fact, you can expect to pay $3,000 to $5,500 per academic year. However, consider that the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) publishes guidelines on what you can expect to pay for food based on your age and how thrifty you are. Even the thriftiest person aged 20-50 pays $274.60 per month for food. That’s an annual cost of $3,288.
Keep in mind that’s for a thrifty person. A moderate food plan costs $4,110 annually and a “liberal” plan costs $5,030. With college meal plans, you can eat all you like without increasing your cost.
So, check to see what meal plans cost through your school and consider if it would be cheaper or more expensive that covering food costs yourself.
Also, if you live on-campus, take advantage of events for dorm residents that your resident assistant (RA) may be hosting. They usually offer free food and beverages. Plus, it’s a great way to make new friends.
Work your way through school
Without even considering tuition fees, college life can be quite expensive. Often, students rely on student loans and scholarships to make ends meet. But that doesn’t have to be the case. You can work while you’re still in school for some pocket money. Here are a few options you can consider.
If you get offered work-study, take it! It’s not something that gets offered to everyone. You’re getting a good opportunity to reduce how much you’ll need to borrow, so it’s worth the extra time you’ll put in on campus.
But if you’ve already graduated with your undergraduate degree, you may want to consider a research assistant position. You’ll help with data collection in a lab for a professor, for example. Talk to a professor or advisor to learn more about these opportunities.
Using student loans responsibly
Once you take all the steps you can to lower your college costs, everything that’s left will fall to student loans. But even when you borrow money, there are ways to lower your total costs. Take these steps to borrow responsibly while you go to school:
- Estimate the amount of debt you can afford: Make use of repayment calculators to figure out how much your monthly loan repayments will be once you graduate.
- Plan ahead: At the start of every quarter, reassess your budget and only borrow student loans that you’ll need to pay for school-related costs. Don’t take out loans to live more comfortably.
- Make payments while enrolled: Student loans are typically on deferment while you attend school. But if you can afford to make payments, even if you’re just paying off accrued interest, you keep your debt minimized
- Take advantage of tax benefits: Student loan interest is tax-deductible. So, if you follow the tip above and at least pay the interest on your loans, make sure to claim it. You will get a bigger refund that you can then use to pay down another chunk of your student loans.
Find practical solutions to pay off student loans faster.
Article last modified on October 31, 2022. Published by Debt.com, LLC