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How to Lower College Costs at Any Age or Life Stage » College Financial Planning » How to Lower College Costs at Any Age or Life Stage



Higher education has become increasingly expensive in recent years, leaving many students burdened with excessive student loan debt. However, there are strategies and alternatives available to help lower college education costs and avoid the need for student loans. In this article, we will explore various approaches that can help students pursue their educational goals without falling into overwhelming debt.

The cost of a college education has been steadily increasing over the years, making it crucial to find ways to mitigate these expenses. Rising tuition fees, accommodation costs, textbooks, and other educational expenses have contributed to the financial burden faced by students and their families. By understanding the factors driving these costs, individuals can make informed decisions to lower their education expenses.

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.

Earning College Credit Before College

Earning college credit before officially starting college can be a smart and proactive approach for students. There are several ways to earn college credits in advance, which can help reduce the time and cost required to obtain a degree.

Advanced Placement (AP): One common method is taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high school and scoring well on the corresponding exams. Many colleges and universities offer credit or placement for high AP scores, allowing students to skip introductory courses and dive straight into more advanced coursework.

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 be a fee per exam depending on where you are and your financial situation, but it will save you thousands down the line if you can pass the test.

Dual enrollment: Another option is enrolling in dual enrollment programs, where students can take college-level courses while still in high school, earning both high school and college credit simultaneously. This not only provides a head start on college but also gives students a taste of the academic rigor and expectations they will encounter in higher education.

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. Depending on the college, you may be able to take dual enrollment courses free of charge.

College-Level Examination Program (CLEP): The College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) is a widely recognized program that allows students to earn college credit for knowledge they have acquired outside of the traditional classroom setting. CLEP exams cover a range of subjects, including literature, mathematics, history, science, and more. By successfully passing a CLEP exam, students can demonstrate their proficiency in a particular subject and receive college credit, which can be applied towards their degree requirements.

One of the advantages of the CLEP program is its flexibility. Students can study independently or use available study resources to prepare for the exams at their own pace. This allows individuals to tailor their learning experience according to their strengths and schedule.

International Baccalaureate (IB) program: The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) is an internationally recognized educational program for high school students. Offered by the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO), the IBDP aims to provide a rigorous and comprehensive curriculum that fosters intellectual, personal, and social development.

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.

Scholarships and Grants: Securing Free Money

One of the most effective ways to reduce college expenses is by pursuing scholarships and grants. These financial aids provide students with free money that does not require repayment. To improve your chances of receiving scholarships, consider the following tips:

Research Extensively: Look for both national and local scholarships that align with your academic achievements, extracurricular activities, or specific interests.

Meet Deadlines: Stay organized and submit your scholarship applications well before the due dates to avoid missing out on potential opportunities.

Tailor Applications: Customize your scholarship applications to highlight your unique qualities and experiences that make you a strong candidate.

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 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.

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.

Pell Grants

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.

TEACH Grants

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.

Exploring Financial Aid Options

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.

In addition to scholarships and grants, exploring various financial aid options can significantly reduce the overall cost of college. Here are a few avenues to consider:

Federal Student Aid: Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine your eligibility for federal grants, work-study programs, and loans.

State Aid Programs: Research and apply for state-specific financial aid programs that can supplement your federal aid package.

Institutional Aid: Contact the financial aid office of your prospective college to inquire about institutional scholarships, grants, or tuition waiver programs.

Federal aid

Federal aid comes in three forms:

  1. grants
  2. work-study programs
  3. loans

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 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.

State aid

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.

Strategic College Selection

One of the first steps to lowering college education costs is to research and identify affordable college options. This involves exploring public universities, community colleges, and institutions that offer scholarships or reduced tuition fees. It is essential to consider the quality of education, accreditation, and the overall fit for individual educational goals and career aspirations.

Choosing the right college can have a significant impact on your overall financial planning. Consider the following factors when selecting a college:

In-State Tuition: Attending a public college or university in your home state often results in significantly lower tuition costs compared to out-of-state institutions.

Community College Transfer: Begin your college journey at a local community college to complete general education requirements at a fraction of the cost before transferring to a four-year institution.

Merit-Based Aid: Research colleges that offer generous merit-based scholarships to high-achieving students.

Start at a community college

Attending a community college for the first two years of college education can significantly reduce costs. Community colleges often offer lower tuition fees and flexible schedules. By completing general education requirements at a community college and then transferring to a four-year institution, students can earn their degree at a fraction of the cost.

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.

Course Load Optimization

Optimizing your course load can help you save both time and money during your college years.

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.

Considering Online and Part-Time Education

Online education has gained popularity as a cost-effective alternative to traditional college programs. Online courses often offer flexibility in terms of scheduling, allowing students to work part-time or pursue other commitments while earning their degree. Part-time education also provides an opportunity to balance work and studies, reducing the financial strain of full-time enrollment.

Exploring Alternative Education Paths and Vocational Training

College education is not the only path to success. Exploring alternative education paths, such as vocational training or apprenticeships, can provide valuable skills and career opportunities at a fraction of the cost. These options are often more specialized and tailored to specific industries, offering a practical and cost-effective way to enter the workforce.

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. 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.

Work-Study Programs: Seek part-time job opportunities on or off-campus through work-study programs. These programs allow you to earn money to cover your expenses while gaining valuable work experience related to your field of study.

Internships and Co-op Programs: Participate in internships or cooperative education (co-op) programs that provide practical work experience while earning income. These programs often offer competitive compensation and can help offset college expenses.

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.

Exploring Income Share Agreements (ISAs)

Income Share Agreements (ISAs) are an alternative financing option gaining popularity. With ISAs, students receive funding for their education in exchange for a percentage of their future income. This model ensures that payments are manageable and tied to the student’s ability to earn a living.

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.

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Budgeting and Financial Management

Proactive budgeting and financial management play a crucial role in lowering college costs. Consider the following tips to maintain control over your finances:

Create a Budget: Develop a comprehensive budget that outlines your income, expenses, and savings goals. Use budgeting apps or spreadsheets to track your spending.

Minimize Textbook Costs: Explore alternatives to purchasing new textbooks, such as renting, buying used, or utilizing digital resources.

Part-Time Employment: Seek part-time job opportunities on or off-campus to supplement your income and offset college expenses.

Live Off-Campus: Consider living off-campus in shared housing or apartments, as it can be more cost-effective than living in on-campus dormitories. Splitting rent and utilities with roommates can significantly reduce housing expenses.

Transportation Savings: Explore cost-effective transportation options, such as using public transportation or carpooling with classmates, to reduce commuting costs.

Meal Planning: Plan and prepare meals at home instead of relying heavily on dining out or purchasing meal plans. This can lead to significant savings over the course of your college education.

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
  • use a website like 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

Work your way through school

Working part-time or freelancing during college can help cover living expenses and reduce reliance on loans. Students can explore job opportunities on campus, in their local community, or online. Freelancing or gig work also provides flexibility and the potential to earn higher hourly rates, depending on the chosen field.

Get a Work Study Job

When you submit your FAFSA, you may be eligible for a work study position on campus. This is a part-time job funded by the government and designed to give you time to work and go to school at the same time. Typical jobs include working the front desk of a dorm or doing administrative work at the student union.

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.

Become a Resident Assistant or Advisor (RA)

Resident assistants (RAs), are there to create a positive living environment and provide emotional support and leadership to dorm residents. You’re also there to educate fellow students about dorm policies, as well as ensure maintenance issues get reported and handled promptly. The benefit of this position is that in most cases your room and board will be free!
Get an On-Campus Job

Since most universities have recreation centers where they hire students, you can try your luck there. If you have a passion for fitness, you can get your start in the recreation center teaching fitness classes, working the front desk, or even being a lifeguard by the pool. If you love cooking, you can get a campus dining job.
Become a Teaching Assistant or Research Assistant

Although most schools reserve teaching assistant positions for graduate students, some universities will make exceptions for undergraduate students in their junior or senior years. Teaching assistants help professors grade papers, monitor exams, tutor students, and sometimes even teach classes.

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.

Get an Internship

Some degrees might require you to get an internship, but even if they don’t it’s never a bad idea. An internship will help you cultivate your skills and get real-world experience, which will give you a competitive edge over your peers when you graduate. And you never know, that internship might just lead to a permanent position.

If you excel at a particular subject, consider tutoring your peers for some cash. You can check with the employment office at your university or even other local schools for opportunities. You can also use websites, like HelpHub, to sign up and become a tutor where you can set your own rates and terms.

If you’re good with kids, you can sign up to be a babysitter. You can list your services on websites like and help families nearby. You can do this before or after school depending on your class schedule and course load.
Pet Sit

If you’re an animal love, you could turn that passion into a side gig either pet sitting or dog walking. You can connect with pet owners on websites like Wag and Rover.
Drive for Lyft or Uber

If you’ve got access to a car, you can sign up to be a driver on apps like Lyft and Uber. You can set your schedule and work however many hours you wish to on a daily basis since you are your own boss. If you don’t have access to a car, you may be able to get a lease with the help of said apps. They sometimes run special programs that could end up being a win-win since you’ll have a new job and a car to go along with it.
Deliver Food or Groceries

With the appearance of apps like DoorDash, Postmates, and Instacart, food delivery has become more popular than ever. You can easily sign up to work for these services online and make your own schedule as you please.

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.

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.

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

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Understanding the Importance of Credit and Debt Management

It is crucial for students to understand the implications of credit and debt management. Building a good credit score and practicing responsible financial habits can open doors to lower interest rates and better loan terms. Students should also be aware of debt repayment options, such as income-driven repayment plans, loan forgiveness programs, and refinancing opportunities.

Seeking Financial Aid Counseling and Guidance

Many colleges and universities provide financial aid counseling services to help students navigate the complexities of college financing. These professionals can offer advice on scholarships, loans, and financial planning. Seeking their guidance can lead to more informed decisions and a clearer understanding of available resources.

Building a Support Network of Peers and Mentors

Building a support network of peers and mentors can help students navigate the challenges of college education and financial planning. By connecting with individuals who have faced similar circumstances or have successfully managed their college expenses, students can gain valuable insights, advice, and emotional support.


Are there any disadvantages to attending a community college before transferring to a four-year institution?

Attending a community college before transferring to a four-year institution has several benefits, such as cost savings and flexibility. However, some potential disadvantages include limited course offerings, fewer extracurricular activities, and potential difficulties in transferring credits. It is important to research and plan accordingly to ensure a smooth transition.

How can I find scholarships and grants that are suitable for me?

There are various resources available to find scholarships and grants. Start by researching local organizations, community foundations, and college websites. Additionally, utilize online scholarship databases that allow you to search based on your specific interests, demographics, or academic achievements.

Can online education provide the same quality of education as traditional colleges?

Online education has evolved significantly in recent years and can provide a quality education comparable to traditional colleges. However, it is essential to research the accreditation and reputation of the online institution before enrolling to ensure that it meets your educational goals and requirements.

How can I manage my student loan debt effectively?

Managing student loan debt requires careful planning and budgeting. Consider income-driven repayment plans, loan consolidation, or refinancing options to make your monthly payments more manageable. It is also important to prioritize loan repayment and avoid defaulting on your loans.

What resources are available for financial aid counseling and guidance?

Most colleges and universities have dedicated financial aid offices that offer counseling and guidance services to students. These professionals can provide information on available resources, help with completing financial aid applications, and offer personalized advice based on your specific circumstances. Contact your college’s financial aid office for more information.


Lowering college education costs and avoiding student loans is a pressing concern for many students and their families. By implementing strategies such as researching affordable college options, exploring scholarships and grants, utilizing tax benefits, and considering alternative education paths, students can pursue their educational goals while minimizing their financial burden. It is crucial to be proactive, seek guidance, and make informed decisions to avoid excessive student loan debt and secure a brighter financial future.

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