There are plenty of ways to save money for future college costs, track down financial aid, and take out student loans. And having that money to invest in education is truly invaluable.
But what’s even better is decreasing the cost upfront. So you spend less of your savings and reduce — or even eliminate — the need for student loans you’ll repay down the road.
So what steps can you take to save money on college costs and help your family afford college expenses more easily? These nine smart strategies will help you slash that sticker price.
1. Maximize Your Free Money
Scholarships and grants — virtually free money for you — are the ultimate win in cutting college costs. And finding, applying for, and stacking those scholarships is one of the most important and exhilarating parts of the college planning process.
Start with college-specific scholarships. Look at schools that offer scholarships that match well with your family’s college-bound student — awards for academic achievement, sports prowess, musical ability, leadership skills, children of alumni, women engineers, etc.
Scholarships and grants may be based on merit, financial need, or a combination of the two. Be sure to complete the FAFSA and any other application materials needed to be considered.
Then look outside the school as well. Seek out government-funded grants. And search the millions of awards offered by individual businesses and organizations. Even small amounts awarded for just one year can add up to significant savings when you combine multiple scholarships.
Finally, consider working while taking college classes. Many companies offer employees partial or even full tuition reimbursement. So you’ll earn a salary while spending next to nothing on a college education.
2. Study Seriously for Standardized Tests
Acing a standardized test gets you more than bragging rights. High scores can put you in the running for countless scholarships offered privately or through colleges.
Start with the PSAT, which most students take during their junior years of high school. A top-notch performance may earn you a National Merit scholarship.
Then tackle the SAT or ACT. Doing well can mean admittance to competitive colleges and consideration for partial scholarships. Stellar scores can earn you automatic scholarships at schools across the country.
Preparation for these tests is critical. If you’re willing to invest financially, consider a private tutor, in-person class, or online class offered through a respected test prep program.
Those same businesses often produce high-quality workbooks that identify your weak spots, teach you essential skills, and offer plenty of exercises and practice tests. Buy your copy for less than $50 a book. Or borrow yours for free. Most libraries have many test prep books on their shelves.
3. Earn Deeply Discounted College Credits in High School
After free money for college, your next best bet is beefy discounts. And high school is the perfect time to rack up those savings.
Depending on the test subject and a student’s score, colleges award credits that typically equate to one or even two college classes. Examine the admissions materials for each school on your college list to review policies on AP and CLEP scores. The credits you earn may fulfill one of the general requirements at the college or cover an introductory course needed for your student’s major.
In addition to AP and CLEP exams, see if your student is eligible for dual-enrollment classes. If so, he or she can earn inexpensive college credits at a nearby or online school while still working toward a high school diploma.
4. Get Low-Cost Credits Locally
Staying close to home can net some significant savings when paying for college. In-state schools, for instance, typically cost students 73% less than private colleges.
But you’re not necessarily limited to the state in which you live. Look into your area’s state and regional exchange program. You’ll be able to pay in-state tuition while attending an out-of-state school.
5. Implement a Two-Step College Plan
Starting at a community college before finishing up at a four-year school offers students several significant advantages.
First is a massive reduction in cost. The average price tag per credit hour at a four-year private college is $1039. You can save with a state school, where you’ll find an average credit cost of $325. But a community college will set you back just $135 per credit hour — saving you nearly 60% off in-state, four-year colleges, and more than 87% off private college tuition. And applying for aid and scholarships at a community college can reduce your expenses even further.
Second, at a community college, you’ll generally receive more individualized attention with smaller classes and increased flexibility. So students looking for part-time schedules, night classes, and established online courses will find those options readily available.
Third, students can use their time at community college to improve their transcripts or résumés. Pick up an associate degree or professional certification within two years. Or use the opportunity to boost grades. Higher marks can increase a student’s chances of admission and scholarships when transferring to a four-year school.
The key to succeeding with this two-pronged strategy is this: Before choosing a community college as a stepping stone to a four-year degree, first check on your ability to transfer credits. You want to know upfront which classes will transfer to your chosen college and what grade your student must earn to receive the credit.
6. Rethink Summer and Winter Breaks
College break periods offer students an appealing and underused opportunity — the ability to pick up course credits for less than what they’d typically pay during the school year.
And taking a class or two during these months doesn’t mean losing all your time off. Often, colleges offer summer- or winter-term classes at an accelerated pace. So courses that typically run 15 weeks are condensed to eight or even four weeks of intensive learning.
Even if your student is home for break, he or she may be able to take a summer or winter class. Look into your local community college’s course offerings and confirm that the credits will transfer.
7. Create a Course Strategy
The more time your student spends in college, the more money that education will typically cost. So heading to school with a thoughtful plan can save your family both time and money.
For full-time students, plan for graduation within four years. Then sit down with the college’s coursebook, the listing of required general classes, and the list of courses needed to complete your student’s chosen majors and minors. You’ll want to create a preliminary four-year plan for all the required courses:
- How many credits do you need to graduate? Spread those out over the four years, according to your needs.
- Identify necessary prerequisites, so you can appropriately order the courses your student will take.
- Take note of courses that are offered only in the fall, the spring, or every other year.
- Pair up classes that should be taken simultaneously. For instance, science classes and their corresponding lab sessions may be listed separately.
- See which courses allow you to consolidate general requirements. A single class, for instance, may cover both the history and literature requirements.
- Leave room to allow for future course additions and for your student to choose electives along the way.
8. Slash Costs for Room & Board
While you’re looking to lower the price tag on tuition, don’t overlook the significant expense of food and housing. On average, the annual cost of room and board is $11,510 at public colleges and $12,990 at private schools. Try these tips to cut that number down for your family:
- Explore all your housing options — on-campus vs. off-campus living, splitting rent with roommates, or having your student live at home.
- Examine available meal plans. Is it dining à la carte or all-you-can-eat? How many meals each week will your student need from the cafeteria? From grab-and-go locations? Choose the cheapest plan that meets those requirements.
- Look into the possibility of having your student handle the cooking. If you choose off-campus housing or a dorm with a kitchen, you may be able to reduce or eliminate the paid meal plan.
9. Skip High-Priced Textbooks
College books and necessary class supplies typically cost $1000 to $1500 each year. So finding alternatives to costly, brand-new books can net savings of hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Bypass the books that are fresh from the printer, and seek out used textbooks. Find them on shelves in campus bookstores or through online retailers. Shop around to find the best price.
If your student knows someone who’s already taken the class, see about borrowing the text for a semester or tracking down a student book swap. You might also find great deals by renting textbooks or buying digital-only versions.
Don’t forget your local or campus library. They may have limited textbooks available, but you’ll often find novels, autobiographies, translation guides, and other books also needed for class.
Finally, don’t forget to sell unwanted books back when courses end. You’ll be able to recoup some of that cash you spent at the beginning of the semester.
It is possible to pay less for college while receiving an excellent education. And when your family can save money on college costs, you get the best of everything — the right school at the right price, the ability to save toward other financial goals, and increased financial security now and in the future.