6 Cost-Savers to Make Paying for College Easier

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.

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.

1. Community College

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 sign. 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 the total bill.

While two years at a community college may not signify the same level of achievement as four years at a university, your time at community college won’t necessarily hinder your ability to transfer to a four-year college — or to seek gainful employment once you graduate. In fact, attending community college can allow you to improve your 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.

For further guidance, follow this link to learn who goes to community college.

2. AP and IB Courses

If you’re not yet in college but believe you’ll need financial aid 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 — you can earn enough credits to graduate early, and thus cut overall tuition costs. My daughter was able to graduate a semester early after receiving AP credit and adding a course or two to her schedule each semester.

Learn more about opportunities for college credit in AP, DC, DE, IB: An A–Z Guide to College Credit in High School.

3. 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.

Wondering how to stay on track? Check out these five tips to graduate in four years.

4. Merit Aid

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:

Using the Noodle college search, you find out that the SAT range for a certain school is 560–650 for math, 540–640 for reading, and 550–650 for 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, a reading score of 650, and a writing score of 680 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.

To find out how much you’re likely to pay at the schools you’re considering, use the College Abacus net-price calculator on each college profile.

5. Scholarships

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.

Interested in applying? First read The Truth About Outside and Private Scholarships for College.

6. Savings

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.

529 plans are a great starting point — they allow for anyone to contribute to a child’s college education fund, and they are not subject to an earnings tax. Some states even offer state tax reductions for contributions to a 529 plan.

It’s essential for parents and students to keep an open dialogue about their financial situations during the college application process. As a parent, if you know that there will be certain financial constraints, you should make that abundantly clear to your children before they start applying to colleges. It’s better that your child know of financial restrictions during, not after, the application process. Applying to more expensive schools is reasonable as long as both parents and students understand that attendance may depend on receiving a certain level of financial aid.

Read more about what to do if parents can’t or won’t pay for college.