College Ave Corner

Top 10 Tips on How to Cut College Costs

College costs continue to increase year after year, with no end in sight. There are, however, a few ways you can cut college costs without sacrificing college quality.

Here are 10 tips to help you cut college costs:

1. Enroll at a less expensive college.

An in-state public college can cost half to a third of the cost of a private non-profit college, even if you get no financial aid. There are also six dozen colleges with generous “no loans” financial aid policies that replace loans with grants in the financial aid package.

But, think twice about taking a detour through a community college on your way to a Bachelor’s degree, or you may miss your destination. Among students who seek a Bachelor’s degree, only a fifth of those who start off at a community college obtain the Bachelor’s degree within six years, compared with two-thirds of students who start off at a 4-year college or university. 1

2. Get college credit in high school.

Take AP, CLEP, PEP and IB classes in high school to earn college credit before you enroll in college. These credits will usually substitute for general college credits, as opposed to prerequisites, but nevertheless can help you graduate earlier and save you money.

3. Focus on free money first.

Search for scholarships using free web sites like Fastweb.com and the College Board’s Big Future. Apply to every scholarship for which you are eligible. Continue searching for scholarships even after you are enrolled in college. About 1 in 8 students wins private scholarships worth about $4,000 a year and about 1 in 500 students wins more than $25,000 in private scholarships. 2

4. Apply for financial aid.

File the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as soon as possible on or after the October 1 start date. Students who file the FAFSA during the first three months get twice as many grants, on average, as students who file the FAFSA later. You can’t get aid if you don’t apply.

5. Claim credit for tuition and textbooks on your tax returns.

The American Opportunity Tax Credit provides a tax credit worth up to $2,500 on your federal income tax return, based on amounts you spent on tuition and textbooks. There’s also an above-the-line deduction for up to $2,500 in interest paid on federal and private student loans. Both the tax credit and deduction only apply to families who meet the income limits.

6. Live like a student while you’re in college, so you don’t have to live like a student after you graduate.

Try to economize on living expenses. Minimize the number of trips home from college to save on travel costs. Buy used textbooks and/or sell them back to the bookstore at the end of the semester. Avoid eating out or paid entertainment unless someone else is paying. A $10 pizza a week can add $2,000 to your college costs over a four-year college career.

7. Plan a path from matriculation to graduation.

This will help you know which classes you need to take when, considering prerequisite requirements and the frequency with which each class is offered. This will help you graduate on time.

8. Take an actual full-time load.

While many colleges consider students who take 12 credits a semester to be enrolled full-time, you often need to take 15 credits a semester if you want to graduate in four years.

9. Work part-time during the academic year and full-time during the summer.

Not only will this give you extra money to pay for college costs, but the experience will make you more attractive to employers after you graduate. But, don’t work more than 12 hours a week during the school year, or your grades may suffer. Students who work full-time during the school year are half as likely to graduate as compared with students who work 12 hours or less a week.

10. Appeal for more financial aid, if your family is affected by special circumstances.

Special circumstances include anything that’s changed since the base year (the prior-prior year) and anything that distinguishes your family’s financial circumstances from those of the typical family. According to a recent College Ave Student Loans survey, 37 percent of undergraduate student respondents wish they had asked for more aid from the financial aid office. If something affects your ability to pay for college, ask the college for a professional judgment review. Special circumstances can include job loss, salary reductions, high unreimbursed medical/dental expenses, high dependent care costs for a special needs child or elderly parent, private K-12 tuition and one-time events that are not reflective of your ability to pay.  Provide the college with copies of documentation of the special circumstances and their financial impact on your family.

Here’s a bonus tip:

Consider graduating with two degrees instead of just one, so you get two degrees for the same money. But, be careful to not finish the requirements for either degree before your last semester. Otherwise, as soon as you’ve finished the requirements for a Bachelor’s degree, your eligibility for the Federal Pell Grant and certain other types of financial aid will end.

1 Based on data from the Beginning Postsecondary Students longitudinal study (BPS:04/09)
Based on data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:12)
Mark Kantrowitz
About Mark Kantrowitz

Mark Kantrowitz, Publisher of PrivateStudentLoans.guru, is one of the nation’s leading experts on student financial aid. He is the author of several books about paying for college, including Filing the FAFSA, Twisdoms about Paying for College, and Secrets to Winning a Scholarship, and has served as publisher of the FinAid, Fastweb, Edvisors and Cappex web sites.