There are ways to reduce the cost of college if you do your research, make short term sacrifices, avoid the brand trap and apply strategically to a range of appropriate target schools.
Always keep in mind the basic college cost equation: Net Price = Sticker Price – Discounts.
Given this simple formula, there are three general approaches to reducing the cost of college:
1. Lower the Sticker Price
2. Increase the Discounts
3. All of the above
Strategies for Reducing Sticker Price
1. No matter what college you attend, do your homework on college expenses and exploit all opportunities to cut costs.
- Choose the cheapest housing option.
- Buy the right meal plan so you are not paying for more food than you eat.
- Buy used books or rent them.
- Save on personal expenses by living modestly.
2. Consider starting at a community college or junior college.
There is no shame in starting your college career in a two year program and then transferring to a four year college.
- Where you finish is much more important than where you start.
- The college that ultimately awards your degree is the school that employers see on your resume and the school that carries the most weight on applications to graduate school.
- Some states guarantee transfer into their four year colleges for junior college students who take the right classes and maintain a required GPA.
- Many private schools, including very selective and prestigious colleges, accept transfer students who graduate from community college and junior college programs.
3. Explore all public university options in your home state.
We recommend that students apply to one or two public universities in their home state. Tuition & fees for residents is quite low in most states and many flagship state universities are quite prestigious. But don’t limit yourself to the flagship campus. There are many quality public schools in every state.
Note: Although the sticker price is always lower at state schools (for in-state students) than it is at private colleges, the net price might be lower at some private colleges once all grants and scholarships are applied.
4. Avoid most out of state public school options.
Unless there is a special regional tuition agreement or other reciprocity agreement, out of state public schools will often be a very expensive option. This is because most states charge much higher tuition for out of state students while offering fewer discounts. There are some exceptions to this rule so don’t simply dismiss all out of state public school options without doing any research. On the other hand, don’t assume these schools will be affordable just because they are public and not private. In fact, it is very possible, even likely, that you can find some private colleges with net price that is lower than the net price of an out of state public schools.
5. Consider attending a local college and commuting from home.
Although living on campus offers some benefits, room & board is expensive and not always affordable. It is the coursework and the degree that offers the most important lifelong benefits. Students who have a local college option should consider living at home during college. This is especially true for students who would be forced to borrow excessively to pay for room and board at a residential college.
6. Graduate Early
Students who start college with any kind of transfer credit from AP’s, IB’s or college coursework completed during high school may be able to graduate in seven semesters. A few highly motivated students are even able to graduate in six semesters.
Graduating early requires proactive academic planning and a lot of hard work. Students who want to graduate early should take advantage of flat rate tuition policies to take extra classes during the academic year and/or take some summer classes that are pre-approved for degree credit at a lower cost local school.
7. Become a Resident Hall Advisor (RA)
Most residential colleges employs undergraduates as student resident hall advisors. Often times juniors are eligible for the position as well as seniors.
These positions typically provide free housing and often a stipend as well. Sometimes there is some board included.
Being an RA is a job with significant time commitments and very important responsibilities so students should realize upfront the it will require some sacrifices in social life.
Interested students should start planning freshman year. Learn about the application process and find out what characteristics and experiences they are looking for in a RA. Also, get involved in official residential life programming and begin networking with the student affairs administrators that choose the RA’s.
Strategies for Increasing Discounts
1. Increase your chances for merit scholarship discounts.
Although admissions selectivity contributes to a school’s prestige factor and “brand strength,” it does not define the academic quality of the institution. There are many fine colleges that admit a relatively high percentage of their applicants and therefore place lower in some rankings. But these rankings are not an accurate measure of academic quality
This is a very important point: Selectivity (and ranking) is not the same thing as academic quality!
So, with this in mind you should apply to some schools that award substantial merit aid and are ranked a little lower than your standard target school. At these schools you will be a strong applicant with a greater chance of receiving a bigger merit scholarship.
In the qualifying for merit aid section we show you where to find information about how much merit scholarship funding each college awards as well as how to determine where you rank at each school in terms of academic credentials compared to the most recent entering class. With these to pieces of information you can get a better sense of how much merit scholarship you might receive from target schools.
2. Increase your chances for bigger need-based grants by “repositioning” income and assets.
Repositioning income and assets will sometimes reduce the calculated Family Contribution (often called the EFC) enough to increase financial aid eligibility, which will in turn sometimes increase the amount of need-based aid awarded.
But – the benefits of “repositioning” are greatly exaggerated by some financial planners who are selling expensive advice and high fee annuities so you really need do your homework first.
3. Get an early start on your outside scholarship search.
Applying for Outside Scholarships is a lot of work but often well worth the effort. The summer after junior year of high school is a great time to start.
Strategies for Increasing Value
In addition to cutting costs wherever possible, students should focus on increasing the value of their college experience. College campuses are incredibly resource rich environments and when you pay tuition & fees you are paying for many valuable services and opportunities. Unfortunately, most students take advantage of only a fraction of these services and opportunities.
1. Maximize the advantage of flat rate tuition policies by taking more courses.
Many college majors require students to take 32 courses, with some of the more rigorous majors requiring 36. Yet most college tuition policies allow full time students to take 5 courses a term (and sometimes 6).
While 6 classes in a term is a bit much for most students, 5 is often reasonable for students who prioritize academics. Unfortunately, most students choose the path of least resistance to their degree. Think about it: if tuition is 40K per year, then a student who chooses to take 8 courses rather than 10 is essentially giving the college an 8K gift each year – or declining the offer of 8K per year of “free courses” depending on how you want to look at it.
2. Use advanced standing wisely.
Students who enter college with credits from AP, IB or college courses taken during high school should use this advanced standing to take higher level courses instead of fewer courses (assuming flat rate tuition rather than per point tuition.) Remember that at many colleges you do not pay less for taking fewer classes.
3. Leverage co-curricular opportunities.
Brown bag lunches, special guest speakers, events with alumni, leadership programs, resume workshops etc. The number of amazing co-curricular opportunities available on most college campuses is staggering and many of these events are lightly attended. It’s crazy!! Pay attention to emails from administrators and fliers posted around campus and attend some of these programs. One of them just might change your life.