The average tuition, fees, room
1. Pile on the A.P. classes
Taking Advanced Placement classes in high school—and excelling on the official exams at the end of the course—can earn students actual credit hours at the school of their choice. Translation: the more A.P. classes that a high schooler can ace now, the fewer college courses they’ll have to pay for later. These classes may not count toward your major, but they will count for general requirements. Do it right, and you could reduce your time in college by an entire semester. That could save you an average $13k in an in-state college and up to $25k in a private college.
2. Be creative about scholarships
This goes without saying, but leave no stone unturned. Free money is no small thing, and your child may be able to score extra cash because they know how to knit. (Literally: it’s called the Beans for Brains Scholarship.) It could have to do with your heritage, such as the Watson Middle East Fellowship, your beliefs (e.g., American Atheists Chinn Scholarships), or personal interests (e.g., CBC Spouses Heineken USA Performing Arts) or what it is you’re going to study. Research what’s out there—and don’t forget to look for scholarships even after freshman year.
3. Apply for financial aid
Even if you think that a school won’t offer you financial aid, it doesn’t hurt to ask. You may be surprised—and you definitely won’t get anything if you don’t apply. This means filing a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) ideally in January of the year that your child will enter school. Communities even have FAFSA meetings for parents to help them interpret the paperwork. Do this a couple of years before you need it. You may be able to move assets around to qualify for aid.
4. Compare net price, not the net cost
Net price is what college will cost after you subtract just the gift aid. Net cost subtracts the entire financial aid package. Even if a school is offering you loans, you’ll have to pay those back. (For years, in most cases.) So that’s still a cost to you, even if it’s not immediate. You can find out what individual schools dole out, on average, at such sites as U.S. News & World Report and the College Board. Look at things like the average aid package and the ratios of grants to loans or work-study programs.
5. Consider graduation rates
You may think that you’re choosing the more economical school, but that only works if you can snag a diploma in four years. Some 45% of students who go to school full-time need another year (or more) to finish. So make sure that you’re comparing apples to apples among schools — find out what percentage of the student body graduates in four years using a site like College Results.
From the start, have your child map out how many courses they plan to take each semester to graduate on time. Then consider stacking the deck with summer classes, which can be cheaper than regular semester hours, or summer classes at a community college that will transfer.
6. Look for a closer school
When you’re considering college, mileage matters. There are four breaks in the typical school year—Thanksgiving, winter, spring, and summer—and traveling home for each of these can add up. It’s less expensive to drive across the state than to fly across the country. Calculate the cost. You may wish you had chosen a closer college if you can’t afford to visit family and friends.
7. Seek out no-loan options
Some schools have adopted “no loan” financial aid policies, meaning that students receive grants instead of loans to help them attend. Unfortunately, these tend to be the big leagues: Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and Vanderbilt, for instance. If your child has the chops to get accepted by one of them, you’re set. Princeton University started the trend, and 83% of seniors graduated debt free in 2016 (source).
8. Have your student work—but not too much
The more money your child can earn during the school year, the less you (or your kid) will have to borrow to cover school costs. However, excessive work can torpedo academic efforts. People who work while at college get benefits, particularly when working in jobs related to what they are studying. However, students who work too much jeopardize their chances of graduating altogether. In our opinion, though, summertime is fair game!
9. Be reasonable
Half of your costs are going to be living expenses and miscellaneous things that come up. So be flexible, and remember that there are plenty of variables that will affect the final price you pay. For instance, your kid could live in student housing versus an off-campus apartment, or even at home, if you’re close enough. You can also buy textbooks secondhand.
One cost-cutting tactic that’s risky: hitting community college first, with the plan of transferring to a four-year school later. It could save you a lot of money, but three-fifths of students who start their education at a two-year school do not obtain a bachelor’s degree within six years.
10. Save, save, save
How old are your children? When are they going to school? If it’s not tomorrow, then you still have time to put money away for their education. It’s cheaper to save. Every dollar that you put away is a dollar less that you’ll have to borrow. It generally takes about $2 to pay back every $1 in student loans, so you are literally cutting your college costs in half by saving for them.
Miron Lulic is founder and CEO at SuperMoney, a leading financial services comparison platform. Millions of people trust SuperMoney to shop for financial products and transparently compare their options in real time.