According to figures from the College Board, the average total college costs that students spent to attend an in-state public institution (without financial aid) last year topped out at $25,290. Going out of state? You’re looking at $40,940. Considering a private, four-year school? Don’t even ask.
But college costs don’t have to break the bank. There are ways to manage college costs that don’t involve applying for a second mortgage. We spoke to some experts for creative suggestions on how to lower the giant price tag.
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. “Sometimes it won’t count toward your major, but maybe it’ll count for general requirements,” says Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert and the publisher of FinAid. “You could possibly cut a semester out of your academic career.”
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, your personal interests or what it is you’re going to study,” says certified financial planner Lorrie Minor. 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. “Some of my clients have [attended FAFSA meetings] just to understand what type of financing and student aid is possible,” Minor says. “That’s a good thing to do a year or two in advance because sometimes you have to move assets around.
4. Compare net price, not net cost
Net price is “what college will cost after you subtract just the gift aid,” Kantrowitz says, “whereas 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.
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,” Minor says. “I’ve known people who decided not to go across the country to school because they couldn’t afford to visit family.”
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 y one of them, you’re set. “Princeton University started the trend,” Kantrowitz says. “And the average debt at graduation for a bachelor’s degree [from Princeton] is about $7,000.”
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 one to 12 hours a week have a higher bachelor degree attainment rate than people who do not work,” Kantrowitz says. “But if you work more than 12 hours a week, the graduation rate lowers.” 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,” Kantrowitz says. 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. Among students who start their education at a two-year school, only about two-fifths obtain a bachelor’s degree within six years. “I don’t recommend it,” Kantrowitz says. “It’s a detour on your way to a bachelor’s degree that may ultimately cause you not to get one.”
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,” Kantrowitz says. “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 that’s a big deal.