A college degree might cost less than you think, and here’s why.
Headlines about the rising costs of higher education can be daunting whether you’re gearing up to send your high schooler off to college or heading back to school yourself. With years of education ahead, the stakes are already high, and the prospect of an enormous price tag can easily send your apprehension into overdrive.
“The process is overwhelming and stressful for any family,” says Jessica Brown†, founder of CollegeGurl and author of How to Pay for College When You’re Broke. But while college costs in general continue to rise‡, there are a number of steps you can take to help trim the tuition bill.
Look for high school and college credits. Many high schools have programs that can help students earn high school and college credits simultaneously, potentially allowing for fewer years of tuition. In Ohio, for example, qualified students in grades seven through 12 can take courses from Ohio colleges or universities through College Credit Plus, explains Jeff Robinson§, director of communications for the Ohio Department of Higher Education. Over the three years of its existence, the program has saved Ohio families more than $416 million in tuition¶.
Consider community college. You can help save yourself money by starting out at a community college and then transferring to a four-year school for your final two years. Tuition and fees at community colleges average $3,440 per year, compared to a four-year institution’s average yearly price tag of between $9,410 (public college, in-state students) and $32,410 (private college)#.
Get the real price. “People really don’t have a good idea of the true cost of college,” says Brown, who warns against overlooking costs like room and board, books, fees, and more. To get a true tuition estimate and understand all your savings options, Brown recommends communicating directly with the school to discuss costs, tuition discounts, and other savings options with both the financial aid and enrollment offices.
Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). In 2015, more than two million students didn’t file the FAFSA, potentially losing out on Federal Pell Grants, totaling as much as $9.5 billion, as well as $2.7 billion in state and institutional grants††. The FAFSA is a prerequisite for receiving almost any type of financial aid—federal, state, and through colleges themselves. And the sooner you complete the FAFSA, the better. “First come, first serve—that’s how the financial aid process works,” Brown says.
Look for discounts and scholarships. There are many ways, from programs for veterans to education grants and scholarships for specific fields, to access tuition assistance. For example, active duty military members and veterans can access educational funding through the GI BillŁ, while the federally funded Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant Program provides grants for teaching students who intend to work in low-income school districtsΩ. The Midwest Student Exchange Program also offers tuition reductions at certain schools to eligible students from Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin‡‡.
Continue the negotiation. You can continue to negotiate or appeal the size of an offer even after you’ve been accepted to a school and offered aid, says Andy Lockwoodұ, author and college admissions and financial aid advisor at Lockwood College Prep.
Consider online courses. Technology has given rise to well-regarded online learning opportunities, often with lower tuition costs. Online learning also affords more scheduling flexibility, enabling students to work while pursuing a degree. Here’s a ranked list of the top online bachelor’s degree programs in the U.S. by U.S. News and World Report.
As you navigate the process, it may also help to keep the payoff of all this effort, energy, and time in mind. A 2015 study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that, on average, college graduates earn $1 million more over their lifetime than high school graduates¥. What’s more, a Pew Research Center analysis of median salaries of millennials found that high school grads between 25 and 32 years old earned an average of $17,500 a year less than their peers who held college degrees≠.
Paying for college seems daunting, but it doesn’t have to be,” Brown says. Accumulating funds through saving, grants, and scholarships can add up. “Every little bit helps,” she says. “So just take a deep breath and do as much as you can do a day at a time.