Opinion

Analysis: Average In-State Colleges Now Cost $20,000 a Year. 10 Ways Families Can Plan Ahead to Reduce Those Expenses and Make College More Affordable

By Miron Lulic | December 11, 2018

Average tuition, fees, room, and board for an in-state public institution (without financial aid) last year topped out at $20,790, according to the College Board’s latest report. Going out of state? You’re looking at $36,480. Considering a private, four-year school? Expect to pay around $46,990 a year.

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. Here are 10:

1 Pile on the AP classes

Taking Advanced Placement classes in high school — and excelling on the exams at the end of the course — can earn students credit at the college of their choice. Translation: The more AP classes a high schooler can ace now, the fewer college courses he or she will have to pay for later. These classes may not count toward the student’s major, but they will count for general requirements. Do it right, and it can reduce a student’s time in college by an entire semester. That could save a family an average of $13,000 at an in-state school and up to $25,000 at a private college.

2 Be creative about scholarships

This may go without saying, but leave no stone unturned. Free money is no small thing, and your child may be able to score extra cash because, say, she knows how to knit. (Literally: It’s called the Beans for Brains Scholarship.) A scholarship could have to do with your heritage (such as the Watson Middle East Fellowship), your beliefs (e.g., the American Atheists’ O’Hair and Chinn scholarships), personal interests (e.g., the Congressional Black Caucus’s CBC Spouses Heineken USA Performing Arts), or whatever it is your child is 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 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 your child will enter college. Communities even have FAFSA meetings to help parents 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 cost of attendance

Net price is what college will cost after you subtract gift aid. To calculate the net price, deduct grant and scholarship amounts in your aid offer from the cost of attendance. The balance is the net price of the college. Do this for each school you consider to find out which will be the most affordable. Remember that student loans are not grants or scholarships. If a school is offering loans, you’ll have to pay those back, so that’s still a cost to you, even if it’s not immediate. You can find out what individual schools give in financial aid 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 you’re choosing an economical school, but that works only if a student can earn a diploma in four years. Some 45 percent of students who go to college full time need another year (or more) to finish. So make sure 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 he or she plans 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 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. Students may wish they had chosen a closer college if they 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 to help them attend. Unfortunately, these colleges tend to be in 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 percent of seniors graduated debt-free in 2016.

8 Have your child 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. Summertime, though, is fair game!

9 Be reasonable

Half of college costs are for living expenses and miscellaneous things that come up. So be flexible, and remember that plenty of variables will affect the final price your family pays. 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 a 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.

… And don’t forget to save, save, save

How old are your children? When are they going to school? If it’s not tomorrow, you still have time to put money away for their education. Every dollar you put away is a dollar less 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.

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