Top 10 Ways to Slash College Costs

College costs have gone way up since your parents were in school. In fact, according to Bloomberg, college tuition and fees have increased 1,120 percent since records began in 19781.

So is college worth it? We say, Yes! College is an investment in your future. College graduates continue to average higher incomes than people with high school diplomas alone—84% more according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

How can you minimize the amount you borrow to cover the hefty price of a degree?

Here are our Top 10 Ways:

1) Choose an affordable school

Don’t assume that if you have a limited budget you should only look at public or low-priced schools. Don’t pick a cheap school; pick a school your family can afford. One great way to determine which schools might be affordable for you is to research the net price for schools which interest you. You might be surprised which schools are within your family’s budget once scholarships and grants are deducted from the published price. To learn more about net price, read this article.

2) Earn college credits while in high school.

Many states offer dual-credit programs where high school students can take college courses for free:

  • Take advantage of Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses but be sure to call the college you’re interested in to ask whether your credits will transfer. 
  • Check out Dual Enrollment or PSEO (Post-Secondary Enrollment Options). In this program, you take classes at a participating college while in high school to earn credits at BOTH schools. Yes, at the same time - Sweet!

3) “Test out” of college courses with exams that let you earn credit based on what you learned in high school.

The College Level Examination Program (CLEP) is accepted by 2,900 colleges and offers 33 exams in 5 subjects. Note that you’ll pay $80-$100 per test so study first.

Not all colleges accept the exams and those that do vary in how they apply the credit:

  • Some schools consider CLEP credits “transfer credits” and apply them toward the maximum number of courses you can transfer If you’re transferring a lot of credits (as in when you change colleges), you may not be able to use CLEP, and may not be given a choice as to which credits will be accepted.
  • Other schools treat CLEP exams as exemptions, allowing you to test out of a prerequisite, for example, but do not award credit.
  • And finally, some colleges only count CLEP and DSST exam credit (see below) as electives. That means you can’t test out of courses required for your major. Make sure to discuss with your college advisor.

DSST is another type of college-credit exam accepted by 1,900 institutions, for students in military active duty.

4) Apply for scholarships.

You don’t have to have straight A's or be an all-star athlete in high school to get a college scholarship. There are countless scholarships available to just about anyone, and they range from wearing duct tape to prom (we actually found one for that!) to being active in civic affairs, community service, or the performing arts.

5) Get all you can for free.

The bulk of college costs consist of tuition, fees, books, room, board and transportation. You can graduate owing significantly less if you reduce or eliminate expenses in any of these areas—especially tuition and room and board.

  • Check out colleges that offer free or reduced tuition in exchange for work. Find more in the Work Colleges Consortium.
  • Consider attending a tuition-free college focused on educating and training new U.S. military officers, known as the United States Military Academies.
  • Consider living at home. It’s a big choice, we know, but living at home can save oodles of cash versus living on campus. In fact, this can save you up to $10,000 a year or more.

6) Work while you study.

While in high school, consider getting a part-time job during the school year—or even a full-time summer job. Put at least half of your earnings away for school and pay as much as you can before and during school. Even part-time earnings can reduce the amount you’ll have to borrow, big time!

The perks of working go beyond money, too. While in college, students with campus jobs have more connection to their schools and can develop better time management skills.

Work experiences will prepare you for future employment, build your resume and help you stand out from the crowd. 

7) Choose an in-state public school or one with tuition reciprocity.

Tuition at public colleges is typically lower for state residents. If you simply must go to an out-of-state school, look into residency requirements for that state. Also check out state and regional tuition reciprocity programs. With tuition reciprocity, you may be able to attend an out-of-state public school for close to the cost of an in-state school. 

8) Graduate in 4 years.

You’ll avoid all the tuition, room, board and transportation costs associated with additional semesters, as well as any rate increases that might come your way as time goes on. 

9) Ask about tuition payment plans. 

Many colleges and universities offer interest-free payment plan options that allow you to spread payments out through the school year, so be sure to ask. Typically, colleges charge a nominal fee for this service (e.g., $80-$100 for the year) so ask about any plan fees as well. 

10) Consider ROTC & U.S. Military 

ROTC programs allow students to earn a degree while receiving financial support from the military. After graduation, students begin service as an officer in the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy or Marine Corps. Students take course work for a major, as well as courses related to the branch of the military in which they plan to serve. Each branch's program has its own requirements.

Military Tuition Assistance is a benefit paid to eligible members of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard. Congress has given each service the ability to pay up to 100% for the tuition expenses of its members.

Each service has its own criteria for eligibility, obligated service, application process' and restrictions.  

Hindsight is 20/20

  • Eighty-one percent of adults with student loans reported making personal or financial sacrifices because of their college loans.
  • Fifty percent said they even delayed contributions to retirement accounts—something you don’t want to do.
  • Take steps now to slash the amount you have to borrow, so you’ll owe less when you graduate. The money you save could help you start a business, invest in your first home or start a family… maybe even help your own kids pay for college someday.

Need help? A Thrivent expert will be happy to discuss your options with you.