Top 10 Ways to Slash College Costs

Your parents may have graduated without student loans—but that’s old-school these days. College costs have gone way up. 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) 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. Otherwise, you’ll have to take a similar course in college to earn them.
  • Check out 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!

2) “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 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.

3) 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.

  • Make your application matter! Read (and actually follow) the application instructions. Tell your story in the most compelling way possible—not just the facts but how the facts made you feel. Turn it in on time. (Seriously, don’t do the work and then disqualify yourself.)
  • Find scholarships through your high school guidance counselor, in and around your community and at credible sites like:

4) 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.

  • Earn college credits while in high school.
  • 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.
  • Buy used books. Most campuses offer this option at their bookstores. You can also check online through Craig’s List, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. Renting books or downloading ebooks, or finding paperback editions can also lower the costs of textbooks. 
  • 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 up to $8,000 a year or more.

5) 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 can 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. 

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

Tuition is typically lower for state residents. If you simply must go to an out-of-state school, look into residency requirements for that state. Ensure you are looking at the true cost of the college. 

7) Attend a 2-year Community College and then transfer to a 4-year institution.

This can be a great way to save money, but be sure to check with the 4-year school first to see if your credits will transfer. If you are interested in attending a 2+2 program, you must have a plan with advisors from both colleges in order to be certain that you take the right classes. 

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 repayment plans. 

Many colleges and universities offer interest-free payment plan options, so be sure to ask. But be sure you ask about any plan fees as well. 

10) Be a saver! 

Save what you earn from wages. Delay major purchases.  By “living like a poor college student” now, you’ll be able to start your post college years on better financial footing. 

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.