5 Steps to Dramatically Reduce the Cost of College

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The sticker price of college keeps rising – fast.

As state budgets shrunk between 2007 and 2010, some public schools hiked tuition between 40 and 50 percent. A study released in February says student loans have outpaced credit card debt, with unpaid balances passing $1 trillion in 2011.

A recent College Board report says average tuition and fees for four-year public universities is now $8,244 for in-state students, $631 higher than last year. For out-of-state students, $20,770, an increase of $1,122. And tuition and fees for private schools is $28,500, an increase of $1,235.

These are the numbers you see in the headlines, and they’re scary. But don’t succumb to sticker shock. Because what the news stories leave out is most people don’t pay sticker price.

In the video below, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson talks about the actual costs of attending college, and how to bring them down. Check it out, then read on for details…

Like Stacy said, college sticker prices these days can match the price tag on a Ferrari. But there’s a big difference between college and cars: While no dealer will cut the cost of a car in half based on need, there are resources available to students that can radically reduce the cost of college.

While it’s true that those from high-income and high-net-worth families may find it more difficult to find help, nearly every student willing to look can find some relief. Here’s how to go about it…

1. Start with a net price calculator

The Department of Education website has a new tool to help you find a ballpark estimate for the specific schools you’re interested in. Put in some information and get the estimated net price: the estimated cost of attendance (tuition, fees, books and supplies, room and board and other related expenses) minus estimated grant and scholarship aid.

Every college has been required to offer this info since October 2011. The DoE’s College Affordability and Transparency Center can also lead you to information about how fast tuition has risen at the school, what majors are offered, and records for campus safety and graduation rates.

2. Apply for FAFSA

FAFSA stands for “Free Application for Federal Student Aid.” Students should fill it out in the spring before graduating high school and every year they’re enrolled – even if they don’t think they’ll qualify for aid.

This standardized form is crucial because it tells the school’s financial aid office you’re interested in whatever opportunities are available. Nearly every scholarship, work-study, and other type of student aid available starts with the FAFSA form. And because some need-based aid is handed out automatically on a first-come, first-served basis, you want yours filed before everyone else’s. Fill it out online at www.fafsa.ed.gov.

3. Hunt for scholarships

Filling out the FAFSA can make you eligible for tons of aid, and many university financial aid departments do a good job of pointing students toward opportunities. But don’t rely on them alone.

Find and apply to everything you can, because there’s more financial aid out there than you might think. The College Board’s scholarship search alone claims to check “scholarships, other financial aid and internships from more than 2,200 programs, totaling nearly $6 billion.”

And you don’t have to have great grades or test scores to find help. There are scholarships based on everything from your height to the community you live in to a passion for the science behind wine. Learn how to master the search in one of our most-shared stories ever, 5 Ways to Score Scholarship Money. Then, don’t stop looking – you may become eligible for more later, and new opportunities keep popping up all the time.

4. Look at alternative ways to get or fast-track your education

The traditional four-year route is expensive – especially at a private school. But there are ways to cut corners without cutting down on your education.

For instance, look into accelerated programs that push you harder but take three years instead of four. If you’re going for a higher degree, check out programs that combine bachelor’s and master’s tracks, or master’s and doctoral work.

Consider starting at a state community college and getting general education requirements out of the way at a cheaper price, then transferring to a university. Just make sure the credits will transfer with you: The College Board’s MatchMaker can help you find schools that have agreements to do so.

There are also ways to get credit without taking college classes. High school Advanced Placement (AP) courses can give you a head start, and while you have to pass an $87 exam for credit, that’s far cheaper and quicker than retaking the class in college. Some high schools also partner with nearby colleges to offer dual-enrollment programs – these meet both high school and college requirements at the same time.

Then there are college-level examination program (CLEP) exams. If you can prove mastery of a subject on a $77 exam (some schools also add a fee to administer it), you get the credit while saving time and money. Of course, only take the test if you’re confident you understand the material – look at a sample of the test online before registering and brush up if you have to. You might even take a free course on iTunes to prep for CLEP.

There’s also online learning that costs next to nothing compared to most universities. See our story College for $1,000 a Year?

Finally, there are colleges that don’t charge at all. According to U.S. News and World Report, there are at least a dozen of these. Be warned you may still end up spending quite a bit if you don’t live close to them – most charge for room and board, but not tuition.

5. Take loans as a last resort

If you can’t cover the costs after aid, there’s another option: student loans. As the name implies, you have to pay these back, and starting life with a huge debt burden is no fun. So keep them to a minimum – one rule of thumb says no more than twice the salary an entry-level worker makes for your field of study.

Seek government-backed loans that subsidize the interest charged and offer more flexible repayment terms before turning to private loans. Learn more about the different types of loans at FinAid.org’s student loan page.

Then learn about options for loan deferments and forgiveness. Some professions, especially in public service, can get you off the hook – temporarily or permanently. For instance, Peace Corps volunteers can receive up to a 70 percent Perkins loan cancellation over four years. Read about other loan-forgiveness programs here.

Bottom line? Don’t let the headlines about spiraling college costs convince you a higher education is unattainable. If you’re willing to do the legwork, the options are out there.

For more savings, check out our stories on college textbooks, weird scholarships, and insurance for students.