7 Cheaper Paths to a Great College Education

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Even at an in-state public university, one year of tuition and fees alone currently ranges from an average of $5,400 in Wyoming to $16,610 in Vermont, according to The College Board.

Mercifully, there are effective strategies for saving money on college costs. Innovations in how education is delivered and paid for are changing the college experience, making schooling more accessible and affordable.

Let’s take a look at several:

1. Student loan repayment job perks

You can reduce your college costs even after you graduate. How? Get a job with a company offering student loan repayment help as a workplace benefit.

Increasingly, companies offer employees help repaying student loans. Glassdoor lists 12 companies with that perk, including Aetna and Fidelity Investments.

Companies also help employees cover higher-education costs in other ways, as we detail in “7 Companies That Now Help Pay for Workers’ College Expenses.”

Money-saving tip: When weighing job offers, calculate what you’d get from a benefit and how long you’d need to stay at the company to capture the maximum value.

2. Online courses

Online courses are a good alternative to on-campus classes, letting you attend college on your own schedule.

Online courses save money in several ways. I’m studying for an MBA using an online program from Utah State University. Although online tuition isn’t less expensive, I save on room, board and transportation compared with what I’d spend if I lived on campus.

Numerous schools — MIT and Arizona State University are two — offer an array of courses online, often at reduced tuition cost. Students can complete at least part of a degree without stepping foot on campus.

Study.com offers a different approach: low-cost online video courses that can be applied to high school, GED or college and university degree programs. The company calls this program College Accelerator. It says:

“Like AP tests or CLEP exams, College Accelerator prepares students for a final college exam, so students can test out of general education requirements and focus on their major. And much like the CLEP and AP exams, students can transfer their credit to over 1,500 colleges and universities across the nation.”

Money-saving tip: Degree mills still operate online. Don’t pay for schooling that’s worthless to your career. Make sure you’re working with an accredited program.

3. Online program managers

Online program managers such as Coursera and MyEducator present class content online that can be taken to earn credit at participating schools.

I’ve taken MBA classes through MyEducator, paying about $280 to complete four prerequisite classes online that would have cost me $3,600 on a campus.

Coursera’s degree program partners include the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Arizona State University, among others.

Money-saving tip: Before enrolling with an online program manager, double-check with the school to which you’ll be transferring credits. Confirm that:

  • The two schools truly are partners.
  • Completing this course definitely will give you the credits you expect.


4. Competency based education

Competency based education lets students draw on work and life experience to build credits toward a degree.

Explains the Brookings Institution:

“If students — either through workplace training, outside reading, or purely life experience — happen to have the competence and knowledge required for a particular subject, they can take the test and get credit without having to take a class.”

Three leaders in the field are the University of Wisconsin System, Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America and Capella University, says Inside Higher Ed, a publication about higher education.

A program that allows competency based education can save you money by letting you earn credit by, for example, taking a test without taking the class or by completing a class faster than usual.

Maybe college isn’t necessary. Consider “7 Good Reasons Generation Z Is Opting Out of College.”

5. Concurrent enrollment

I took a couple of AP tests in high school, passed well and used the scores to meet some college requirements. The tests — along with CLEP tests, offered by The College Board — can potentially shorten the time and money spent on getting a bachelor’s degree.

Today, my son has an even better option: concurrent enrollment, through which students earn college credit while also completing high school.

It’s conceivable that a student could earn enough credits while in high school to start college as a sophomore, saving tens of thousands of dollars on tuition.

Depending on your school district, concurrent enrollment credits might be offered at a low cost or even free of charge.

Money-saving tip: Meet with a knowledgeable school counselor to learn the options at a high school available to you and find out what to do to get started.

Smart reading for funding an education: “How the New Tax Law Changes Your College Costs.”

6. Income-sharing agreements

Would you give a portion of your future earnings to someone who’ll pay for your schooling now?

Some U.S. schools and private sector investors are offering income-sharing agreements (ISAs). It works like this: You agree to give up, for example, 10 percent of your income for 10 years after graduating to a school or entity that funds your education.

The upside: You can avoid paying interest on student loans.

Purdue University’s Back a Boiler ISA Fund, for one, offers an income-share agreement to students starting in their sophomore year. Students get funding for school in exchange for paying back a percentage of their income for about 10 years after graduation. Payments start six months after graduation, provided that the graduate is employed and making at least $20,000 a year. No interest is charged and payment amounts adjust depending on the graduate’s income.

Money-saving tip: Consult with your parents, guardians and financial aid counselors to weigh all of your financial aid options and understand the specifics of an ISA agreement before you sign.

7. Attend community college first

Community colleges can provide a solid education, often at a lower cost than a four-year school, making them an ideal way to hold down costs.

High school grads sometimes feel pressure to go straight to a four-year university. If that’s you, think twice. Attending community college first can save on the cost of room, board and tuition and even perhaps get you in line for less-competitive scholarships.

Money-saving tip: Get an associate’s degree at an affordable community college and then transfer to a four-year school. You might even be eligible for a scholarship at your new school, further reducing costs if you perform well.

Have you tried any money-saving approaches to getting a college degree? Tell us about it by commenting below or on our Facebook page.

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