Given the rise in college tuition these days, just about everyone is in search of financial aid and ways to reduce the price of attendance. Tuition alone at some private colleges and universities now tops $50,000 a year, and the price to attend public colleges and universities has skyrocketed recently, thanks to declining state support.
And despite the fact that you know you need financial help to attend college (or to help your child pay for her education), you may not qualify for need-based aid, at least according to the definition used by the federal government and many colleges and universities. So how can you cut the price of a college education and still end up with a great experience and a meaningful degree? Here are four things you can do.
1. Remember: “It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish!” It may have gained fame as the title of a song from the Broadway show “Seesaw,” but this concept applies to college, as well. Spending a year or two at a community college can greatly reduce your overall college costs. Students who enroll in a two-year college and live at home can literally save many thousands of dollars. And if you’re concerned about where you start out, I’ve rarely seen a resume that includes every college a candidate attended; on the contrary, people typically only list where they obtained their degrees. You needn’t worry that beginning at a community college or transferring schools will potentially diminish your candidacy for future employers. What you ultimately achieve and the degree you graduate with are far more important measures of your employability.
And if your high school academic record is not as stellar as you wish it had been, attending and doing well at a community college will show that you are, in fact, capable and focused academically. This approach has the added advantage of making you a competitive applicant at those four-year colleges that might not have accepted you straight out of high school.
One Caveat: You need to make sure that the courses you take in community college will transfer to a four-year school. Check the articulation agreements (or transfer agreements) that your local community college has with four-year institutions. Even if there isn’t a formal partnership between your school and the four-year college that you ultimately want to attend, it’s likely that the transfer institution will accept your coursework if similar schools are agreeing to provide credit for it.
2. Cut the Time, Cut the Costs! By earning Advanced Placement (AP) credits, taking courses at a local community or four-year college in the summer, and enrolling in an extra course or two once you become an undergraduate, you can cut an entire semester — or even a year — off your education. In my day, many of us took some of the core requirements that were known either to be difficult or not terribly interesting at our local colleges in the summer. My own daughter graduated a full semester early by combining a handful of AP credits with course overloads for one or two semesters. For many students, receiving college credit in high school is a manageable way to save several thousand dollars or more.
Importance of the Four-Year (or Less) Plan: At the very least, do everything possible to graduate in four years, not more. A recent report by the Complete College America Alliance of States revealed that the percentage of students who graduated on time — that is, in four years — at four-year public colleges and universities ranged between 19 and 36 percent, depending on the type of college. This same report estimated the average cost for an extra year of college at a public institution at $22,826.
There are all sorts of reasons students may take longer to graduate, including changing majors, needing courses that are not offered every semester, not getting into courses because they are overenrolled, dropping a class at a point in the semester when it’s too late to add another … and the list goes on. Graduating in four years requires constant attention to general graduation requirements as well as those specific to your major — but it’s clearly financially worth the effort. Check in with your academic advisor regularly to make sure you’re on track to meet your goals.
3. Apply Wisely to Maximize Aid! What about financial aid? While you may not qualify for aid based on the federal definition of need, colleges and universities themselves award considerable amounts of merit aid to attract students. And there are strategies to maximize your chances of getting some of this money.
For better or worse, colleges are always trying to improve the qualifications of their entering students (e.g., higher SAT/ACT scores and grade point averages), in large part to improve their ranking in U.S. News & World Report and other higher education ranking systems. Students who apply with stronger credentials (than those of recent years’ entering classes) are more likely to be awarded aid than students whose records are closer to the average or even lower.
An Example: Say that the posted SAT range for a particular college is 540–650 for math and 520–630 for reading, meaning that 50 percent of entering first-year students had scores between the lower and upper score for each section of the test, while 25 percent scored below the lower number, and 25 percent scored above it. A student whose math score is 520 and reading score is 500 is less likely to receive aid than a student whose scores are above the upper end of the range. This doesn’t mean that the student with lower scores won’t receive aid, but it is less likely — and the aid amount may be relatively small.
Applying to a range of colleges and ensuring that your scores are on the upper end of the range for a fair number of them is a fairly effective strategy for improving the odds of getting some financial assistance. Noodle’s college search provides SAT and ACT ranges, as well as the percentage of students graduating from high school in the top half, quarter, and tenth of their classes. You’ll also find a link to each college’s net price calculator, which will give you an estimate — but it is only an estimate — of how much aid you might receive.
Of course, you should also be applying for scholarships right and left. There are a number of Web-based resources, such as FinAid and Edvisors, that allow you to search for scholarship options. While it takes some effort, you certainly won’t get any scholarship funds if you don’t apply!
4. Save, Save, Save! Oh-so-obvious, and oh-so-difficult! I’ve heard people say, again and again, that the cost of college is so overwhelming that they didn’t think they could even put a dent in the price by saving money. Not a good strategy.
I’m a fan of 529 plans that allow anyone to save for a student’s college education. Earnings on the plan are not taxed, and most states provide a tax deduction for money put away in these accounts.
Grandparents can also open 529 plans, and regardless of how much is invested, every bit helps. Parents can even start a 529 plan for a child who is already in college, and depending on where you live, you may save some money on state taxes by contributing to it.
A Final Word for Parents
Whatever your family’s situation, parents need to make financial constraints clear to children _before_ they apply to college. If paying full tuition for a private college is not possible, it’s important that your child knows this as she’s beginning to apply, not when she’s deciding where to attend. Applying to more expensive schools is still feasible as long as _everyone_ understands that attending may not be possible without a certain level of financial aid.
Rita Kirshstein’s work in higher education covers many different areas. She led the higher education practice area at the American Institutes for Research for many years, directed the Delta Cost Project that focused on college affordability through the lens of college spending, evaluated numerous higher education initiatives and served on the board of trustees of the University of the District of Columbia for five years. She continues to provide college counseling through her business, College Connections, LLC (website forthcoming) and serves on the board of College Bound, a college access program for DC-area public and charter school students, where she developed and leads their college counseling component.