How to Make College More Affordable
A college education is an essential part of building a career and securing a bright future. However, a college education can also be expensive, with the cost of tuition, fees, housing, and textbooks adding up quickly.
If you're worried you can't afford college even with financial aid, we have good news. With some careful planning and discipline, you can make college more affordable. Here's how you can do it.
Start Planning for College Early
One of the most effective ways to make college more affordable is to start planning early. This means researching the schools and programs you are interested in, investigating financial aid options, and creating a budget.
Start now by using online tools to compare the costs of different colleges and universities and find scholarships and financial aid programs that can help you offset the cost of tuition. Think about majors and what you're interested in studying, and then build an informed college list that considers the factors we're discussing next, like housing options and whether the school provides in-state tuition.
You can read our college search plan for high school juniors.
Take High School AP Classes to Earn Credits Before Enrolling
Starting college with AP credits can be an excellent way to reduce the cost of college and save money. AP courses are college-level courses that you can take in high school, and if you pass the AP exams, you can earn college credits. These credits can be used to fulfill college course requirements, allowing you to skip introductory courses and move on to more advanced coursework.
By earning AP credits, you can also potentially graduate earlier and qualify for scholarships and other financial aid programs. Picking up AP credits in high school is an intelligent way to make college more affordable and achieve your academic and career goals.
You can read about the benefits of AP classes and test scores.
Apply (EARLY) for Financial Aid
The next step in keeping college affordable is completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to pick up free money for school. The FAFSA application is used by the federal government and colleges and universities to determine your eligibility for financial aid programs, which can include grants, scholarships, work-study programs, and student loans.
To complete the FAFSA, you must provide personal and financial information, including tax returns and other documents. The FAFSA is available online and is free to fill out.
The application typically opens on October 1st each year and has a deadline of June 30th of the following year. However, some states and colleges may have earlier deadlines, so you must check with the relevant authorities to ensure you don't miss any deadlines.
We recommend checking out this Better FAFSA Guide for 2023 to read about the new changes to the form you'll see if completing it this year or the following years.
Earn Merit-Based Awards
Merit-based scholarships are financial awards granted to students based on their performance in academics, athletics, or other extracurricular endeavors. They’re a great choice for students with particular gifts or those who have worked hard throughout high school.
With a merit-based scholarship, it’s your performance that matters — and that’s something you can control. For instance, you may be awarded a merit scholarship based on your SAT or ACT score, your GPA, an essay you submitted for a particular scholarship, or your athletic performance in high school.
You can read all about merit-based scholarships by clicking the link.
Apply for Additional Need-Based Scholarships
Once you complete your FAFSA, you'll want to apply for other independent scholarships since that will help you get more free money you don't have to pay back.
Many scholarship and grant programs are available for students of all backgrounds, interests, and academic achievements. You can search for scholarships and grants online or through your school's financial aid office or a scholarship database like Cappex. It is crucial to apply early and keep track of deadlines to increase your chances of getting the funds you need.
You can read our guide for finding and applying for scholarships here.
Consider Starting at a Community College
If you are looking for a more affordable way to earn a college degree, you may want to consider starting at a community college. Community colleges are usually less expensive than traditional four-year universities, and many offer transfer programs that allow you to transfer credits to a four-year university.
One important note here is that you need to be thoughtful about the classes you take if you go this route. Sometimes courses won't transfer from a community college to a university, so talk to your advisor and be selective when choosing classes.
If the thought of starting at and then transferring from a community college interests you, you can read this article about the most transfer-friendly colleges.
Attend an In-State School
Attending an in-state school, or a school that offers in-state tuition if you meet their specific criteria, can be a smart financial move too. In-state tuition is generally much lower than out-of-state tuition. This means that you can potentially save thousands of dollars on tuition by going this route.
For instance, the average published sticker price for an in-state four-year degree is $10,950. At the same time, the average published sticker price for an out-of-state four-year degree is $ $28,240. Meaning you could save as much as $17,000 by going to a school that you can pay instate tuition for.
Additionally, attending an in-state school can help you save money on living expenses since you can live at home or with family members instead of paying for your housing.
If you'd like to learn more about the difference between net price and sticker price, you can click the link.
Carefully Compare Your Financial Aid Offers
It's important not to compare the sticker prices for schools if you're getting financial aid. That will give you an incorrect picture of much each college will cost you.
Instead, compare your financial aid offers by isolating the net price for each school. Marie D. Johnson, Director of Student Financial Services at the University of Vermont, explains, "It is important to understand how to compare aid offers to know the costs of various options. Sometimes people believe that because one school has a larger scholarship or aid offer than another, it automatically means the school is lower cost." But that's not the case at all.
Maria continued, "To determine the bottom line cost after aid for each school, focus on laying out tuition, fees, housing, and food costs and then deduct only scholarship and grant offers for each school to compare them."
If you add student loans to the total aid amount in the equation, you're not getting an accurate estimate of out-of-pocket costs since you'll have to pay back the loans plus interest. Free money always beats money you have to pay back. So keep that in mind as you compare offers.
"Another important thing to consider is what the tuition covers," Maria told us. "Some schools charge per credit. Other schools provide a range of credits per semester which can help to contain costs as most programs require students to earn 15 credits per semester for a 4-year, 8-semester program."
Click the link for our guide to reading financial aid award letters.
Take Advantage of Work-Study Programs
Many colleges and universities offer work-study programs in the form of part-time jobs on campus in the community. With this type of part-time work, you can make extra money to pay for school and living expenses. A bonus of working through a work-study program instead of getting a different part-time job is that your job host will be more inclined to work around your school schedule. Work-study programs also provide valuable work experience and help you build your resume and improve your career prospects after graduation.
Reduce Your Living Expenses
Although they shouldn't be the most crucial factor when picking a school, tallying up the small costs is smart. Then you can look for ways to lower them. Rent, groceries, entertainment, and transportation, can add up quickly, especially if living off-campus.
To reduce these expenses, you may want to consider sharing an apartment with roommates, cooking your meals instead of eating out, and using public transportation instead of owning a car. These small changes can add up over time, helping you save money and make college more affordable.
Cappex Can Help Make College More Affordable
Making college more affordable is possible with careful planning and research. Learn about different costs for the colleges you're interested in with a free Cappex account. You can save multiple schools to your list and reference them all in one place. From there, you can compare costs, programs, admissions data, and more to make the best decision for your needs. Just click the button below to get started.