5 steps to reduce college costs
The average in-state sticker price for a public university is about $8,000 a year. Yet the typical student pays less than a third that amount. Here's how it's done.
The sticker price of college keeps rising -- fast. As state budgets shrank between 2007 and 2010, some public schools hiked tuition between 40% and 50%. 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, it's $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. What the news stories leave out is that most people don't pay sticker price. In the video below, Stacy Johnson talks about the actual costs of attending college and how to bring them down. Check it out, then read on for details.
As 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 your financial need, resources are available to students that can radically reduce the cost of college.
While it's true that those from families with high income or high net worth may find it more difficult to get help, nearly every student willing to look can find some aid. Here's how to go about it:
Start with a net price calculator.
The U.S. 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 an 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 information since October 2011. The 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.
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 starts with the FAFSA form. Because some need-based aid is handed out automatically on a first-come, first-served basis, you want to file yours online as soon as possible.
Hunt for scholarships.
Filling out FAFSA can make you eligible for tons of aid, and many university financial aid offices do a good job of pointing students toward opportunities. But don't rely on them alone. For instance, The College Board's scholarship search claims to check "scholarships, other financial aid and internships from more than 2,200 programs, totaling nearly $6 billion."
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. Don't stop looking until you graduate. New opportunities pop up all the time.
Look at alternative ways to earn or fast-track your degree.
The traditional four-year route is expensive, especially at a private school. But there are ways to cut corners without watering down your education. For instance, look into accelerated programs that push you harder and take three years instead of four. If you're going for a postgraduate degree, look for programs that combine bachelor's and master's tracks, or master's and doctoral work.
Consider starting at a 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. 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 courses can give you a head start, and while you have to pass an $87 exam for credit, that's far cheaper than taking a college class. Some high schools also partner with nearby colleges to offer dual-enrollment programs.
With College-Level Examination Program exams, you can get credit if you can prove mastery of a subject on a $77 exam. 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.
Finally, there are colleges that don't charge at all. According to U.S. News & World Report, there are at least a dozen. 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.
Take loans as a last resort.
Keep student loans to a minimum. One rule of thumb says you should borrow 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. Learn more about the different types of loans at FinAid.org's student loan page.
Learn about options for loan deferments and forgiveness. For instance, Peace Corps volunteers can receive up to a 70% 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.
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