“Ten Tips for Making College (More) Affordable”

By Peter Van Buskirk

What would you pay for a new car? A new house? A nice vacation? You might be willing to rationalize the cost of other major investments in life, but what about a college education?

At amounts ranging from $50,000-$250,000 over four years, the “college” bill far exceeds the price tag on a new car and rivals the cost of a new home for many families. Considered carefully, though, that amount is a worthy, if not necessary, investment as a college degree is a critical credential for young people seeking to enter the job market.

While mounting college costs can seem overwhelming, it is possible to acquire a quality education without “breaking the bank.” The following are ten tips for affordably achieving happy and productive educational outcomes.

  1. Know what you are getting into. Each college has an agenda that defines who gets in and how financial aid is awarded. It is within the context of such agendas that admission officers often ask the question, “If we admit this student, what do we get?” Not surprisingly, the stakes go up when financial aid is involved. Understanding from the outset that colleges operate as businesses makes it possible to anticipate the agendas that might impact the manner in which you will be treated as an applicant for admission and financial aid.
  2. Put yourself on the right competitive “playing field.” “Where’s the money?” Generally speaking, private colleges and universities have the most flexibility in determining how and to whom their funds are awarded. Maximize your financial aid opportunities by targeting schools where your academic credentials (SAT, GPA) would put you in the top 25% of the competition.
  3. Focus on outcomes. The fact that a college offers a four-year degree is not a guarantee that you can achieve that degree in four years or five—or that you will even graduate at all. As you learn about colleges, investigate graduation rates. Ask for data about employment and graduate school placements for the academic programs that interest you. Time is money. Look for evidence you will be supported in achieving your educational goals in a timely fashion.
  4. Make good choices. The decisions you make today will have a direct bearing on the opportunities you will realize tomorrow. This is especially true in the college admission process. Colleges are eager to see how students respond to choices that confront them in the classroom and in life. So, work hard. Get good grades. Invest in you. Make it easy for admission officers and scholarship officials to say “yes” by making good decisions as you work your way through high school.
  5. Visit colleges. The personalities and programs of colleges vary greatly and it is important to understand the differences. So, visit colleges—lots of them. Big schools. Small schools. Private colleges. State universities. Visit schools with urban campuses and schools in rural settings. The more you see, the broader your perspective will become so that, when it is time to “buy,” you can choose well.
  6. Get early cost estimates. You may know the sticker prices for colleges that interest you, but do you know how much you will be expected to pay? The difference between the two amounts can be considerable. Unfortunately, the federally mandated “net price calculators” on institutional websites won’t give you the whole story. Get a good read on your “expected family contribution” by asking financial aid officers at colleges of interest for early estimates of your EFC (based on your family’s most recent IRS tax returns) in the summer/early fall of the senior year in high school.
  7. Investigate community-based scholarships. As you explore community-based scholarships, target opportunities that are close to home. Begin with the companies for which your parents work—many offer scholarships to children of employees. Look into service organizations (Rotary Club, DAR, Elks, etc.) that offer scholarships. Finally, local companies often establish foundations through which they channel scholarship funds to students in the community. Your guidance counselor should be able to provide information about scholarships received by graduates of your high school in past years.
  8. Be wary of scholarship scams. Despite promotions that suggest hundreds of millions of scholarship dollars are un-used every year, very few dollars actually go unused. Most are administered by the colleges themselves. Many of the promotions are either attempts to introduce students to “advisors” who can help maximize their financial aid opportunities or lotteries designed to collect information about students that will be sold to marketers. You should never have to pay to receive scholarships or assistance in acquiring them.
  9. Consider “two-plus-two” educational options. A seemingly economical option for completing four years of college is to start at a less expensive two-year or four-year program and then transfer into a four-year college from which the degree is conferred. This works only if the destination college has space and funding available for transfers. If you are contemplating such a route beginning at a two-year college, make sure it has an articulation agreement (that ensures transfer of your academic credits) with the four-year college into which you want to transfer.
  10. Capitalize on academic credit opportunities. Many colleges extend academic credit for work achieved in high school. Credit is awarded for high scores on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams, dual degree courses and courses taken on college campuses. By accumulating credits of this nature you can reduce those required to graduate from college and save tuition dollars in the process.


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