7 hacks to save on college costs

The average student graduates with $28K in student loans. That doesn't have to be you.

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Worried about graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in student debt? There are a few moves you can make to cut down on your cost of attendance both before you apply and while you’re in school.

1. Take AP and college-level courses while you’re still in high school

The more AP classes you can take in high school, the fewer credits you’ll need to take in college. Considering that some college courses cost thousands of dollars, that $94 exam registration fee spells serious savings. Not to mention that you’ll graduate college sooner.

Even if your school doesn’t offer many AP classes, you still might be able to save. Many local colleges offer courses for high school students, which you can take after school to earn credits. Often, these are free, allowing you to save even more. And they generally don’t involve as much work as an AP class since there isn’t a big exam on top of your regular midterms and finals.

Already in the work force? Signing up for a college 2+2 program in which you take courses at a community college before transferring to a big-name school can also help you cut down on costs.

2. Consider schools that cover 100% financial need

How much financial aid a school gives can have a large impact on the cost of attendance. Take Stanford, for example. It theoretically costs roughly $74,500 to attend. But students and parents only end up paying $13,600 on average. And that’s including families that can afford to cover the whole cost.

That’s because Stanford offers 100% need-based financial aid. This translates into a near-full ride if your family’s household income is less than $60,000 (students are still expected to contribute toward their education costs). Above that and families are also expected to contribute toward college costs to some degree.

It might not be entirely free for everyone. But schools that completely meet financial need are typically less expensive than those with a lower cost of attendance but less generous financial aid program.

3. Apply for as many grants and scholarships as you can

Your school might automatically consider you for some grants and scholarships when you apply and fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA). But many also offer additional grants and scholarships that require an application.

You also might want to consider applying for scholarships and grants offered by outside institutions. These are typically available to particular fields of study, demographics or talent — like athletics or the arts.You can even find unusual scholarships out there for everything from being tall to making a dress out of duct tape.

While applying for scholarships and grants might mean you have to write a few more short essays and commit to community service, you could save thousands over your college career. Talk to your school’s financial aid office to learn what options might be available to you.

4. Take advantage of work-study programs or campus jobs

Work-study programs are a popular way for students to cover their expected contribution to the cost of attendance. Usually, you can select that you’d like to be considered for work-study when you fill out your application.

With work-study, your school assigns you a campus job and a certain number of hours you’re allowed to work, based on financial need. Instead of receiving your funds, the salary goes toward your education expenses.

Most schools only offer work-study through the Federal Student Aid program. If work-study isn’t enough, look into campus employment available to students. These typically don’t have limits to how much you can work, so you may be able to save more with this method. Some schools also have offices that can connect you with jobs in the community, which could potentially help build your resume as well.

5. Look into crowdfunding

Crowdfunding to cover college expenses has become increasingly popular. Some platforms like PeduL even specialize in crowdfunding for students. You might have to pay a percentage of the funds raised as a platform fee — usually in the ballpark of 3% to 5% — so take that into account before setting your fundraising goal.

Not all platforms allow you to crowdfund for education expenses, however. Kickstarter, for example, only allows users to raise funds for creative projects. Make sure the platform you choose supports education-related campaigns before getting started.

Once you’ve chosen a platform, take some time to set up an account and tell a story about yourself and why you need the funds. You can then share the page with your friends, family and social network to start fundraising.

6. Ask your employer about assistance programs

Already have a job? Plan on working as a salaried employee while you’re in school? Ask your employer’s HR department if they offer any tuition assistance programs. Some might offer tuition assistance directly. Others that have a specific credit union for employees might offer special loan programs, like Geico FCU’s tuition reimbursement loans.

If you’re looking for a job, consider working for a branch of a university — like a hospital, lab or research facility. Some offer reduced tuition to full-time employees.

7. Enroll in the CCAMPIS program

The Department of Education’s Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) program provides financial assistance for low-income students raising children while they’re in school. Student parents enrolled in CCAMPIS received a median payment of $160 per month to cover child care costs that you might run into as a student — like daycare fees or hiring a sitter.

Many schools don’t advertise this program, so ask your school’s financial aid office if it’s available and how you can apply.

What can parents do to cut down on costs ahead of time?

The best way for parents to cut down on their children’s college costs is to start saving early. If you have a young child, consider setting aside funds in a 529 plan, which is sponsored by your state.

A 529 plan works like a retirement plan, only it’s for college funds. You don’t have to pay federal or state taxes on the money you put into the plan or withdraw for education expenses. You can also sometimes get a tax credit on your contributions, depending on which state you live in.

You can also set spending limits for how much you’re willing to pay for school before your child applies. This way, if it looks like a particular school is out of your budget, you can talk to your child about splitting college costs or looking into more affordable schools.

Bottom line

Going to college is expensive, but you don’t have to cover it all with student loans. You can cut down on how much you borrow for school by taking advantage of free financial aid, AP classes and employer-based assistance programs.

Learn more about how paying for school works by reading our guide to student loans.

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