10 strategic ways to pay less for college

Graduates pose for a photo as they line up for the Baruch College Commencement Exercise at the Barclay's Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York City
Brendan McDermid | Reuters

Families Should Explore Ways to Curb College Costs 

Tuition and fees at four-year colleges range on average from more than $9,000 to attend a public institution as an in-state student to nearly $35,000 to attend a private institution. That's a hefty sum for most families and students to pay. While scholarships are one way to tackle college costs, there are a few other strategies families can use to lower their financial burden. Here are 10 ways to reduce college expenditures.

1. Apply for Financial Aid

Most college admissions consultants advise families to apply for financial aid early and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid as soon as the form is available on Oct. 1. While this application is used to determine federal student aid, many colleges and universities use the FAFSA to allocate need-based awards. "It's a fairly well-known fact that the earlier after October 1 the student applies, the better the chance that colleges have more dollars to dole out," says Jack Shinn, a financial advisor and the president of New Jersey-based J Shinn & Associates.

2. Take Advanced Placement Courses

High scores on Advanced Placement, or AP, exams can help students and their families save on college tuition. Many schools will award course credits based on Ap scores, but there are a few schools, such as Brown University in Rhode Island and Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, that don't award credits. "Depending on the college and the score, it may waive a general education course or count as elective credit," says Christopher Lee, a career consultant and the founder of PurposeRedeemed, a leadership-coaching organization.

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3. Use Dual Enrollment Courses

Dual enrollment programs enable high school students to earn college credits for courses at participating institutions, such as local community colleges. These programs, often referred to as early college, allow students to earn credits for free or at a reduced cost. Courses taught under dual enrollment are separate from student' high school curriculum and may count toward dual credit – which allows students to earn both high school and college credit from the same course.

4. Test out of College Classes

College admissions experts say the College Level Examination Program, known as CLEP, is another way for students to earn college credits. Administered by the College Board, student can take CLEP exams on a range of topics, from foreign languages – such as French and German – to American literature. "High school students, college students or anyone for that matter can prepare for these exams on their own, take and pass the exam within a designated discipline, and qualify for exemption from that class," says Paula Dofat, director of college counseling at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women.

5. Take Advantage of the Tuition Tax Deduction

Families who qualify can use the Tuition and Feed Deduction on their federal taxes. This deduction, renewed by Congress in February 2018, allows taxpayers to deduct qualified education expenses, such as tuition and fees. Under the deduction, taxpayers can reduce their taxable income by up to $4,000.

6. Use Federal Student Loans

For students who need to borrow to pay for college, experts say to limit borrowing to federal Stafford loans. One advantage of the Stafford loan, besides certain borrower protections, is a low, fixed interest rate. Undergraduates who took out a federal student loan during the 2017-2018 school year borrowed at a 3.76 percent interest rate. Experts say private higher education loans tend to have higher interest rates because these loans are considered risky to the lender.

7. Apply Strategically to Colleges

Experts say attending an in-state public college is most likely the least expensive option. But there are some selective schools that offset expensive sticker prices with generous financial aid packages. Princeton University, for example, tops U.S. News' Best Value Schools. This ranking takes into account academic quality and the net cost of attendance for a student who received the average level of need-based financial aid. While the New Jersey university charged more than $47,000 in tuition and fees for the 2017-2018 year, the school provided need-based financial aid to 60 percent of freshman in the 2016-2017 year. The typical cost after grants at Princeton for that year: $16,793.

8. Negotiate Financial Aid Awards

The process of appealing an award is known as a professional judgment review. Families affected by a special circumstance, such as job loss, salary reduction or high dependent care costs, may qualify for reconciliation. To be successful with an appeal, experts say families need to demonstrate there's been a significant change in their financial circumstances since they submitted their financial aid application.

9. Consider Regional Tuition Exchange Programs

Regional tuition exchange programs allow students to qualify for tuition at a reduced rate as an out-of-state student. Each state belongs to a regional program, such as the Western Undergraduate Exchange, the Midwest Student Exchange Program, the New England Regional Student Program and Academic Common Market in the South. Under the Western Undergraduate Exchange, for instance, students who apply to certain programs pay up to 150 percent of the in-state tuition rate at participating institutions.

10. Make a Plan to Graduate Within Four Years

College students should plan to take 15 credits a semester to graduate within four years, experts say. While taking 12 hours a semester is considered full time at many institutions, it's not enough in most cases to complete a bachelor's degree on time. Mark Kantrowitz, a college admissions and financial aid expert, advises college-bound students to "plan from matriculation to graduation, so you know which class you need to take when."

More About Paying for College...

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