Money Matters: How Do I Cut College Costs?

Learn how your family can save on tuition.

Dear Miss Money Matters,

My daughter will be a high school freshman in the fall. I know college for her still is several years away, but I want to know what steps she, her mother and I can be taking now to keep down the cost of her college education. Are there things she can do in high school to increase her chances of getting scholarships? Can she get college credit for any high school classes? What moves should we make?

– Alex, Kentucky

Dear Alex,

Given how expensive college is, it’s no surprise that you’re looking for ways to keep down the cost. The average in-state tuition, fees and room and board for a public university for the 2017-2018 school year was $20,770, and the average out-of-state tuition, fees, room and board was $36,420, according to the College Board. The average total cost for a private school was — brace yourself — $46,950.

Fortunately, it is possible to pay less — much less — for a college education. I reached out to two people who have proven strategies for cutting college costs to share their tips. Mike McGrath, vice president of EP Wealth Advisors in California, has three (out of a total of five) kids in college now. And Kristina Ellis, author of “How to Graduate Debt Free,” won enough scholarships to pay for her entire education at Vanderbilt University.

Click to read more about what it costs to attend the most beautiful colleges in America.

Have a Plan

The sooner you start planning for your child’s college education, the better. By the time your kids are in junior high or high school, you should be figuring out what your family can afford to pay for college, McGrath said.

“Our goal was to average $6,000 a year per kid,” he said. They shared their budget with their kids so they wouldn’t have any inflated expectations about what sort of school they could attend. And having a frank conversation with their kids about what they could afford was the first step in developing a strategy to keep down college costs.

Set Yourself up for Scholarships

You don’t have to be a star athlete or valedictorian to win scholarships, but you do need to start building your resume early in high school to increase your chances of getting free money for college, Ellis said. That’s what Ellis did starting her freshman year because her mom told her she couldn’t afford to pay for her college education. Her hard work paid off because she received $500,000-worth in scholarships.

Ellis recommends taking challenging courses in school, getting involved in a variety of extracurricular activities and doing volunteer work in the community. “You want to show you’re well-rounded and can balance multiple commitments,” she said. Take on leadership roles — which doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be the class president. You could create your own leadership opportunities, such as starting a book club with other students, she said.

You can search for scholarships on websites such as Scholly, Scholarships.com and Unigo. Ellis also recommends talking with your high school counselor about local organizations that offer scholarships. Check with the colleges you want to attend to find out if they have scholarships. Or simply search online using terms unique to you and the word “scholarships.”

More on Paying for School: The Best College in Every State for Under $20,000 a Year

Take College Courses for Dual Credit in High School

Rather than take advanced placement courses in high school in hopes of scoring high enough on AP exams to get college credit, McGrath’s kids actually took college courses when in high school for dual credit. That means they got both high school and college credit.

In California where the McGraths live, the community college courses they took were free because they were in high school. Even in states where universities and community colleges charge high school students for dual credit courses, the cost is a fraction of what college students pay. In addition to the cost savings, McGrath said taking college classes while in high school made his kids better prepared for college when they enrolled.

Get College Credit With CLEP Exams

McGrath’s kids also got college credit before actually enrolling in college by taking advantage of the College Board’s College-Level Examination Program. This program lets students take exams for courses for less than $100¬†without having to actually take the course. If you score well enough on a CLEP exam, you can earn college credit.

About 2,900 colleges and universities accept CLEP exams. You can visit the CLEP website to learn more about the program.

Understand the Financial Aid Process

You might be able to get help paying for college with need-based financial aid. Unfortunately, a lot of families assume they don’t qualify, so they don’t bother applying, Ellis said.

But she recommends learning about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid¬†(FAFSA) to find out what you need to do to qualify for aid. Understanding the process well before you plan to fill out a FAFSA can help increase your chances of getting money for college, Ellis said. She recommends reading “Filing the FAFSA: The Edvisors Guide to Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid,” which can be downloaded for free from Edvisors.

Pick the Right School

Finally, one of the best ways to keep down the cost of college is to pick the right school, Ellis said. Your decision should be based on finances, not how popular or prestigious a school is.

For example, find out what the four-year completion rate is at schools you’re considering. If a large percentage of students don’t graduate within four years, you might not want to chance going to a school where you’ll have to pay for five or six years. Also consider the return on investment, or ROI, a school offers. PayScale has a ranking of schools based on ROI — the cost of the school versus the average debt students graduate with and average earnings of graduates over a 20-year period.

Click through to read more about creative ways to pay for college.

Life + Money columnist Cameron Huddleston answers your money questions, drawing from her more than 15 years of experience as a personal finance journalist, as well as advice from financial experts. If you have money questions, send them to moneymatters@gobankingrates.com with the subject line Dear Miss Money Matters.