Bringing Down the Cost of College (Part 1)

Preparing a college list that includes “highly likely,” “50/50”and “reach” schools is not enough. Students need to think beyond their chances of admission and include at least one financial safety school that the family can comfortably afford. The thrill of being accepted will quickly fade if attending that college means having to take out big loans.

The Ivies and other elite schools provide generous financial aid to students from low and middle income households, so that students attending these colleges should not graduate with huge debt. But most colleges don’t have the financial resources to offer that kind of aid, and families need to start thinking early about what they will pay for college.

Parents are often surprised, and not in a good way, when they learn their Estimated Family Contribution (EFC), which is the amount of money they are expected to pay toward their child’s education. The number, based on information about income and assets provided in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), is usually higher than expected. Sometimes the government determines that the family can pay the full cost of college, so there will be no need-based aid available. Rather than waiting until October of senior year, when you can complete the FAFSA, get an early estimate of your qualification for federal financial aid now at FAFSA4caster while there is still time to revise your senior’s college list.

But even if you don’t qualify for need-based aid, there are ways to bring down the cost of college.  The most economical approach is to start at community college and then transfer to a four year college.  You end up with the same degree as someone starting at the four year school, for much less money.  Of course for the first two years you sacrifice the traditional college experience by living at home and attending community college.

Even if you want to go straight into a four year college after high school, you might consider taking community college courses before you graduate from high school. Students who have taken AP or community college classes while in high school may accumulate enough credits to graduate from college a semester or year early at some schools, saving thousands of dollars in tuition.

Another relatively low cost route is choosing a local public college or university.  In-state tuition is lower than private college tuition and usually lower than paying out of state tuition at a public university in another state.

For students who are determined to go out of state, some public colleges offer reasonable tuition for nonresident students. While University of Michigan charges more than $45,000 tuition, highly regarded University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which also offers strong academics, big sports and a great college town, is under $35,000 a year for out of state students. You can get an even better deal at the University of Kansas, where Compact Tuition compact allows nonresidents to lock in a $29,000 tuition rate for four years. For the “B” student who wants a nice college town, big sports and school spirit, KU could be a great choice. If you want to wear shorts to class in January, you will find tuition at about $27,000 at Arizona State University.  The less competitive universities also offer scholarships, which can bring the costs down even more.

But you have to look beyond tuition in determining the cost of a college education. Budget cuts mean that students attending public universities in some states may find bigger classes, fewer courses offered, longer waits for advising appointments, and difficulty getting into classes. If it takes five years to graduate, the cost of a degree is higher than you might think, especially when you consider the lost wages a student could be earning during that fifth year.

Students who have clear educational/career goals can save money and time in a combined degree program. Some schools offer accelerated BA/MD programs, where students begin medical school after three years of undergraduate work.  Aspiring attorneys might be interested in the six year BA/JD programs offered by a number of schools.

But even if you’re not headed for medical or law school, there are ways to lower the cost of an advanced degree. Clark University offers a free fifth year, so students can earn a Master’s degree without having to pay more tuition. Wesleyan’s B.A./M.A. Program in the Sciences also includes a tuition free fifth year for students who want an intensive research experience. Other colleges have programs that allow students to apply some undergraduate work toward a Master’s degree, so that even though they have to pay a fifth year of tuition, they graduate with both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in less time than it would typically take to earn these degrees separately.

These are just a few ways to bring down the cost of college.  More to come next week.

Success Stories

  • Thadine H., Whittier
    "Audrey, I have been telling other parents of how helpful you were to Bill’s success. You really made this whole college application process so easy for him and us. It was great to have someone for him to go to. We are just so happy for him. Thank you again for all your help."
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