Paying for college is no small feat: Annual tuition and fees at ranked four-year colleges for 2021–2022 ranged from about $10,300 for in-state public schools to about $38,200 for private institutions, according to U.S. News data.
One of the first steps experts recommend to families concerned about how to pay for college is to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, called the FAFSA. Doing so opens doors to a range of financial aid options, including scholarships, grants and loans.
Most college admissions consultants recommend submitting as soon as the application opens.
“It’s a fairly well-known fact that the earlier after Oct. 1 the student applies, the better the chance that the colleges have more dollars to dole out,” says Jack Shinn, financial education specialist and president of New Jersey-based J Shinn & Associates.
For students who need to borrow to pay for college, experts suggest limiting borrowing to federal student loans rather than private loans, which generally have higher interest rates.
Here are some other options you may not yet have considered for easing the financial burden of attending college:
- 529 college savings plan
- Local scholarships
- Financial aid appeals
- No-loan schools
- Employer tuition assistance
- Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment credits
- Prior learning assessments
- ROTC programs
- Regional tuition exchange programs
529 College Savings Plan
Parent income and savings covered the largest portion of total college costs, about 45% or $11,800 on average, according Sallie Mae’s How America Pays For College 2021 study.
College 529 savings plans, which offer an opportunity for families to grow their savings tax-free as long as the money is spent on qualified educational expenses, were used to pay a greater percentage of college costs than other savings options like noncollege savings accounts and retirement accounts.
“A little more than a third of parents (37%) used a college savings account, like a 529, to help pay for college last year which is consistent with our data from 2019–20,” Rick Castellano, a Sallie Mae spokesperson, wrote in an email. “Although this number is holding steady, it still means around two-thirds of families are not utilizing these tax advantaged accounts.”
Colleges and universities may offer institutional scholarships, but students can also chip away at the cost of college further by taking advantage of local scholarships, which are typically offered by local organizations, nonprofits or places of worship.
These may not equate to large award amounts like some national scholarships do, but local scholarships are often much less competitive.
Some companies also give out scholarships to dependents of their employees.
Financial Aid Appeals
The FAFSA uses “prior prior year” information to determine a family’s financial need. For example, the 2022–2023 FAFSA uses 2020 federal tax returns. However, families who have had a recent change in their financial situation — like job loss, salary reduction or high dependent-care costs — can request a financial aid appeal, sometimes called a professional judgment, from a college.
“Colleges have to recognize extenuating circumstances and changing economic conditions,” Bob Collins, vice president of financial aid at Western Governors University in Utah, wrote in an email. “The coronavirus pandemic upended countless students and families’ personal finances and college financial aid departments across the country responded to a rise in professional judgment appeals.”
There are some schools, like Amherst College in Massachusetts or Stanford University in California, that aim to meet each student’s full demonstrated need without loans. That means financial aid comes in the form of scholarships, grants and work-study. These financial aid packages are sometimes limited to students from lower- or moderate-income households.
“I find that so many students spend a lot of bandwidth on outside scholarships when they should divert some of that attention to applying to schools who give good financial aid packages,” says Nat Smitobol, master college admissions counselor at Ivywise, a New York-based education consulting company.
Employer Tuition Assistance
Many students juggle additional responsibilities outside of earning a degree, including being a parent or working. But some companies, including a number of fast-food chains, offer tuition assistance to help employees afford a college degree.
Note that depending on the employer, the funding may be capped at a certain amount.
Advanced Placement and Dual-Enrollment Credits
High scores on Advanced Placement exams in high school can also 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, that don’t award credits. Instead, students with qualifying scores can place into higher-level courses.
Another option for high school students to earn college credit is through dual enrollment. These programs, often referred to as early college, allow students to earn credits for free or at a reduced cost at participating institutions, such as local community colleges.
Courses taught under dual enrollment are separate from students’ high school curriculum and may count toward dual credit — which allows students to earn both high school and college credit from the same course.
Prior Learning Assessments
Receiving credit is not limited to high school students. Prior learning assessments award credit for learning outside the traditional classroom, including through a portfolio assessment, evaluation of noncollege learning and standardized exams, like the College Level Examination Program. Administered by the College Board, CLEP exams are available in a range of topics, from foreign languages to American literature.
On average, adult students with credit for prior learning saved $1,481 at two-year public institutions, $3,794 at public four-year institutions and $10,220 at four-year private nonprofit institutions, according to a 2020 report from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.
The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or ROTC, offers a scholarship program that covers either tuition, fees and books, or room and board. These scholarships require a commitment of work in the U.S. military for at least eight years after graduation, and are available to high school applicants and students already enrolled in college.
Regional Tuition Exchange Programs
Public schools tend to be less expensive than private colleges before financial aid is applied, but there can be a significant difference between attending a public institution as an in-state and out-of-state student. Tuition and fees at ranked public colleges for in-state students averaged $10,338 in 2021–2022, according to U.S. News data. The cost for out-of-state students was more than double, averaging $22,698.
But 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 the Academic Common Market in the South.
Under the Western Undergraduate Exchange, for instance, students who apply to certain programs pay no more than 150% of the in-state tuition rate at participating institutions.
Read the full article by Emma Kerr and Sarah Wood here.