12 Killer Tips to Slay the College Debt Monster

One Hundred Dollar Bills

By MJ Plaster

To finance a college education today requires a paradigm shift. Parents and students have to work together to combine as many opportunities as possible to save money on college. If you have a teenager, you probably earned a significant portion of your tuition when you were in college. Today’s minimum-wage jobs hardly make a dent in the cost of a bachelor’s degree, but “easy money” has made student loans available to anyone who wants them—at a cost. If this isn’t what you have in mind for your child, keep reading because we’ll look at a combination of techniques to reduce the cost of a college education. Before we dive into cost-cutting measures, let’s look at the true cost of higher education.

The Sky-High Cost of College

Average annual costs for tuition and fees for the 2014–15 academic year published by CollegeBoard.org:

  • Public, two-year college (local) – $3,347
  • Public, four-year, in-state institution – $9,139
  • Public, four-year, out-of-state institution – $22,958
  • Private, nonprofit, four-year private institution – $31,231

Room and board runs an additional $7,700–$11,000 per year.

What Does a College Education Buy?

Not enough apparently: In a recent CNBC article, “Why Johnny can’t write, and why employers are mad,” we discover that some employers have to provide remedial education in basic communication skills to new hires. When high schools changed their focus from education to training, common sense, critical thinking and communication skills got lost in the shuffle. Coincidentally, those are the skills required to advance beyond an entry-level position in today’s workplace—with or without a degree.

Employers want competent employees they don’t have to train in the basics, not graduates with transcripts filled mostly with classed such as “Getting Dressed,” Princeton; “Philosophy and Star Trek,” Georgetown; and “Cyberporn and Society,” State University of New York at Buffalo.

12 Tips to Finance College Without Breaking the Bank

Pick and choose the tips that work for you. All roads lead to savings, and by combining them, you’ll stretch your college dollar further.

1. College credit for high school AP courses

Encourage your child to enroll in high school Advanced Placement (AP) classes. AP classes earn college credits and cover a broad range of topics.

2. Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA)

Whether you help your child apply for a loan, a grant or a scholarship, it all starts with filing a FASFA form. This financial statement enables the federal government to calculate the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) toward education for students who qualify for federal assistance.

3. Grants and scholarships

Combine need-based scholarships and grants such as the Pell grants, Hope scholarships, etc., with merit-based and nontraditional scholarships and grants to help finance the remaining tab. Start your search at CollegeScholarships.org. Apply for need-based opportunities even if you think you don’t qualify because the calculation formulas are obtuse and largely undecipherable.

4. Community colleges and fee waiver programs

Every state has a different name for their free, fee-waiver or means-tested community college programs. Type “free community college [your state]” into your favorite browser. Many states also have guaranteed acceptance into four-year schools upon completion of a two-year community college program. Again, the names vary, so search for “guaranteed acceptance to four-year college [your state].”

5. Online courses

Many colleges and universities offer online courses, which eliminate room and board and/or reduce commuter costs. Some offer degree courses entirely online. I have a friend who is earning a Ph.D. through distance learning.

6. In-state tuition for out-of-state colleges

States have formed regional alliances to offer in-state tuition to neighboring states. Qualifications vary widely; learn more by visiting your regional alliance:

7. FREE college

Check out Time magazine’s article on 22 free college opportunities. Some of the schools require students to work for their room and board, some offer mean-tested free admissions to students who qualify academically, and some offer free tuition for talented students.

8. MOOCs

There’s a new sheriff in town, and her name is MOOC (short for Massive Online Open Courses). These courses are the same ones taught in the most hallowed halls across the globe, but MOOCs do not offer traditional degrees. Classes are taught as self-paced eLearning or as interactive experiences. MOOCs are offered in most areas of study including science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) courses. The most popular MOOCs offering bona fide college-level courses include:

View a comprehensive list of MOOC sites at Top5OnlineColleges.org, and combine this tip with the next one.

9. Tests for college credits

For a small fee per test, students can rack up more college credits by taking CLEP and DSST exams. Some students eliminate two years from their four-year degree programs. Before students take a CLEP or DSST exam, they must ensure their college or university grants credit for the test. Ask the admissions office what additional tests the college or university offers.

10. Internship programs

Earn a stipend and/or college credits for internships. Search for “paid internships programs” “college credit internship programs” to find internship portals on the Internet. Even more important, internships provide an easier entrée into a job right after graduation due to the experience gained.

11. Tax deductions and tax credits

Tax deductions reduce taxable income, and tax credits reduce the amount of taxes paid on net income (gross income minus deductions). Alltuition.com explains the options in plain English.

12. Military service

Military members and veterans are eligible for a host of military education benefits.

Need More Help?

Between AP classes, MOOCs, CLEP, DSST, state programs, waivers and community college, no one earning a bachelor’s degree should have to pay for more than two years of an undergraduate degree. Grants and scholarships can chisel away more of the expense, leaving student loans as a last resort rather than the first, easy option. Edvisors.com can walk you through myriad options for college financial planning.

If you can’t finance a college education outright, you can reduce the cost of student loans by combining the techniques above. Further, free eLearning is opening doors that were once closed to those without a degree. Nothing lasts forever, so take advantage of these tips while the getting’s good.