College can be expensive. According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees at a four-year private nonprofit institution for the 2022-2023 school year was $39,400.
While that number may inspire sticker shock, there are options for students looking to make college more affordable. Some cost-cutting strategies include taking AP classes in high school (which may allow you to skip some intro-level courses and reduce your tuition), starting out at a community college, living at home to save on room and board, and applying for a variety of scholarships. Read on for a closer look at these (plus other) ways to cut expenses and save money on college.
Ways to Make College More Economical
1. Take Advantage of AP Credits
Taking Advanced Placement credits in high school could cut down on the overall cost of college. Here’s how: If you take an AP course and get a 3 or higher on the AP exam, colleges may count that class towards the overall credit hours you need to graduate.
Some colleges may require students to score a 4 or a 5 on the exam in order to get credit. You can take a look at the requirements at different schools and for different courses on the College Board website.
The average cost of one credit hour at a public four-year college is $309 (the average cost per course is $926). The more credits you enter college with, the fewer total credits you typically have to pay for, and the quicker you can jump into more advanced courses. Early graduation is one way to make college more affordable.
Of course, not all schools accept all AP credits. Some ultra-competitive schools may not let you use AP courses to reduce the total number of credits you’ll need to graduate or to skip introductory level courses.
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2. Start Out at a Community College
Where you choose to go to college can have a big influence on the overall cost. Some students may consider starting their college journey at a community college and then transferring to a four-year college or university to finish their degree.
One of the financial benefits of community college is that courses can be significantly less expensive than at a four year college. According to the College Board, the average cost for tuition and fees for a student attending a two-year, in-district public college was $3,860 during the 2022-2023 school year.
3. Attend an In-State University or College
If community college isn’t the right fit for you, you might consider attending an in-state college or university. Typically, in-state tuition is more affordable than out-of-state tuition or tuition at a private college.
According to the College Board, the cost of tuition and fees for in-state tuition at a four-year public institution averaged $10,950 for the 2022-2023 school year. For out-of-state students, that rose to $28,240. However, that is still significantly less than the average cost of tuition and fees for private four-year universities, which was $39,400.
4. Look into Regional Tuition Exchange Programs
Students who are attending a school in a nearby state can look into tuition reciprocity programs to see if their school offers anything. Reciprocal tuition is when states offer students from a partner state in-state tuition. For example, Minnesota and Wisconsin have a tuition reciprocity agreement. This is one avenue that allows out-of-state students to pay in-state tuition.
5. Commute to School and Live at Home
Room and board is another major expense for students living away from home. If you are attending a school near your home, you could consider living with your family a bit longer. Living at home can help students save a significant amount of money on college.
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6. Live Off Campus
Living on-campus can have benefits like proximity to classes, friends, and extracurriculars. But on-campus living can be pricey. Depending on where your school is located and what the rental housing market is like, living off-campus may be less expensive than paying for on-campus housing.
Some schools might require first-year students, or even in some cases upper-classmen, to live on-campus. Others may not have these restrictions. Often, schools will publish information on what percentage of the study body lives on-campus vs. off-campus, which can help inform what popular living situations at that school are.
7. Apply for Financial Aid Early
Federal financial aid includes scholarships, grants, work-study, and federal student loans. Some aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so applying early could potentially help you qualify for more aid than if you had applied closer to the deadline.
To apply for federal financial aid, students are required to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) annually. Schools may also use the information provided on the FAFSA to determine scholarship awards.
8. Choose The Right Student Loan
There can be a lot to consider when picking a student loan. There are two broad categories of student loans — private and federal. Federal loans are awarded to students based on information in their FAFSA. Private student loans are borrowed from individual lenders, such as banks, credit unions, or other financial institutions.
When evaluating your financial aid package, make note of the type of federal student loans you are awarded. For undergraduates, there are two main federal loans: unsubsidized and subsidized loans.
On Direct Subsidized Loans, the federal government covers the interest that accrues while you are enrolled in school at least half-time and during the loan’s grace period. These are awarded based on financial need. While it can seem minor, not having to pay interest on the loan for four or so years can significantly reduce the total cost of the loan.
For a Direct Unsubsidized Loan, the borrower is responsible for paying all accrued interest. Financial need is not a factor in qualifying for a Direct Unsubsidized Loan.
If you are exploring private student loans as an option to pay for college, know that they don’t always offer the same options or borrower protections as federal student loans. Individual lenders can set their own rates and repayment terms, so be sure to read the fine print before borrowing. In general, private student loans are considered an option only after all other sources of funding, including federal student loans, have been evaluated.
While considering private student loans, it’s a good idea to look at a few different lenders to find the best rate and terms for your personal situation. When making lending decisions, lenders will generally evaluate a borrower’s (or their cosigner’s) credit score and history, among other factors.
💡 Quick Tip: Federal student loans carry an origination or processing fee (1.057% for Direct Subsididized and Unsubsidized loans first disbursed from Oct. 1, 2020, through Oct. 1, 2024). The fee is subtracted from your loan amount, which is why the amount disbursed is less than the amount you borrowed. That said, some private student loan lenders don’t charge an origination fee.
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9. Target Specific Scholarships
A scholarship is money awarded to students to help pay for school expenses, and it generally doesn’t need to be repaid. Because of this, applying for scholarships can go a long way in reducing the amount of money a student has to spend on college.
Scholarships can be awarded by the school, or by corporations, nonprofits or community organizations. Some scholarships are merit-based, while others may have non-academic criteria like a specific talent, heritage, gender, interest or field of study, or location.
There are websites, like FastWeb and Scholarships.com that aggregate information on scholarships and can make it easy to browse thousands of scholarships at a time and narrow them down to your specific interests. The application requirements may vary depending on the scholarship so be sure to read the application and expectations completely.
10. Spend Less on Textbooks
According to the Education Data Initiative, the average full-time undergraduate student at a four-year public university pays $1,226 for books and supplies in one academic year. Textbooks alone can cost over $100 each. While you may only use them for a few months, if they’re required by your professors it may be integral to passing your courses.
To save on textbooks, students have a few options. One is to buy a digital version of the book. Some textbook distributors offer e-versions of their books for a fraction of the price. Another way to save is to buy a used version of the textbook. Used books are often readily available at school bookstores or can be found online.
Some students may rent books. This is generally cheaper than buying a textbook, and when the class is done you can send the book back to the bookseller.
11. Opt Out of the Dining Plan
If you’re living off-campus and have a kitchen available to you, consider opting out of the meal plan offered by your school. These plans are often more expensive than buying and cooking your own food. Plus, if you are making your own meals, you have full control of what you eat.
Students who appreciate the convenience of the meal plan while living off-campus might opt for a less expensive plan. Schools generally offer different options for meal plans, such as unlimited plans and tiered plans based on meals per week.
There are options to save money when it comes to paying for college. Before you even get to college, you might consider taking AP classes, which could potentially allow you to skip some intro level courses (and save on tuition). Another key factor in college affordability is the school you choose to attend. Some students may choose to go to an in-state school with a more affordable tuition. Other students may find that, thanks to a generous financial aid package, one of their other choices may be more affordable than they originally imagined.
The type of student loans you borrow can also impact the overall cost of your education. Federal loans offer benefits and borrower protections like flexible income-driven repayment plans. Students who still have gaps in funding can also apply for private student loans. These loans may come with higher interest rates but allow you to borrow more (typically up to the full cost of attendance) than you can access with federal loans.
If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.
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