How to Afford College: 5 Tips from a Professor

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​If you hadn’t noticed, I write a lot about budgeting, financial aid and paying for college​. There’s a good reason for that. Poll after poll shows that cost is the biggest college worry for both students and parents.

That wasn’t always the case. If you look at polls from 10-15 years ago, you’ll see that ​picking a major ​or not getting into their first choice school were the primary concerns of students. But the Great Recession changed all that; it changed a lot of things.

If there’s an upside here, it’s that students and parents now seem to be on the same page about college costs. Everyone wants a good education at an affordable price with little to no student loan debt. But what does “affordable” mean? And how can you make college more affordable?

If you’re wondering how to afford college, this post has five helpful tips for you. Some of these tips can reduce the amount of money you spend on college. Some tips increase your chances of getting more financial aid. And the last tip can help you determine what affordable means for you and your family.

Lots of students arrive on campus without having selected a major; they’re undeclared, in academic lingo. These students plan to take classes for a year or two, then choose a field of study. This is one of the reasons it took me more than six years to finish a four-year degree. I speak from experience: if you’re wondering how to afford college, choosing your major ​early should be at the top of your to-do list.

Aside from possibly spending extra time in college, there are two other good reasons to choose your major early. First, knowing what you want to major in makes it much easier to research colleges. Second, declaring your major early could lead to more financial aid in the form of major-based scholarships. 

​Researching and choosing a college

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The college application process is overwhelming for many students and families. There are so many schools and so much information to sift through when researching colleges. If you already know what you want to study, you can quickly eliminate colleges that don’t offer your ​major.

Once you’ve ​found colleges that offer your degree, you need to spend a lot of time evaluating the ​quality of the programs at each school. Despite what college marketers want you to believe, the reputation of your degree program matters much more than the reputation of your college overall. 

​Despite what college marketers want you to believe, the reputation of your degree program matters much more than the reputation of the college overall. Look for colleges ​that have a stron​g program in your major.

Look for colleges that have a strong program in your major. Find out how many students have recently graduated from the program. A low number of graduates usually means the program isn’t healthy and ​probably doesn’t ​get much support from the university. You should also ask about employment among recent grads. A quality program will be able to tell you how many graduates are employed in jobs related to their major. 

Finally, a strong program provides financial support for its students. This could include hiring students to work in ​the department or having a strong internship program. Departments should also offer awards and scholarships for majors. A lack of these things indicates the department doesn’t invest in the academic and professional development of its students, so you should stay far away. 

​Major-based scholarships

If you’re looking for money for college, you’re ​likely researching and applying for scholarships. You’ve probably noticed, then, that lots of scholarships are for students in specific majors. If you haven’t declared your major yet, you’ll be shut out of applying for these scholarships. Without scholarship money, you could end up taking on more student loan debt to pay for school. 

It’s not just private organizations that offer major-based scholarships; most universities offer scholarships based on major too. These scholarships are typically open to juniors and seniors, but some scholarships are open to incoming freshmen. If you haven’t selected a major prior to arriving on campus, you’ll be shut out of these scholarship competitions as well. 

If you’re truly worried about how to afford college, declaring your major early and applying for major-based scholarships should be a big part of your college planning. 

​Tip #2: Earn Free College Credits

These days, many students are earning college credit before they even finish high school. Others earn free (or nearly free) credits through their local community college. The most common ways to earn free or cheap college credits are AP/CLEP exams, concurrent enrollment programs and free community college programs. 

​AP/CLEP exams

Back when Prudent Prof was in high school, Advanced Placement (AP) and College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests were really the only way for high school students to earn college credit. Today, most schools offer a variety of AP classes. Completing these courses and passing the exams can help students earn college credits for free or almost free. If your high school offers AP classes, you should consider taking some of them. 

​How many AP classes should you take?

There’s a lot of debate about the role of AP classes in college admissions. Most schools accept AP credit, but policies vary. Some schools ​give credit for an AP score of 3, while others require ​a score of 4 or even a 5 (the highest score possible). Schools may accept AP credit for some classes and not others. And ​most schools cap the amount of AP credit a student can receive, usually between 12 and 24 credits. 

You need to consider all of that when deciding which and how many AP classes to take. This is another reason to decide your major and start researching colleges early. You can call and ask the financial aid office or an academic adviser each school’s policy on AP credits. If a school won’t accept the credits you’ve worked hard to earn, you should probably mark it off your list. 

There are benefits to taking AP courses beyond earning college credit. Colleges place more value on high grades in AP classes when deciding which students to admit. Scholarship committees like to see AP credits on transcripts too. But if your primary concern is how to afford college, you need to make sure the AP credits you earn will be accepted by your ​university. 

​Concurrent enrollment programs

Concurrent enrollment programs allow high school students to take college courses while they’re still in high school. These programs are usually offered by local community colleges and universities. Some programs require students to travel to campus, while others bring college teachers into high schools. 

An amazing benefit of concurrent enrollment programs is that theyre often free for students. Students aren’t charged tuition for the college classes and textbooks are often supplied free of charge to students as well. 

Unlike AP credits, students ​generally don’t have to worry about colleges not accepting their concurrent enrollment credits. Community colleges and public universities in each state usually have agreements that require them to accept each other’s credits. ​If you ​participate in a concurrent enrollment program in high school and then ​attend one of your state universities, your credits should automatically transfer. 

​Free community college programs

Another increasingly popular way for students to earn low cost college credits is through free community college programs. These programs ​aren’t often open to high schoolers, so many students attend a community college before transferring to a university. 

There are many free community college programs around the country. Some are only open to full-time students, while others allow part-time students as well. These programs are covered under the same agreements as concurrent enrollment programs, so your community college credits should count if you transfer to a state university. 

If you’re concerned about how to afford college and are considering a free community college program, be sure you understand how the program works. All have minimum GPA requirements and most have residency requirements too. These programs can reduce the cost of college, but if the program doesn’t fully cover your expenses, you could still ​incur student loan debt. You’ll need to decide if community college is really the right choice for you. 

​Tip #3: Go to an In-State College

Families planning for college usually know that out-of-state schools are more expensive than in-state schools, but I’m not sure they realize exactly how much more expensive out-of-state schools are. 

For example, the major public university in my state charges in-state undergraduates $294 per credit hour in tuition and fees. Out-of-state students pay $806 per credit hour, a difference of over $500. And those numbers aren’t unusual: out-of-state tuition is often two ​to three times higher than the in-state rate. 

Another possible advantage of in-state schools, at least for some students, is that they may be able to live at home while attending college. One of my top tips for saving money in college, living at home can shave tens of thousands of dollars off the cost of your education. For example, at the school mentioned above, on-campus housing costs around $12,000 a year. That amounts to nearly $50,000, if a student completes their degree in four years.  

If you’re a parent or student thinking about how to afford college, you should direct your focus towards in-state schools. Even if you can’t live at home during college, in-state schools will still be much cheaper than out-of-state schools. In-state schools will likely accept any transfer credits you might have from a concurrent enrollment or free tuition program too. Out-of-state schools don’t have to accept your credits, which means you could be takin​g, and paying for, the same classes again. That said, there are some ways to get good deals at out-of-state colleges. 

​Tip #4: Use a Regional Education Exchange

Regional education exchanges are agreements between states to let out-of-state students attend college at reduced tuition prices. There are four regional education exchanges in the United States, and nearly all states participate in at least one exchange. The catch here is that exchanges are usually open only to students who cant find their degree program within their home state. 

For instance, students in the Academic Common Market, the exchange that covers much of the southern United States, can only attend an out-of-state school if the degree program they desire isn’t offered at any school in their home state. If a school in their home state offers the degree, the student isn’t eligible for the Academic Common Market, even if they applied to and were rejected by that school.  

Students who use the Academic Common Market get a great deal: they’re charged the in-state tuition rate at their out-of-state school. Paying the in-state rate will save the student tens of thousands of dollars on the cost of their degree. 

Since participation in most regional education exchanges are based on major, this is another excellent reason to choose your major prior to finishing high school. If you want a degree not offered by a college in your home state and are wondering how to afford college out-of-state, a regional education exchange may be the answer for you. 

​Tip #5: Make a College Budget

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There are lots of good reasons to have a budget for college. Having a college budget helps you choose an affordable school. But it’s hard to determine ​whether a school is affordable if you don’t know how much college costs ​or how much money you have for college​.

Honestly, determining how to afford college is the same process as determining how to afford any other big purchase. First, take stock of your resources, which in this case includes any money you’ve saved toward college plus any scholarships and financial aid. Second, decide how to use your resources in the most efficient and beneficial way. 

Yet families who budget for major purchases like homes and cars rarely sit down and make a ​budget for college. I admit, it’s harder to budget for college because there are a lot of unknowns. ​If you can get even a ballpark idea of how much money you have for college, you can quickly determine which schools are in your price range 

Choosing an affordable college, one that fits within your budget, is one of the best decisions you can make. You won’t have to deal with sticker shock when the first tuition bill arrives and don’t have to worry about taking on excess student loan debt. I write about this topic a lot, but I honestly believe families would feel calmer and more confident about their college choices if those choices were grounded in a solid budget. 

​Are you worried about how to afford college? Have any tips of your own to share? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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