12 Ways to Save Money on College (and Maybe Get a Free Education)

You don't have to dole out big bucks or go broke to fund your child's education

by Nancy Reynolds

This post: 12 Ways to Save Money on College (and Maybe Get a Free Education)

Written by: College Ready Staff

If you’re in “sticker shock” at the sheer cost of putting your child through college, you’re not alone. According to recent statistics, over the past decade, average tuition, fees, and room and board costs have increased 11% at public colleges and 14% at private colleges. 

But experts agree that despite the high cost of education, you don’t have to dole out huge bucks for college or go broke in the process. With a little planning, you can save money on college and possibly even help your child get a free ride. 

12 Ways to Save Money on College (and Maybe Get a Free Education)


1. Complete the FAFSA

One of the most important “first steps” experts recommend to families concerned about paying for college is to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Doing so can open doors to a range of financial aid options, including scholarships, grants and loans. Need tips on how to complete the FAFSA? Check out this article: Completing the FAFSA: Everything You Should Know

2. Focus on a Strong GPA

Once your child hits high school, every grade really does matter. The final GPA they submit on college applications can not only make the difference between being accepted or rejected, it can also impact their cost of education.

Colleges are always looking for the brightest and best students and oftentimes, they’re willing to “lure” them in by offering strong incentives, scholarships, and sometimes, even a full ride to their institution.

3. Score Well on Standardized Tests

While more colleges are now becoming SAT/ACT optional, many colleges still put credence in these scores and use them as a benchmark when accepting applicants and awarding merit scholarships. Even the PSAT (the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) isn’t merely a trial run. In fact, PSAT scores are used to identify National Merit Scholars and award merit scholarships. So, while your child shouldn’t stress out about the PSAT, they shouldn’t ignore it either. Scoring well can open many doors, including winning significant scholarship money. Here’s a list of test-optional colleges!

4. Take Dual Enrollment or AP Classes

The beauty of dual enrollment classes is that they allow high school students to take college classes while they’re still attending high school. These classes count for both high school and college credit. Accelerated Placement (AP) classes are great, too. Depending on whether a student scores a three or better on the final AP exam, they will have the opportunity to take fewer classes in college and save money on overall college costs.

5. Search Out Colleges that Offer Strong Merit Scholarships

There are many colleges that offer substantial merit scholarships to attract bright students. Scholarships can range from a few thousand dollars up to full tuition, room, and board. It’s important to know that landing a merit scholarship isn’t easy. The process can be competitive requiring students to write an essay and perhaps go through an interview process.

Typically,  private colleges offer larger merit scholarships because they can. Many also have a strong alumni association that donates millions of dollars to help the college attract strong students. Quite often, less selective schools offer great merit scholarships as well in order to appeal to the top students.

6. Graduate in Four Years (or Less)

The vast majority of American college students do not graduate within four years. Every additional year it takes your student to graduate from a public four-year college (for instance) will cost an average of $22,826. That’s why, when applying to colleges, it’s important to know the college’s graduation rate. (There are also accelerated college programs with majors that will allow your child to graduate in three years.)

7. Look for Colleges that Offer Special Pricing for Out-of-State Students

Many colleges and universities offer special pricing for out-of-state students in hopes of attracting students from diverse backgrounds. Some will offer in-state tuition to out-of-state students or reduce the cost in other ways. Out-of-state colleges also tend to be quite generous when it comes to GPA and standardized test merit scholarships so encourage your child to think outside the box and cast a wide net when applying to colleges. 

8. Look for Private Schools that Meet 100% Financial Need

One of the most important questions you and your child will ask yourselves is whether your child’s college(s) of choice are affordable for your family. Your child might be fortunate enough to receive a generous scholarship, but there certainly aren’t any guarantees. The good news is, some schools are committed to making sure all admitted students can afford to attend regardless of whether they are scholarship recipients or not. Check out this list of colleges that provide 100% of their students’ demonstrated financial needs. 75 Colleges that Meet Full Financial Need

9. Commute to College

The cost of living at college is expensive. Living on campus (which is an expense above and beyond tuition) can range from $8,000 to $15,000 per year. To save big bucks, look for colleges your child can commute to. To make life easier, they can schedule all their classes three or four days a week to cut down on travel time. Another money-saving option is to take online classes. While online classes won’t offer the “full college experience,” it’s a great way to get a college education without breaking the bank.

10. Look for Alternative Housing

As far as college expenses go, tuition is only a portion of the expense. Room and board can tack on another huge expense depending on which route your child takes. Every college and university offers more than a few dorm options, many of which will vary in price depending on how new the building is, where it’s located on campus and the amenities it offers, so be sure to do your homework.

Also, while apartment living could end up costing more than a dorm, your child can reduce that expense substantially by splitting the cost with roommates. 

11. Take Classes at a Community College During Summer or Winter Break

When your student is home for the winter break or summer, consider having them sign up to take a couple of classes at the local community college. Not only will they be able to knock out a few classes at a reduced price, it will also help them graduate on time. Some students also opt to attend community college for the first year or two of their education and then transfer to a four-year college to save money. Remember, it’s not where your child starts, it’s where they finish!

12. Get a Part-Time Job in College

Working part-time in college may not be for every student, but for those that do it can help pay for personal expenses, supplement the cost of financial aid and, of course, help them gain valuable work experience. The Federal Work-Study program provides part-time jobs for undergraduate and graduate students with financial need, allowing them to earn money to offset the cost of college expenses.

Some colleges even offer reduced tuition for students who work as a teacher assistant at the university. Or, you may want to consider committing to one of the nation’s military academies or military colleges where you can attend college for free.

Don’t allow the cost of college to sneak up on you. Make your child’s education part of your financial long-term plan and have your child start taking important steps early to reduce the cost of their higher education. With enough pre-planning, there are plenty of very doable ways to save money on college!

About College Ready:

College Ready helps students get into their best-fit college AND graduate debt free. Going to college for free isn’t easy, but it is possible. Take this quiz to see if your teen is College Ready: https://collegereadyplan.com/quiz/ or learn more at www.collegereadyplan.com

If you enjoyed reading, “12 Ways to Save Money on College (and Maybe Get a Free Education),” check out these other college-related posts!

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