A college education has long been viewed as a pathway to personal growth and higher lifetime earnings, and for many graduates that may be true. But with tuition costs having climbed faster than the rate of inflation for most of the last two decades, it can also leave former students and their families with significant debt to repay—even those who hail from affluent homes.
According to researcher EducationData.org, the average federal student loan debt is $36,510 per borrower, with private student loan debt averaging nearly $55,000 per borrower. And 20 years after entering school, half of student borrowers still owe $20,000 each on outstanding loan balances.1
“To the extent that you can minimize your college debt at the undergraduate level, you should, which can set you up a little bit better for success,” said Karen McCarthy, senior policy analyst at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators in Washington, D.C. “That is especially true if you plan to pursue a graduate degree. Sometimes, students with very large undergraduate loans are shocked to find that there isn’t very much federal aid available at the graduate level, so it is best not to go into a lot of student debt.”
According to the College Board, tuition, fees, and room and board for full-time students averaged $27,330 for in-state residents at public four-year colleges and universities, $44,150 for nonresidents at a public four-year college, and $55,800 at private nonprofit four-year colleges for the 2021-2022 academic year.2
But most students received some form of grants, scholarships, or financial aid, bringing the average net cost (sticker price minus grant aid and tax benefits) of tuition, fees, and room and board down to $ $19,490 per year for 2020-2021.3 (Calculator: How much do I need to save for college?)
A few well-played strategies can slash that college price further still – perhaps by half or more.
1. Level down a college
Your college cost-cutting campaign will be most successful if you have what colleges want.
Solid students who take tough classes, get good grades, and excel in athletics or extracurricular activities are likely to get more merit aid, also known as non-need-based aid, if they are willing to “level down.”
“’A’ students look very good to schools that get mostly ‘B’ students,” said Francine Block, president of American College Admissions Consultants in Holland, Pennsylvania. “If you find that the top schools aren’t giving any merit money, look half a step down. These are still really good schools.” (Learn more: College tuition: Big changes for the FAFSA)
High-achieving students who opt for a less prestigious undergraduate school can often earn a degree for 50 percent less with the help of lower tuition fees and more generous scholarships and grants. The most sought-after college students could even get a full ride, the holy grail of financial aid in which tuition is fully covered.
And, as an added bonus, you have a better chance of graduating college with honors as a big fish in a smaller pond than you would if you attended a more selective school, which may better position you for success, said Block. (College shopping: Big fish or small pond?)
“You get to come out on top, and when graduate schools look at your application, you may have a higher grade point average than your peers at the elite private schools,” she said in an interview.
A 2018 study that reexamined the data from a widely referenced study in 2002 found no relationship between the level of college selectivity and long-term earnings. 4
2. Choose a zero-tuition school
If you really want to minimize your tuition fee — as in, not pay a dime — more than a dozen U.S. colleges now offer free tuition. Really.
Generally, you will still incur the cost of room and board, along with books and incidentals, and you may be required to work during the academic year, as some schools offering a degree for free want their students to have some skin in the game.
U.S. News & World Report provides a list of 15 tuition-free colleges, including Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Kentucky, College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Missouri, Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, North Carolina.
Many free-tuition schools, which include a mix of four- and two-year programs, are small and located in rural parts of the country.
Some cater to a specific major, like music or a double major in naval architecture and marine engineering, and a few are Bible-based. (Learn more: Alternatives for the non-college bound)
Additionally, some new colleges, particularly professional schools, offer free tuition to the first year’s incoming class to generate publicity, which is worth investigating the year you apply for college.
3. College study abroad
The number of American students who study abroad before graduating from college reached 341,751 in 2017-18, the most recent year for which data are available pre-pandemic, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators. But the vast majority spend only a semester or two abroad.5
To save some serious cash, you might want to consider packing your bags for all four years, said Block. Germany has famously abolished tuition fees for all higher education students, including those who hail from overseas, and some of the top schools in Great Britain are a relative bargain compared to their U.S.-based counterparts.
Undergraduate tuition at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, for example, ranged from roughly $23,100 to $30400 for international students in 2022-2023, depending on the major selected, while Oxford University tuition (not including room and board) ranges from $28,000 to $39,000. By comparison, domestic Ivy League Harvard University and the elite Stanford University both charge roughly $77,000 per year for tuition, fees, and room and board.
Canadian colleges, including McGill University and Concordia University in Montreal, also offer annual tuition for far less than many top private U.S. schools depending on the course of study, said Block.
“Going abroad can mean a substantial savings for international students,” she said, who noted she had several students at the University of St. Andrews, which draws roughly one-third of its students from America. (The prestigious Scottish school where Prince William and Princess Kate were introduced offers a joint degree with the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.)
Block cautions, however, that students who select an international school are generally restricted to the major they chose when they were initially accepted. You cannot change your mind as easily as you can in U.S. colleges.
“You also want to look at the dark side, meaning what will happen in four years after you graduate,” Block said. “Where are the kids who go there getting jobs? Are they getting into American graduate schools? Are they getting internships back in the U.S.? I tell families you have to look at the outcome four years from now because if you can’t get work, it is not really a savings.”
4. Start at a community college
You can also save a bundle by getting your first two years of college credits at a local community college and then transferring to a four-year institution, McCarthy said in an interview.
And many do. In the fall of 2022, the most recent year for which data are available, more than 40 percent of all undergraduate students in the U.S. were enrolled in community colleges, according to the College Board.6
The average annual published price for an in-district, two-year public community college is $3,800. That’s less than $8,000 for two years of college.
And since many students who attend community college live at home, they do not incur the additional expense of room and board.
To fairly compare out-of-pocket costs, however, you will need to factor in the cost of transportation to get you to and from campus, including a car, train, or bus.
The community college and transfer option, sometimes called the 2+2 plan, is a major money saver, but McCarthy cautions students to look before they leap.
“One warning I always provide with that option is that you want to make sure all the work you do at the community college will transfer to the four-year program” she said. “A lot of community colleges have guaranteed transfer agreements with local four-year institutions, which state exactly which classes you need to take so you do not lose any of the credits.”
Check with your community college and the four-year school you are planning to attend to research your options.
5. Take college level classes in high school
Motivated high school students can also often complete a semester or more of college ahead of time by taking Advanced Placement courses, offered by the College Board, and passing the exams.
The College Board, which administers the SAT exam, separately offers the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), accepted by more than 2,900 colleges and universities, which allows high school students to earn college credit for the knowledge they already have. Some 33 CLEP exams exist, which allow you to earn between three and 12 credits towards your college degree. To determine how many credits you might earn by passing a CLEP exam, check the policy at the college you plan to attend.
Students in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program also have access to college-level courses and some colleges will offer credit to those who score high enough on the exams or complete the IB diploma program.
It may also be possible while still in high school to take college classes during the day, evening, or weekend, which can help you graduate from college on time or early, perhaps the biggest savings of all.
The Running Start program, for example, is a dual credit enrollment program available to students in Washington, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Montana, and Illinois that provides up to two years of paid tuition. High school juniors who pass the entrance exam for a local community college may take part or all of their coursework at the community college. Those who pass the courses earn both high school and college credit.
Check with your school’s guidance counselor for information on what programs your school offers.
6. Pay in-state tuition
There is also much to be gained by getting in-state tuition rates, but that does not necessarily mean you have to attend a school in your own state.
Several states have reciprocity programs in place that allow eligible nonresidents to pay the equivalent of in-state tuition at their colleges and universities.
The New England Regional Student Program, for example, also called the Tuition Break program, enables residents of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island to enroll in an out-of-state New England public college or university at a discount if they select a major that is not offered in their home state. The average annual tuition savings per full-time student is $8,100 8,1.
Similarly, the Southern Regional Education Board’s Academic Common Market provides tuition discounts for college students in 15 southern states who pursue degrees not offered by their in-state institutions, while the Midwest Student Exchange Program offers discounts of its own.
Despite the rising cost of college tuition, it is still possible to earn a degree without driving yourself into debilitating debt.
As they explore their options for higher education. Block suggests students consider not just the price tag, but the setting. Will they feel comfortable living out of state or overseas? Do they prefer a smaller, more intimate campus or a large university feel? Does the college offer courses that will propel them on their career path, or position them for graduate school?
“Finding the right college really means finding the right fit for them,” said Block.
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This story was originally published in August 2016. It has been updated.