Alternative Ways to Pay for College (And How to Make It Cheaper)

paying for collegeCollege is expensive, and a cocktail of scholarships, grants, federal loans and private loans is often the best way to alleviate the immediate financial burden of paying for an education. That said, there are some alternative ways to pay for college or cut down on the total cost. Here are a few excellent options to consider.

1. Choose community college.

Enrolling in a 4-year college or university right after high school can seem like the most expedient way to get a degree and enter the job market. But, according to research conducted by U.S. News and World Report, community colleges are much less expensive than 4-year colleges. In California, for example, full-time community college tuition costs about $1,100 per year, while full-time students in the University of California system pay $12,190 per year. Going to community college first and then transferring to a larger school down the line might save students a significant amount of money.

2. Explore the school’s fee structure, and look for ways to cut costs.

Some schools offer a flat-rate fee structure, which allows students to take a specific number of credits at no extra charge. Students enrolled in schools like this can save money by taking as many courses as possible during each semester of enrollment. This kind of course load can be stressful, of course, but that stress might be offset by savings in tuition, fees and living expenses.

3. Claim any tax credits available for tuition costs.

Tuition and other fees associated with the college experience might be eligible for tax relief through the American Opportunity Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit. There are eligibility requirements for these tax benefits, and students are typically required to choose just one benefit instead of applying for both, but they could have a big impact on a student’s costs. For example, according to the IRS, the Lifetime Learning Credit reduces the amount of taxes a student must pay. Rather than reducing a student’s taxable income, it reduces the amount of money owed. In some cases, it can take a student’s tax balance to zero. The money saved on taxes could easily be applied to next year’s tuition bill.

4. Understand expenses and their alternatives.

Students have choices, in terms of the costs involved with their day-to-day lives. Money-saving questions to research include:

Stringing together savings through day-to-day choices could be a smart and painless way to reduce a student’s overall education cost.

5. Find cheaper college textbooks.

While the campus bookstore is certainly convenient, it’s often expensive. Purchasing or renting books online, however, gives a student the ability to compare prices and find affordable alternates. By shopping online, students could reduce their expenses associated with books purchased, and they might even make a little money at the end of the term, if they use these same resources in order to sell their books.

6. Switch from credit to debit.

Both credit cards and debit cards are convenient, but debit cards don’t allow students to overspend. Debit card holders also don’t face fees associated with missing payments, and since they’re not borrowing huge sums of money, they might keep their credit scores high, which might make obtaining future loans easier and less expensive. Debt cards also don’t come with interest payments, providing students with a little more money they could use to cover the fees associated with tuition.

7. Work during the summer.

The more money a student earns, the less money that student needs to borrow. Employment can help a student to pay tuition fees, and seasonal work allows students to focus on their degrees during the school year while earning money for school in the summer. Jobs like this are easy to come by too, as many different industries rely on talented workers in the summertime, including restaurants, theme parks, hotels and national parks. Applying early, and behaving professionally in interviews, could translate into well-paying summertime jobs.

8. Utilize advance placement classes during high school.

High school courses that offer advanced placement content are difficult and time-consuming. But when the work is through, students can take tests that translate into college credits. Students could conceivably cut a whole semester or year off a college education if enough courses are taken and enough tests are passed, and that might result in a savings of thousands of dollars in tuition and fees. For example, an AP test for a student might cost $100 or so, and a great score might translate into 6, 12 or even more college credits. That’s a huge savings.

9. Apply for major-specific scholarships.

Many departments have scholarships that are totally separate from general admissions scholarships. Some are academic, some are need-based, and some are based on volunteer work. Students aren’t recruited for these programs; they must seek them out and apply for them. Students who do so might be rewarded with grants that cover some or even all of their tuition- and book-related fees.

10. Consider co-op programs instead of internships.

A co-op program usually requires a student to attend school for one semester and then complete full-time work the next semester in a related industry. It’s a bit like an internship, but co-op programs often come with financial aid packages that internships just can’t touch. For example, one expert writing for Forbes suggests that co-op programs can provide students with salaries in the $46,000 range. The salaries involved might vary dramatically from industry to industry, of course, but this example demonstrates just how much a student might stand to make by enrolling in a co-op program.

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