This story was originally published in our Paying for College 101 (PFC101) group. It has been edited for clarity and flow.
Do you want to avoid student loan debt and reduce the amount you need to take in student loans?
This is what I suggest:
1. Change your mindset.
If you have a high school student right now, resolve to deliberately forego applying to or visiting colleges that are going to be exorbitantly expensive for you. Shockingly, affordability IS NOT based on the advertised “sticker price” of any college.
There are colleges with sticker prices over $80,000 per year — that surprisingly end up almost-free for students who have a lot of financial need! [Warning: those colleges are very, very hard to get into, and they’re inundated with qualified applicants every year.]
The point is to rank the affordability of prospective colleges based on their “net price” cost — and then avoid applying to the ones that will have you in six-figure student loan debt over the next four to five years. Concentrate on colleges that will be closer to affordable in the first place.
2. Research college affordability before you visit or apply.
Vet potential colleges for affordability before you visit or apply by Googling the name of the college plus the words “net price calculator.”
You don’t have to enter your name or email unless you want to, then you confidentially fill in your information. Within minutes, an approximate cost for you to go to that college will appear on your screen.
Note: People at the same college pay wildly different costs for the exact same education.
Accept this. Because this is the truth.
Expect the net price calculator to ask for the student’s grades, test scores, family income and assets, and what state they’re from. This allows the net price calculator to take into account whether:
- you’ll get in-state or neighboring-state tuition discounts;
- your stats qualify for the college’s academic merit scholarships;
- your finances qualify for federal, state, or need-based scholarships/grants directly from colleges.
The remaining amount due after scholarships and grants will be the net price for you to attend. That’s how they determine what YOU will pay.
Right off the bat, I suggest you avoid applying to colleges that will require way, way more than a manageable amount of loan debt for you based on the net price calculator results.
What else can you do?
3. Standardized test scores can help reduce college costs.
Even if you have a rising senior, it’s not too late to increase their standardized test scores.
Devoting about 45 minutes a day to (free) Khan Academy test prep can make a significant difference. Like it or not, higher test scores mean more options for college-issued scholarships. And higher test scores can be had with test prep. (Barak Moore can expand on that far better than I can.)
That’s just the current reality of our system.
4. Dual Enrollment, IB, AP and CLEP credits reduce the cost of college.
Google the prospective colleges policies on whether they accept credits for the following: Dual enrollment, IB, AP and CLEP credit.
If the college accepts these, you can legitimately eliminate a year — maybe even two — off the cost of college. My favorite tip is getting credit for all your required 100 & 200 level courses via College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) for free. This can be done either before they enroll or during college, when they’re on break. Loading up on free credits can cut the cost of college in half at many colleges!
Modern States offers free, self-paced, asynchronous online courses to prepare for CLEP exams. Upon course completion, regardless of your financial need or lack thereof, through Modern States, students can get a voucher to take a free CLEP exam (online or in person). One of my students actually earned 24-college credits (for free) in one month over winter break last year. It was his Christmas gift to his parents that saved them the cost of a year of college!
These are the basic, actionable tactics I know to better afford college. Student loan interest rates are going up. Now, more than ever before, people are worried about getting in too deep with them. Even people who know they’ll need loans to afford any college at all are looking for ways to make sure those loans are as small as possible.
The Bottom Line
The keys to making college affordable are:
- college choice;
- increasing the student’s academic stats where you can so they qualify for higher scholarships; and
- doing what you can to reduce the number of credits they’ll need to complete their bachelor’s degree.
Lastly, community college can absolutely be a viable option for an associates degree. Just remember that after high school, once a student receives credits from a community college, they will no longer be eligible for the more generous first-year scholarships at 4-year colleges. And transfer student scholarships tend to be few and far between.
The loophole is getting college credits through CLEP, dual enrollment (DE) while still in high school, AP exam credit, or (IB). Or earning CLEP credits even once enrolled in college to speed up your degree progression.
Hope this helps!
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