The Mint Grad

College prep

4 ways to slash your tuition bill

Paying for college without student loans can seem nearly impossible. But borrowing money isn’t the only way to get your four-year degree. The following ideas can help you cut back on tuition expenses and minimize your student debt.

1. Explore tuition free colleges

Did you know that more than a dozen U.S. colleges charge little to no tuition at all?

They’re mostly small schools, such as Berea College in Kentucky; College of the Ozarks in Missouri; Pennsylvania’s elite Curtis Institute of Music; and the Webb Institute, an engineering school in New York.

Tuition-free institutions also include America’s five military academies: the U.S. Air Force Academy; the U.S. Coast Guard Academy; the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy; the U.S. Military Academy (West Point); and the U.S. Naval Academy.

So what’s the catch?

Most tuition free schools require you to work a modest 10 to 15 hours a week. If you go the military route, you may be expected to serve for the first five years after graduation.

All in all, that’s not a bad deal to save big bucks on college tuition.

2. Get in-state tuition for an out-of-state college

Tuition for out-of-state students can amount to two to five times the rate charged to in-state residents. But even if you attend an out-of-state school you can pay the lower, in-state rate paid by residents.

This option exists through regional exchange programs that hundreds of colleges participate in. (In some cases, you’ll pay a cost that’s above in-state tuition rate – but still far below what you’d normally fork over as an out-of-stater.)

Here’s how it works: In a nutshell, if you live in one of 47 U.S. states (excluding New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania), you can get a tuition break by going to a school in your general region, but out of your state.

For instance, The Western Undergraduate Exchange cuts costs for out-of-state students by capping their tuition at 150% of resident tuition. For example, if a student in-state pays $10,000 a year to attend a participating college, an out of stater would pay $15,000 instead of, say, $30,000.

Tuition bargains also abound through the Midwest Student Exchange, the New England Regional Student Program, as well as the South Regional Education Board, which runs the Academic Common Market.

3. Seek special tuition discounts and waivers

There are millions of dollars in scholarships and tuition discounts that go unclaimed each year. Schools may provide full or partial tuition waivers for a variety of reasons. You might qualify for a tuition discount or waiver based on your ethnicity, special talents, or your parents’ occupation, for example.

Be sure to ask your college about any tuition reductions they offer. Just because these discounts aren’t publicized doesn’t mean they don’t exist! Search online or check with your local library for resources like this one: http://www.collegescholarships.org/scholarships/subject-specific.htm.

One more thing, factor college application fees into your budget. At up to $50 each, these get expensive! If you’re truly interested in applying to a particular college, but can’t afford the application fee, don’t fret. If you meet certain economic criteria, the National Association for College Admission Counseling has a waiver application you can fill out to potentially eliminate your application fees at up to four colleges.

4. Use the FAFSA4caster and apply for financial aid early

If you’re heading to college or grad school, you can get a sense of how much financial aid you’re likely to qualify for by using the FAFSA4caster.

FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Filling out the FAFSA early or on time is crucial to maximizing your financial aid and lowering your out-of-pocket costs. No matter your family’s income, this is the form to fill out. Based on the information you provide FAFSA, you may receive financial aid in the form of government supported student loans, or grants (that you won’t need to pay back!). If you receive a grant to attend an institution, you can lower your tuition expenses without adding to your student debt. Applying for financial aid also makes you eligible for college work-study programs, which can further cut your need for loans.

It’s wise to complete the FAFSA as early as possible, preferably in January each year. After you enroll, continue submitting a FAFSA annually to receive financial aid for the next school year.

The power of planning ahead

As you can see, several valuable options and tools exist to help you slash tuition and make college more affordable. But lowering that tuition bill requires you to be proactive and diligent in your efforts to prepare for college, so plan ahead.

To recap what we’ve shared:

  • Know your budget and what your family can afford to put towards your education.
  • Decide what kind of school you’d like to attend. Do you prefer an in-state school, or an out-of-state college? Private or public?
  • Find out if your college offers additional tuition waivers, discounts or scholarships.
  • And finally, take advantage of the FAFSA4caster. This handy tool will give you a fairly reliable indication of how much financial aid you might receive, before you apply.

In the end, planning ahead to pay for college will pay itself off.