Sarah Good TeenLife.com
This article appears in College Prep 2019.
It can be fun to daydream about college: the ivy-draped campus, making new friends in the dorm, long intellectual discussions with like-minded classmates. Thinking about paying for it all, however, is far less fun.
For the 2018-19 school year, the average cost for an in-state student at a four-year public college was $9,716, according to U.S. News & World Report. Want to attend a private school? The average price tag skyrockets to more than $35,600. And the numbers keep inching up every year.
So what are educationally ambitious students — and their parents — to do? Fear not: You have options beyond buying a lottery ticket and crossing your fingers. Here are some of our favorite strategies to get that final college bill down to a manageable number.
1. Let’s make a deal
Sure, you can negotiate with car dealers and flea market vendors, but colleges? Absolutely. Many colleges are willing to do a little haggling on the price of an education.
To make it work, marshal your numbers and make your case. Don’t just rely on the school’s estimates of what a year will cost and what you should be able to afford. Do the math yourself so you have a clear idea how much money you need to receive in financial aid or scholarships to make the school a viable option.
Then, write a letter to the school outlining your request and the logical reasons you need more assistance. Perhaps you have unexpected expenses, or your family is in a precarious financial position. If other colleges have offered better aid packages, mention that, too. Schools have more incentive to help out if they know they might lose you to the competition. Follow up your letter with a phone call to the financial aid office and always be persistent, but pleasant.
2. Serve your country
Some of the most generous scholarships available come from the U.S. Armed Forces. Join the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps — you probably know it as ROTC — and the military will pay for as much as 100% of your tuition, plus an additional sum for living expenses. The Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines all have ROTC options; the Coast Guard’s College Student Pre-Commissioning Initiative offers a similar program.
The trade-off is significant. To qualify for the scholarship, you have to commit to some combination of active duty and reserve military service for several years, generally four to eight. If a military career intrigues you, however, these programs offer an outstanding and affordable way to pursue both your educational and your service goals.
3. Choose a co-op
Not all colleges approach education and career preparation the same way. Some schools offer co-op programs, in which students spend a semester or more working paid jobs in their fields instead of taking classes.
Taking this route requires some careful research to make sure you are not stuck in unpaid internships. Just about every college promises enticing internship opportunities for students. A true co-op experience, however, integrates the work experience thoroughly into the curriculum, only connects students with paid work and offers significant assistance in finding a relevant gig.
4. Pursue private scholarships
You don’t have to be valedictorian or a star athlete to score a scholarship. There are scholarships out there for golf caddies, vegetarians, aspiring funeral services professionals, left-handed applicants and outstanding amateur duck-callers (no, really). Whoever you are, there is probably a scholarship for you.
You can also look for scholarships that you can enter by answering a question, writing an essay or completing a small task. For its Easy Scholarships, DoSomething.org asks applicants to do a small service project then enters them to win scholarships of $2,500 or more. Or, write 250 words explaining how you’d survive the zombie apocalypse and enter to win a $1,500 scholarship from Unigo.
And if you really dedicate yourself to the search, Debt.com offers a $500 scholarship for the student who applies to the most scholarships.
5. Consider community college
Don’t turn up your nose at your local community college. Spending a year or two at a public two-year school can make the difference between owing thousands and graduating debt-free.
According to the American Association of Community Colleges, a year of community college costs less than $3,700 on average. By spending two years at community college, then transferring to a four-year school, you could easily save more than $12,000. Living at home during those years can amplify your savings.
To make the most of this plan, focus on core courses during your time at community college so you can delve into your major once you reach your dream school.
6. Give yourself some credits
If you arrive at school with college credits already earned, you will have to take fewer classes to graduate. And fewer classes often translates into lower bills.
How do you earn those college credits? The most common route is taking Advanced Placement classes in high school and scoring well on the year-end test. So consider taking as many AP classes as your workload (and sanity) allow.
Another option is a dual enrollment program, in which high school students take classes at a local community college. These classes count toward high school graduation requirements and earn students college credit. As a bonus, the programs often let you explore subjects not offered by your high school. Be careful, though — make sure your credits will transfer to most colleges.
7. Get a job. But not just any job
Working to pay your tuition bill is a time-honored tradition. But score a job at the right place and you can get even more help with your college costs. Many major companies offer programs that pay for some or all of their employees’ college educations.
Work part-time at Home Depot and get up to $1,500 toward your college costs. Starbucks covers 100% of employees’ tuition when they enroll in an online degree program through Arizona State University. Even more companies offer tuition benefits when employees pursue a degree in a field related to the company.