Five Major Steps to Reducing the Cost of College

Wednesday, Nov. 4th 2009 5:36 PM

A college degree can be affordable

Justin Pope, writing for the Associated Press, pulled no punches regarding the ongoing increase in college tuition for 2009-10. With costs rising anywhere from 4.4 percent at private schools to 7.3 at community colleges, Pope stipulated that colleges were handling the recent recession by simply passing “much of the burden of their own financial problems on to recession-battered students and parents.”

Those ever-increasing costs, consistently higher than the rates of inflation, have a number of folks questioning the value of a college degree, especially as students pile up exorbitant amounts of debt in their pursuit of a diploma. While we agree that absorbing significant debt while earning a diploma is a bad idea, we do still believe there is great value in obtaining your degree.

One only need examine the recent numbers from the economic downturn to find the necessary support for our assertion. While millions of young people are out of work, the percentage of those unemployed who have a bachelor’s degree is about half that of those without a degree.

But the ultimate key is to find a way to earn that sheepskin without mortgaging your future in the process. Scholarships and grants can certainly help students on the funding side immensely, but for those with a mindset, there are a number of ways to dramatically reduce the overall costs of earning a college diploma.

Reducing College Costs

The first aspect of controlling your college costs is to simply examine the cost of tuition by school categories. Here are the numbers as reported by the College Board:

  • Average tuition at two-year community colleges: up 7.3 percent to $2,544.
  • Average tuition at four-year public schools (in-state): up 6.5 percent to $7,020.
  • Average costs at for-profit institutions: up 6.5 percent to $14,174.
  • Average tuition at four-year public schools (out-of-state): up 6.2 percent to $18,548.
  • Average tuition at private four-year institutions: up 4.4% to $26,273.

These numbers are definitely the first ones to analyze, but when looking at ways to reduce this cost, there are two critical elements to these figures.

First students must look at the cost per credit hour. When examining the published cost, students must look carefully at both the published tuition per credit hour and the latest college invention, fees that are generally listed as added costs that can raise the price burden per credit hour significantly.

Second there is the credit hour issue alone. Most degree programs require 60 hours of study for an associate’s degree and 120 for a bachelor’s. If you can reduce the number of credit hours you must pay for you can significantly reduce your cost of overall attendance.

Step One – Reducing Costs per Credit Hour

For 2009-2010, the tuition and fees at public two-year community colleges would produce a per credit hour average of about $85.00 ($2,544 in total costs divided by the average course load of 30 credits). In contrast, we see that the average cost per credit hour for in-state students would be $234 for public schools and $876.00 for private.

Education savingsSo the first step to controlling costs per credit hour is to examine the best way to obtain your desired degree. Simply-stated, unless you have unlimited funds for school, a well-to-do uncle or grandparent, forget about those expensive private schools.

While private schools may boast of providing a better product, it is important for prospective students to understand that college is what you make of it. In fact, many of today’s top business leaders graduated from public institutions: Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. H. Lee Scott, the CEO of Wal-Mart Stores, attended Pittsburg State University in Kansas while James Sinegal, the CEO of Costco Wholesale attended San Diego City College.

Therefore, the first way to manage you college costs is to attend a public college, generally a campus of your state university system. I know: that just might not sound so exotic when you are discussing the topic with family and friends. But it is important to realize that exotic costs bigger bucks.

Second, if you truly want to minimize costs yet obtain a diploma, the most cost-effective road would be to earn your first 60 credit hours (years one and two) at a local community college, then transfer to a public state university school for your final 60 hours (years three and four). Even attending community college for one year would represent an enormous reduction in college costs.

There would no doubt need to be some initial homework to determine which community college credits would be transferable upon matriculation at a state school. You might even have to do some negotiating, but many of the mundane course requirements of any degree program could certainly be addressed at a community college. And if you find a course will not transfer, don’t take it. Save your funds for later. All total, with a little effort you could knock off more than a year’s worth of the higher-priced tuition costs.

Step Two – Reducing Credit Hour Costs

The second way to dramatically decrease your college costs is to reduce the number of credits you must pay for at the required tuition rate. There are almost an unlimited number of ways to reduce the number of credits that you must shell out funds for, but a good many of them must be accessed while you are still in high school.

For example, taking Advanced Placement courses can result in potential college credit. Such courses are often available at your local high school either by direct instruction or through the school in online format.

Students gain access to college-level curricula and upon completion of the material may take an exam to determine mastery. Passing that exam can provide college credit at a large number of colleges across the country.

Students may also take the College-Level Examination Program® (CLEP) tests in 34 different subject areas. These exams, at $72.00 per test, can provide anywhere from 3-12 credits at certain colleges at a fraction of the cost.

Today, many local colleges also offer courses to high school students in their area free of charge (referred to as early college). Again, given the cost per credit hour, students should investigate such options extensively and take advantage of what is available.

In all instances, including the possibility of seeking life experience credit for a work portfolio, the key is to do one’s homework up front. That means sitting down with college officials to review what credits the school will accept when a student does enter that respective institution.

For example, some schools will not accept AP classes whatsoever. Others will allow credit only provided students score a four or five on the exam (even though a three is considered a passing score).

While in college, another very distinct option to reducing credit-costs is referred to as the co-op or internship experience. Here again, the concept is dependent on the school one attends.

Co-op and internships provide students practical learning skills in a specific field through the use of work placements. In such programs, students may receive either pay or course credit for their time. If the experience is in your field of study, the work-related insight one gains is incredibly valid for one’s future career.

At the same time, many such experiences also offer college credit when students combine the proper reflection and academic review to the work experience. In certain instances, these experiences serve as a triple benefit, providing some cash to help pay the bills, some college credits to reduce the number that must be paid for, and even the possibility of potential job placement opportunities that can form as a result of the connections one makes while performing their service.

Reducing Miscellaneous Expenses

In addition to the tuition costs, students face a number of other related expenses while working towards that diploma. Such costs include room and board, books and supplies, and travel expenses.

The bottom line is these costs cannot be categorized as mere incidentals, certainly not when repeated over a four-year period. Once a school is chosen, tuition costs are set but students still have decisions that can greatly reduce the incidentals that accompany tuition costs.

Step Three – Eliminate the Room and Board

One way to reduce your four year college outlay is to rethink the idea of room and board. While many cringe at the thought, it is imperative that students understand the current going rate for room and board is now $8,193 at public colleges and considerably more at some private, elite schools.

iStock_000000627465XSmallExamine that number carefully – it is more than the average cost of tuition at four-year public schools. And it is more than triple the average tuition costs at a two-year community college.

Now spread that out over four years – a total of more than $30,000!

The simplest way to reduce this expense is to live at home. Such a decision becomes a possibility if you consider the community college/state university combined four-year plan we mentioned earlier. It certainly becomes viable if you consider community college for the first two years at a minimum.

If your home residence is simply too far away, you also need to carefully assess the school rates for both the housing and the meal aspects.

It could well be far cheaper to lease an apartment or house, especially if you can find others to share that cost.

In regards to meals, most school plans represent a significant cost per meal. In addition, missed meals seldom produce anything in the way of refunds if you do not access them. So when purchasing any meal plan, be sure it is a plan you will access.

There is no doubt that living at home limits one of the indirect benefits of college, the activities available and the connections made on-campus. To obtain those experiences, students will have to work harder at this element. But the experiences are available to all students, even if you are not residing on campus.

Step Four – Distance Learning Courses

Once available primarily at for-profit institutions, online learning is now available at a multitude of schools including state university systems. Completing one or a number of online courses can greatly impact your miscellaneous expenses.

We noted earlier the need to take into consideration fees when calculating tuition costs. Online courses often allow students to be exempt from a number of facility and campus-related fees such as student activity, campus access and technology fees. At one Florida school that lists tuition costs as $50.00 per credit hour for in-state students, those costs move to $150.00 per credit hour when all the fees are factored in.

In addition to potentially eliminating these on-campus fees, online courses also eliminate travel expenses and room and board entirely. They also can be a key component of our final savings step.

Step Five – College in 3.5 or 3.0 Years

While tuition costs are per credit hour and programs mandate a specific number of credits, miscellaneous expenses occur each semester. So one of the simplest ways to reduce total outlays is to reduce the number of semesters you are at school.

That reduction can of course come from the aforementioned reduction of credits needed. It is for this reason that AP courses, CLEP tests, Co-Op programs and Internships compound your savings, reducing costs at both levels.

But it can also come from taking additional courses each semester. Taking one extra course, either via online methods or simply taking another traditional class, for just five semesters will reduce your program from 4 to 3.5 years. Taking two online courses each summer and one extra traditional class each semester could reduce your college program to 3 years. Prerequisites can make this a challenge but with a little effort you can reduce the standard four-year program.

Remember, such steps would carry tuition costs per credit hour, but they would greatly reduce the costs of room and board and those incidental traveling expenses associated with attending school.

Control Your Expenses and Earn Your Degree

While costs are growing substantially, it is important for students to know that out-of-pocket costs have trended down in recent years. In fact, while tuition and fees have risen as much as 20% since 2004, the average net price of college has dropped over the last few years.

The reason is the greater availability of grants, financial assistance and tax benefits.

Of course such developments make it all the more enticing to consider our steps to cutting the costs of college. According to a recent Time article, the increased aid development means that the “average student at a two-year college or university pays nothing in tuition and fees and collects about $500 toward living expenses.”

Of course, marketing is what drives the business world – if you package your product well enough, people will seek to acquire that product at all costs.

Generally speaking, all colleges have taken advantage of this concept. But some, specifically those elite private schools, have done so to the extreme.

The result is far too many students are being enticed, taking on ridiculous levels of debt as they attempt to obtain a diploma from a school they simply cannot afford. It is time that students, as well as their parents, went back to the old school adage, finding a quality product at a price they can afford.

With a little work and a certain level of sacrifice, students can earn that coveted diploma without mortgaging their entire future in the process.


Posted by Thomas | in Finance, Saving Money, Tuition | 1 Comment »

One Comment on “Five Major Steps to Reducing the Cost of College”

  1. Cristina Elizabeth Says:

    Step 5 all the way!!! Grace College in Winona Lake, IN just announced a 3-year accelerated program that really does save you a year of costs without completing changing the “typical” college experience. You get a Christian liberal arts education for $28,774 per year (pretty average price for a private Christian education) and finish in 3 years by taking 3 classes each in two 8-week sessions (instead of of the 6 classes at one time that you’d have to take in a regular semester) and only 2 classes online during the summer, so you can still work or do internships.
    I graduated from Grace and wish this had been an option, especially the class schedule, I think focusing on fewer classes for a shorter time would have been a great learning situation for me.

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