8 Tips to Reduce College Costs

A photo illustration of a fictional university called Big Bucks U.

Sticker shock can be a real “wow” moment when parents first consider the costs of sending their child to college. All-in costs — including tuition, room & board, books and incidentals — can range from about $15,000 to over $60,000 annually.

Take a deep cleansing breath. Exhale. Have a seat. Take another deep breath and begin thinking strategically.

Full college retail price can be financially intimidating, but you can bring your costs down over time depending on your financial situation. Here are eight useful tips:

1. Scholarships: Not Just For Brainiacs

The first and easiest way to reduce costs is to have your child apply for scholarships. Thousands of scholarships exist and you may be surprised at some of the qualifications. For example, unique opportunities exist for left-handed people, those under 5-feet-tall, Eagle Scouts, etc. Besides the individual colleges and universities, community organizations and companies offer scholarships. Have your child search the internet, speak with a high school counselor about local scholarships and look for niche organizations that match a specific talent or skill that your child has.

2. Financial Aid and The Full Monty

Be prepared to bare all, financially speaking, as you navigate through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms. It doesn't take long to realize that there is nowhere to hide your assets. You will even link your application to your tax forms filed with the IRS. Understand that you will provide a very accurate financial picture to up to 10 colleges/universities. But that's OK. At least you know that everyone is playing by the same rules and the playing field is level. The amount of financial aid your child qualifies for will be determined by your household financials.

FAFSA forms need to be completed each college year and for each child you have in college. It's also critical you fill out these forms as early as possible because in some states, aid is on a first-come, first-served basis.

3. Become Besties With the Bursar

Get to know on a first-name basis the person in the Financial Aid office who is reviewing your child's financial aid package. Reach out to her or him and ask for more aid — either through grants, scholarships or other assistance. Leave your pride in another room. Asking for an extra $1,000 or more can be worth it. But remember, genuine kindness and gratitude go a lot further than making demands.

4. Negotiate With a Competitive Offer

Another tip for undecided high school seniors: Where possible, pit one college against another. If Acme U is offering a great financial package, but you really want to attend Zenith U, let Zenith know it will take a few more greenbacks to win you over. Remember, the goal of a college, especially smaller ones, is to fill the seats. Your goal is to get the best value for your child's education at a school that best fits his or her career interests.

5. Bypass the Campus Bookstore

A new chemistry book for $321? Before you plunk down the plastic, ask your college if books can be rented or buy used books. You may find great deals with online booksellers like Amazon and Chegg.

6. Don't Get Stuffed With the Meal Plan

Your first semester freshman will want the maximum (typically 19) cafeteria-served meals. They most likely will not eat that many in the dining hall so colleges have gotten smart and allow students to use some of the “points” or meals in the dorm kiosks. You may want to reduce the meal plan in second semester to save money, especially if your child has work study or another part-time job.

Related Content:
My Unconventional Approach to Saving for College
More Affordable College-Savings Strategies
7 Surefire Ways to Win a Scholarship

7. Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho, it's Off to Work I Go

Have your child take full advantage of the federal work-study program. Typically menial jobs, students can work a set amount of hours per week, determined by your school and the Financial Aid award.

8. One Point Can Earn $1,000

Many colleges will give a student an extra $1,000 scholarship for every point over a 25 on the College ACT exam. If your student is scoring in and above that score, it may pay to retake the exam to try and earn some more scholarship money. Some of these scholarships are for a single year and others for up to four years of undergraduate matriculation.

While the academic pressures of college can be intimidating for students, there are ways to reduce costs and maximize different aid mechanisms, leaving the “wow” factor for graduation day.

Parents: How are you dealing with college costs?

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3D Walkthrough
3D Walkthrough
4 years ago

Check with your guidance counselor to see if you can take college classes while still in high school. The more credits you earn before you get to college, the fewer you will have to pay for when you go.

Mom of five
Mom of five
4 years ago
Reply to  3D Walkthrough

Good point! And don’t forget about AP credits. Our oldest received enough credits so that when she started college she was technically a second semester sophomore. She won’t graduate early, but she will have a triple major. All those AP’s are allowing her some time to figure out what she really wants to do with her life without costing us an additional year and a half’s worth of college expenses.

Mom of five
Mom of five
4 years ago

Don’t forget the two most important college planning steps: 1) Set your budget i.e. figure out how much you can pay, and how much you are willing to borrow (if any) or allow your child to borrow. 2) Make sure your child knows what you can afford and sets realistic expectations. This one is hard, particularly when you have a good kid who’s always played by the rules. Be up front with your child early and often. Middle school is not too soon for your child to understand that he can’t go anywhere just because he gets in. We’re not… Read more »

Roderick Kelly
Roderick Kelly
4 years ago
Reply to  Mom of five

All very great points. Our daughter will be a senior next year at a four-year college and our son is in his second year at community college. It was the best fit for him as he probably would have gotten eaten alive at a bigger school. He’s doing great, has joined the leadership council, and continues his plans to major in chemistry. And our youngest is taking AP classes next year in high school so that will help.
And all three took or will take four years of language so they won’t have to take it in college. Another savings…..

4 years ago

I’m surprised that college choice isn’t the number one tip on here. When I think about the point of university – to prepare you for a career – I don’t think many private universities can say a cost four times great than a state school prepares students four times better. Harvard? Maybe. Pitzer College? Nah. It might be a great school, but I couldn’t justify over $48k/year when the University of Texas is around $12k/year.