Making these 5 moves can help you save big on the massive cost of college

Personal finance

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Higher education often costs more than most families can afford. A new report by NerdWallet shows the high school class of 2023 is facing a little more than $37,000 in student loan debt to receive a college bachelor’s degree.

Tuition and fees plus room and board for a four-year private college averaged $53,430 in the 2022-23 school year, according to the College Board; at four-year, in-state public colleges, it was $23,250.

College affordability and dealing with the debt burden are top concerns for most parents and high school students, according to The Princeton Review’s 2023 College Hopes & Worries survey, where almost all families — 98% — said financial aid would be necessary to pay for college, and 82% said it was “extremely” or “very” necessary.

As the mother of a college sophomore and high school senior, I know thinking about paying for college is daunting. Here are some cost-saving strategies that may help:

1. Apply for financial aid, then appeal for more

If your child is a high school senior or a current college student, it is not too late to apply for financial aid —or appeal for more. Even if the student committed to the school on or before National College Decision Day on May 1, the aid award letter received is not necessarily the final word.

“Most schools will not have their class 100% committed by May 1, so that means there is an opportunity to have a conversation about admission, financial aid and scholarships,” said Robert Franek, editor-in-chief of The Princeton Review. 

Every year, high school graduates miss out on billions of dollars in federal grants because they don’t fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Some schools may also require you to fill out the CSS Profile on the College Board website to get access to nonfederal financial aid.

Financial aid is determined by income information that is not necessarily up to date. Aid for the 2023-24 academic year is based on 2021 income. 

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“That information that’s being used to evaluate and make a judgment of your situation is a snapshot, and that snapshot is old,” said Mark Salisbury, founder of TuitionFit, an online platform that helps students and families with determining college affordability. If your circumstances are now different, that should be brought to the financial aid office’s attention, he said.

If you’re concerned about making ends meet based on the financial aid award letter your child has already received, you can still ask for more aid. If you’ve experienced a job loss, a disability, a divorce or another change in your financial situation, send an appeal letter to the college’s financial aid office. 

“The FAFSA also doesn’t take into account the cost of living,” Salisbury said. “So if you live in Manhattan with a $300,000 income, that’s different from if you’re from Davenport, Iowa, with a $300,000 income.

“The FAFSA doesn’t pay attention to that at all,” he added. “If you’re in an expensive place to live, you may need to explain your cost of living as part of the appeal.”

Your appeal letter should include documents showing any changes in assets, income, benefits or expenses. You can find free templates online that can help you write an appeal letter at websites such as Road2College and SwiftStudent

TuitionFit can help you compare your award letter to other offers that families with similar financial backgrounds have received at no cost. You can use that information to help you ask for a better deal.

Also, since the FAFSA is for a single academic year, you have to submit this form every year. Just because you did not qualify one year does not mean you won’t qualify in future years, particularly if there’s been a significant change in your family’s finances. 

2. Seek out private scholarships

Consider sources of merit-based aid, as well, especially if the financial aid package you received does not meet your needs or your student does not qualify for need-based aid. 

More than $6 billion in scholarships is awarded to college students each year, according to an analysis of U.S. Department of Education data by higher education expert Mark Kantrowitz. Check with the college or ask your high school counselor about opportunities. 

That information that’s being used to evaluate and make a judgment of your situation is a snapshot, and that snapshot is old.
Mark Salisbury
founder of TuitionFit

“The majority of scholarships will come from the colleges and universities that students apply to and are accepted at,” Franek said. “So performing well throughout your high school career is not only important for admission but also for scholarship awards.” Keep in mind SAT and ACT scores are often used — even at test-optional schools — in combination with GPA in competition for scholarship awards. 

Also search free scholarship-matching websites, such as the College Board’s Big Future, Fastweb and Check with local clubs, religious organizations, and employers, too. 

3. Consider a community college

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You can cut the overall tuition bill dramatically by taking classes at a community college or spending two years there to get an associate degree. More than half of states even have policies that guarantee that students with an associate degree can then transfer to a four-year state school as a junior.

At two-year public schools, tuition and fees averaged $3,860 for the 2022-23 academic year, according to the College Board. At in-state four-year public schools, on average, tuition alone is $10,940; at four-year private universities, it averages $39,400. 

Course sharing is another cost-saving strategy. Many classes taken in the summer or at night at a local community college can count toward a student’s coursework at a four-year institution.

4. Leverage dual enrollment and AP courses

Your children can be resourceful in helping to cut college costs, too. They can start helping in high school by taking Advanced Placement courses, which may transfer to college credits, depending on the student’s score and the school. You can go to the AP Credit Policy Search on the College Board website to find out what credit or placement a particular college offers for AP scores. 

Students can also save money while in high school by taking college classes through a state-run dual-enrollment program, which allows them to take college-level classes, often through a community college.

5. Use money from part-time jobs to defray costs

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While parents’ income and savings cover about 43% of college costs, according to Sallie Mae’s 2022 How America Pays for College report, 11% is covered by the student’s income and savings. 

Your child may have already saved money from a part-time job in high school or plans to get a part-time job in college or take on a work-study position as part of their financial aid package. 

Contributing some of the student’s income may help cut college costs. Keep in mind in financial aid calculations, however, that parents are expected to contribute a much lower percentage of their assets to college costs than are students. So a part-time job could affect your student’s financial aid if they make above a certain amount. 

Some student income is “protected” to cover living expenses and other costs. For the 2023-24 FAFSA, up to $7,600 of a dependent student’s income is protected, and work-study is not factored into the FAFSA formula for the income that the family is expected to contribute to college costs. 

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