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I wish I had a “back in my day college was the same price as a night at the movies, and I could work 4 hours a week at my part-time job to cover the tuition” type of college savings story to share here. Unfortunately I am a millennial, and college was already very expensive by the time I got there. I also voluntarily chose to attend a private university instead of one of the state schools I was offered scholarships for, and I’m sure that didn’t help.
Despite all of that, I found an unusual way to save a lot of money on my college expenses. I was able to convince my school of choice to give me a free MBA before I even took my first class. My college savings story is one I don’t hear enough about.
Does anyone pay full price?
I don’t have any rigorous data to support this idea, but I believe there are very few students who pay the full tuition at the school they attend. I once read that around 90% of students receive some form of financial aid, and that figure might be slightly higher, if you include other non-financial ways of reducing the expense. Business Insider and a quick Google search seem to back up that hunch.
This fact is also why we decided to not “fully” fund our son’s college savings account. Don’t get us wrong, we set up a 529 college savings plan for him that will have money in it. We are just assuming he’ll get some level of discounting on the college MSRP rate.
Cool. So where are these coupon codes?
I wish it were that easy, I really do. There are a lot of ways to lower the overall expense of getting a four-year college degree, and the ones I will mention here are by no means a comprehensive list. There are a lot of college-hacking websites out there dedicated to helping you find ways to lower the overall bill. I really like The College Investor website for how thoroughly it explains how to save and pay for college. It’s truly a resource worth book marking.
Fine. What are some ways to keep the cost down?
College cost-cutting hacks include the obvious ones like scholarships that come directly from the school or outside agencies. AP classes, IB classes, and dual enrollment can help you cut down the number of classes you need to take to graduate. Similarly, online courses like Edx and Sophia.org allow you to take college level classes from home at a steep discount or for free and transfer the completed credits to many colleges. Additionally, you can take CLEP exams to test out of specific courses in college to speed up graduation timelines.
Some students play a sport or participate in a club to get a merit-based scholarship. Having an employer pay for your college while you work is another great option for graduate degrees and retraining. Often derided or overlooked is first attending a much less-expensive community college to complete prerequisite course work before transferring to a four-year school to graduate. The diploma is exactly the same, but you probably spent a lot less.
Shift your college savings focus
The bottom line is that it can be helpful to learn how to pay for as little of college as possible in addition to planning on paying for college in general. People focus too much on one angle or the other, and it is entirely possible to tackle the problem from both sides. Focus on reducing the amount of time spent in college while finding ways to pay for the remainder of the costs.
My college savings journey
While I had my share of student loans, I did use several of the above hacks to lower the cost, even at a private university. My college savings story begins with no financial assistance from my parents. They were very upfront about that with me for as long as I can recall, so I have no hard feelings. I knew that going to and paying for college would be my responsibility.
Start taking college classes as soon as you can
I started taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses as soon as I could in high school. AP Courses were graded on a 5.0 scale, so they were an opportunity to get more than a 4.0 GPA. Additionally, you could receive college credit if you passed the exam at the end of the year.
First problem though was my high school had a policy at the time that no students below junior (3rd) year could take an AP course. I believe the rationale was that younger students weren’t prepared for rigorous courses and the school was doing us a favor. We students disagreed, and several of us banded together and petitioned the administration to let us take AP Biology our sophomore year.
I did well in the AP Biology and passed the AP exam in the spring. This gave me the confidence to sign up for many other AP courses before I graduated high school. My senior year schedule included 5 AP courses and ‘Football Class’, which I still find amusing to this day. You read that right… ‘Football Class’. It was a glorified gym class scheduled during the last period of the day so students on the football team could functionally start practice a little earlier.
Humble brag warning…
All told, I ended up completing around twelve AP courses which was the equivalent of around 50-60 credit hours of college coursework. I was very fortunate that my school offered that many AP classes, the county paid for me to sit for the exams, and that I didn’t have a mental breakdown.
I would have preferred dual enrollment classes at a local college. The courses might have been easier to pass and the credits more likely to transfer. (AP exams scores didn’t 100% transfer as course credit depending on your score and the college in question.) Unfortunately, I participated in several sports teams in high school that held practice after school when the dual enrollment classes typically occurred. I think it all worked out in the end.
As I had hoped, the number of AP classes I took, coupled with the GPA boost they provided, got me into all of the schools I applied to. Before you get too jealous, I’m not one of those unicorns that got accepted to a bunch of Ivy League schools. I had specific, regional schools in mind that I applied to and didn’t shotgun out the applications.
Like many students, I was offered scholarships to attend these schools. One difference was I had leverage that other students possibly didn’t in reviewing my scholarship offers. I didn’t need a 4 year scholarship if I planned on graduating faster.
Acceptance vs offer
In addition to being accepted, I received scholarship offers which I used to my advantage in a unique way. I don’t see it mentioned often, but you can negotiate scholarship offers if your situation is not the cookie-cutter college experience.
For example, my first choice school offered me a 4-year scholarship, and that sounded great at first. The issue was that I already had enough college credit to functionally be a junior, so four years worth of scholarship money just didn’t make sense. I wasn’t about to turn down that amount of money though.
Wait… you can negotiate that?
At the time I knew that I wanted to go straight from my undergraduate degree into graduate school, even though that would be an added expense up front. I contacted the school and asked what would happen to my remaining scholarship money when I graduated in less than four years, because I would.
I told them I would accept their offer if they would be willing to apply any unused scholarship money to their graduate school. They agreed, and I was able to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree from a private university for roughly the cost of one year of graduate school in student loans.
College Savings: Just ask
Always ask. The college I chose to attend could have said “no”, but I asked anyway and saved a lot of money in the long run. In the past, to make myself feel better about attending a private college, I did the math on how much more it cost me than a state school. I concluded that I would have saved money attending a state school but didn’t find a huge difference.
Even with higher tuition, the combination of AP credits and a scholarship with rollover into graduate school caused my college expenses to even out. It was close enough that I can sleep at night knowing I didn’t significantly overpay for my college education at a private school vs. a public one.
Focus on trying not to pay for school as much as the college savings for it. Set yourself up for success early via AP courses, clubs, and extracurricular activities. Negotiate any scholarship offers.
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