How to Make College Cheaper

Published September 30, 2020 | By Taylor Nichols

student stands in front of building with books

While universities traditionally have no issue with filling programs, student retention is another story. Of the 15.4 million undergraduate students enrolled in fall 2019, 40% won’t graduate – and many of those who drop out will need to begin repaying their student loans.

Students cite financial issues as the top factor for leaving college. Without financial aid, tuition fees alone can set in-state students back $25,290 on average, and this is only part of the costs associated with higher education. Room and board, equipment fees, and textbooks all figure into the overall total.

It’s no wonder, then, that students want to know how to make higher education more affordable. While tuition fees are unlikely to budge much, students can cut costs through online study, financial aid, transfer credits, and even negotiations with universities.

Online Courses & Flexible Study Cut Costs

Online education is transparently more affordable than traditional education. Attending college classes online means you will not incur additional living expenses or pay to commute to campus. Some college courses also charge steep fees for computers, lab equipment, and other learning materials, so you’ll save on additional on-campus costs.

Online courses also open up flexible learning outcomes. Most students have other commitments to juggle, including jobs, families, and extracurricular activities. You may have a very targeted plan for what you want to learn (such as pursuing specific qualifications instead of a general four-year degree). For these instances, many online courses offer part-time options. Part-time online learning can also potentially allow you to pay less for college – for example, by allowing you to pay on a per-credit basis for exactly the classes you want.

Online = Less Money, Same Quality of Education

Many schools offer online programs at a discounted price. Out-of-state students at the University of Florida pay nearly twice as much per credit as their online peers. Some schools also offer all online students in-state tuition, regardless of where they live.

Full-time undergraduates will need to complete 120 credits to graduate from the University of Florida, whether on-campus or not. That means online students will save on tuition per credit hour and incur no additional expenses from online study. Students who transfer existing credits will save even more.

Students can also take advantage of non-degree programs to cut both time and the cost of college. You can take courses for credit or audit classes at many institutions, without enrolling as a student or paying full tuition.

The Condensed and Blended Options

If you have the time and energy to focus on your studies intensely, it’s possible to earn a degree in fewer semesters. Many students do this by taking extra classes over the summer months or utilizing competency-based learning, which often charges in blocks of time rather than per credit.

Many online programs are competency-based, meaning that students who demonstrate a level of knowledge in a subject can skip coursework and advance to the final test. Students with prior skills and knowledge can utilize this method to finish their degrees in a much shorter time frame.

Summer classes are often cheaper than those offered during the regular school year. Taking courses over the summer allows students to complete full courses in a shorter amount of time, sometimes for less than half the regular cost. The pandemic has resulted in some universities providing discounts on their summer semesters, too.

Blended programs – a mix of online and on-campus study – are another great way to use online and flexible learning to cut college costs. While blended programs mean less substantial savings, they offer more of the in-person benefits of campus life. Research shows that, while online courses have lower retention rates, blended options can optimize student support while increasing retention. A blended program will also offer more opportunities for in-person professional networking than a purely online course, and still be cheaper overall than an on-campus program.

Financial Aid Can Reduce the Cost of College

Students trying to lower the cost of higher education have a host of financial aid options to consider. The most versatile of these options is scholarships, which can benefit students who may not qualify for need-based grants or federal work-study programs.

bubble map showing different ways to cut college costs

Scholarships are mainly awarded for academic excellence or financial need, but there are awards for students of all demographics. Scholarships are also available for international students, athletes, and students from underrepresented groups. Most schools and individual departments within colleges offer scholarships, as do some nonprofits, private organizations, foundations, and companies.

There are also federal options for reducing the cost of college. The Federal Student Aid office is the largest student aid provider, awarding $31 billion in federal grants and work-study funding to more than 8 million students in 2019 alone.

Filling out the Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) allows students to receive need-based grants from federal and state agencies. Traditional, non-traditional, full-time, part-time, on-campus, and online students can be eligible for financial aid. Terms for each student type may vary with specific initiatives.

Alternative Options for Financial Aid

There are several tax breaks available for students, including the American Opportunity Tax Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit. The American Opportunity Tax Credit is available for any student within their first four years of study, while the Lifetime Learning Credit is available indefinitely. Students can use both to offset education, living, and material expenses.

Are you considering going back to college as a full-time employee? Your employer may offer financial support for education if it’s related to your area of work. Many companies, such as Google, AT&T, Target, and Chipotle, are willing to pay for their employees to go to college, even if it’s not related to their current job. Other employers offer benefits such as matching student loan payments with 401(k) contributions.

Some career tracks, such as nursing, medicine, law, and teaching, have designated federal programs to repay student loans in part or in full to draw students to specific high-need fields.

How to Make College Cheaper with Credit Transfer Options

Returning students, or new students with academic or professional experience, may not wish or need to attend a full four years of college. Making use of existing credits and experience can drive down tuition costs.

More than one-third of college students transfer to a different academic institution throughout their education. Your new school may recognize credits you’ve already earned, which you can apply to your degree.

Transferring credits between a community college and a university can save students thousands of dollars – community college tuition and fees average around $3,440 per year, and that’s before financial aid. A university willing to accept even some of your existing community college credits will, therefore, save you money.

If you don’t currently have transferable credits, consider enrolling in a community college to satisfy your program’s prerequisites. Credit transfers are reviewed on a case-by-case basis, but many community colleges have agreements with neighboring universities that guarantee direct credit transfer. Admissions and enrollment advisors at your chosen institution can advise you on which community colleges they have existing agreements with.

For professionals going or returning to college, the CLEP program can be a useful way to reduce tuition costs. This program allows students to turn work experience and prior knowledge into college credits. After all, if you have professional experience in basic accounting or programming, you could be saving time and money in your MBA or computer science degree by turning that knowledge base into credits.

The same goes for former military members. The Joint Services Transcript allows students with military training to receive educational credits from their military experience.

Why Student Bargaining Power Will Grow Post-Pandemic

One new way to make college cheaper? Bargaining. COVID-19 has “accelerated a years-long shift in bargaining power away from colleges and toward families, which are quite prepared to treat tuition as they would a car’s price: something to haggle over,” the Wall Street Journal reports.

Before the impact of COVID-19, prospective students were vying for spots at universities. Now, schools are competing to win over students as enrollment numbers dip and revenue from dorms and other on-campus fees are lost. Many colleges are willing to offer discounted or custom “tuition-and-aid offers” to incentivize students to enroll. Students’ bargaining power is likely to increase due to declining applications and cuts to public funding.

Earn a Degree for Less

There are several ways to pay less for a college degree, from pursuing online and flexible study to seeking credit transfer and applying for financial aid. A cheaper college experience is likely to form part of the new post-COVID-19 status quo. By doing what you can to bring down the cost of your education – or fitting more into less time – you’ll help ensure that your degree retains its value relative to the money you’re paying to acquire it.

Concerns regarding how to pay for higher education are common among students. Rising tuition costs have driven enrollment down in recent years as states cut funding and shift the financial burden onto students. As student needs shift, however, colleges and universities are also changing to meet those needs. Whether you're looking for a blended or condensed program, relying on scholarships, or negotiating your tuition, it is becoming easier to bring those costs down.