While it’s hard to deny the value of a college education, rising costs have made it harder for students to afford their degrees. Average tuition at public, four-year schools surged to $9,970 for the 2017-18 school year and those costs rise to $20,770 per year when you add room and board, according to the College Board. A private school or an advanced degree, will cost you even more.
With these figures in mind, it’s important to know you don’t have to follow the crowd when it comes to earning a degree. You can plot a different path by looking for ways to reduce the cost of admission or by attending a different school.
Many college aid professionals and counselors wish you would consider alternative options. When it comes to paying for college, here’s what the experts have to say.
Pricey schools don’t always pay off
Ben Luthi, college expert for Student Loan Hero, says you can get a quality education without paying a premium. To accomplish this goal, you may have to consider a different school than the one you want to attend.
“The name of your school might help you get your first job, but it likely won’t matter for the rest of your career,” he said. That’s why you should make sure you include more affordable schools in your college search.
“And if you’re already in school and you’re overwhelmed with the cost, consider transferring. I’ve worked with countless people who went to colleges that I’ve never heard of,” he said.
Joe Orsolini, who serves as president of College Aid Planners, says many students and parents get hung up on college rankings or where a school lands on a best-of list. As a result, they make poor decisions regarding their undergraduate education.
“The reality is that nobody cares where you got your undergraduate degree,” he said. “Do you know where your doctor earned their undergraduate degree?” Probably not.
Focus on your return on investment
Robert Farrington, founder of The College Investor, says too many people think of college as a time to find themselves without thinking of the long-term consequences of their student debt.
“Students need to think of college as an investment, and so they need to focus on the ROI of that investment,” he said. “Why are they going to college? What will it cost? What can they expect to make after graduation in their first job? Based on those answers, students can get a good glimpse of their potential ROI.”
When you focus on your return on investment and think of college as a business transaction, you can avoid borrowing too much to pursue a degree that won’t pay off. Farrington suggests making sure you never borrow more in student loans than you can earn in your first year after graduation.
“That will allow you to realize an ROI on your education and keep your student loan debt at a manageable level,” he said.
You can save if you don’t live on campus
Debbie Schwartz, founder of Road2College.com, says students who have the option to live off campus or at home should consider it (just remember you'll need renters insurance if you live in an apartment).
“In many cases, room and board can be more expensive than tuition,” she said. If you can live with your parents or another family member or share an inexpensive apartment or house with other students, you can reduce the amount of cash you need to borrow for school.
Take the right courses in high school
Kathy Hart, a California-based scholarship consultant and college coach, says many students assume harder courses will help them get into college. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.
“Take classes in high school that allow you to be successful,” she said. In other words, don’t fall victim to the pressure of having to take Advanced Placement coursework if you know if you can’t earn an A. If you can’t, an AP class could hurt your chances of getting into the school you want.
Apply early for scholarships
Jocelyn Paonita Pearson, scholarship expert and founder of The Scholarship System, believes all students can secure scholarships. She also believes they should start searching for grants as early as sophomore or junior year in high school and apply for every scholarship for which they qualify.
“Despite the majority of stories we hear, there are many students out there that manage to graduate debt-free,” she said. The key to earning scholarships is taking the time to find them and applying, and unfortunately this can require a big investment of time and effort.
Pam Andrews, college admissions coach for The Scholarship Shark, says it’s important to think about other types of aid as well – including federal or state grants and merit scholarships. Merit aid can be especially lucrative if you have excellent grades.
“Know what the college offers in merit aid, how you can qualify for it and what it takes to maintain it,” she said. “It is also important to know the application deadlines to apply for merit aid. Sometimes those deadlines are before a college’s application for admissions deadlines.”
Never assume you won’t qualify for a scholarship. Andrews says it’s important to approach the scholarship system with an open mind and without any limiting beliefs.
“If you don’t feel like you can succeed then you’re less likely to act or even think about acting,” she said. “Having the right attitude towards winning scholarships is the first step because it then moves the student to take action.”
Tuition may keep rising, but some states and colleges have made tuition free. Here's where.