How to Cut the Cost of College Tuition

by Laura Adams

The ballooning cost of college has many parents and students on edge. If you’re trying to figure out how to afford a good college education, there are solutions. Don’t let the rising price tag of college keep you from moving ahead with the education you’ve been dreaming about for yourself or your children. If you make plans and smart decisions today, you won’t have to raid your retirement account, overpay for college, or take on decades of expensive debt.

How Much Does College Really Cost?

College GraduateThe first step is to consider how much college really costs. That’s difficult to pin down because there are many variables like:

  • Which school(s) will accept you?
  • Will you live at home or on campus?
  • How many years will it take you to graduate?
  • What additional fees will your program require?
  • How much will college costs increase each year?
  • Can you qualify for awards that don’t have to be repaid?
  • How much can you expect to receive in student financial aid?
  • How much will your college savings account grow over time?

There’s a new online calculator at that gives you an estimate of the cost of over 2,000 four-year schools. The estimate takes your household income and inflation into account, as well as the percentage of students who receive scholarships or grants at a given school.

Because you can’t know the answer to every question about the cost of college ahead of time, it’s kind of like planning for retirement. A few of the same rules apply: get an early start, take advantage of tax-favored college savings accounts, and allocate your investments more conservatively as freshman year approaches.

How to Cut the Cost of College

Here are 5 strategies you can use to dramatically minimize the cost of college tuition:

Tip #1: Start at a Community College

In most cases, credits earned at an inexpensive community college can be applied toward a degree at a larger, more prestigious school. Spending the first 2 years of college at home can also save a huge amount when compared to the inflated cost of room and board on most college campuses.

Find out the articulation agreement between the community college and the school where you hope to transfer, so you know which credits would be accepted at your dream school and the grades you have to achieve to get in. Remember that your diploma only names the school where you graduate!

Tip #2: Lock in the Cost

If you want to skip a regional college and get a full four-year college experience, consider using a prepaid 529 savings plan to lock in the future cost of college at today’s rate. Many state schools and private colleges allow you to prepay, which could mean getting a great education at a substantial discount if the cost of tuition continues to rise. Prepaid plans don’t put your funds in the market—so they aren’t subject to any investment risk—but they are subject to the solvency of the state or institution’s program.

If your child decides not to go to college or wants to attend a different school than the one you prepaid, you can transfer the value of the account or get a refund. To learn more about prepaid 529 plans for public and private colleges visit and

Tip #3: Graduate in Less Time

Though most kids would hate to cut their college experience short, if you complete the coursework for your degree in less time, it will cost less. You might be able to get a bachelor’s degree in 3 years instead of 4 and save a bundle on room and board, tuition, and fees. Unfortunately, the average student takes more than 4 years to graduate, which drives up their overall cost of college. So use the following strategies to accelerate your college graduation:

  1. Work harder in high school so you qualify for Advanced Placement (AP) classes that give you college credit before you even arrive on campus.
  2. Work harder in college by taking a heavier load of classes each year.
  3. Be clear about the school and degree you want—changing either one mid-stream can result in having to take more classes that keep you in school much longer.

Tip #4: Apply Strategically

If your child applies to colleges where his or her grades and SAT scores rank in the top 25% of students, they’ll have an advantage. That’s because colleges proactively recruit students who can benefit their overall student body. Families who earn too much to receive financial aid should apply to colleges that award high percentages of merit aid that does not have to be paid back. Visit to find information that reveals which colleges may be the best match for you or your child.

Tip #5: Pay As You Go

I recently interviewed Zac Bissonnette—the author of Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents—to get his tips. Zac challenges conventional wisdom about choosing and financing college and recommends that no one take out student loans. Instead, he advocates that students work during high school and college, and families cut back their lifestyle, to pay for college as you go.

Zac is a really sharp guy who just graduated from the University of Massachusetts. You can listen to our conversation and learn much more about how he got a great education without paying a boatload or taking on any debt!  Be sure to listen to my full interview with Zac Bissonnette while it’s available at


Published or updated May 12, 2015.
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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kenny

Guys, this is SO CRITICAL to do since every day that goes by, there is an increase in cost of college. It has become so high that as soon as one of the parent loses their job, the kid might have to stop going to the name brand college (and switch to Community college). Of course, this situation occurs when one has not fully funded the college expenses.

Second more important aspect is that funding has to be done for two elements: 1) Tuition + LOTS of Other Fees 2) Room, Board, Transportation, Clothing, Phone, PC, Misc Expenses etc.

These two elements are ALMOST the same. If Tuition + Other Fees for college cost $20K, then allocate almost $15K to those other expenses.

Even if you think that Scholarships are going to cover some aspects of your fees, I can tell you that if you earn a decent amount (defined as greater than $50K!!!!!), lots of scholarship houses are disqualifying students/families from getting it.

In the end, what has been written here to prepare is VERY critical and important, and without it, you will leave your kids in a SOL situation (out of luck).

Hope this helps.



2 krantcents

Good Points. Many of my high school students go to community college to save money. They transfer to state schools and in many cases they live at home to minimize costs.


3 Ryan

My college experience was a little non-conventional. I used the bank of Mom and Dad for my first year of school (with a partial scholarship), then I enlisted in the USAF and used tuition assistance to obtain my Bachelor’s Degree. I went to night school full-time while working full-time. It was a challenge, to be sure, but it also gave me the opportunity to complete my degree in a minimal amount of time without paying anything out of pocket, besides books. I wrote about my experiences with taking classes on active duty on my other site.

For me it was about setting my educational goals, setting the right priorities, getting support from mu supervision, and being flexible (I took several classes online while I was deployed to the Middle East).

Other tips which can be added to this conversation include using employer tuition assistance, grants, and payback programs (some public sector jobs offer tuition payback when you sign on for a certain amount of time).


4 Kenny

All of the above is true, although my suggestion to parents with young children were to plan on the FULL Tuition for their kids by planning well, working hard, and ensuring that they ‘pay themselves first’. Of course, reality is that everyone cannot do it, but I have seen too many, not even try hard enough.

An average student in undergrad school is laden with an average of $10K to $31K of loan-debt. That is too high for a student who just turned into an adult.

As to the use of Community College, that is a good idea, although I have seen too many who do NOT qualify for State Schools after the 1st or 2nd year, and have to continue to an Associates Degree or a Degree not of their choice. Some don’t even finish University even if they get to jump over to it since it is definitely harder when you get to a good State University.

Hope this helps.



5 Briana

A lot of students need to see this. College is getting more and more expensive by the day.


6 Kenny

My son just picked Univ of Illinois and the total cost of this simple state university is as follows:

1. Zip in Grants
2. $31,360 per year in total costs – Includes Tuition, Extra Fees, Dorm/Board, Books, Labs, Transportation, Science Fees.
3. Now add clothing, snack fees, weekend meals, cell phone and other smaller elements

And, you have a 4 year graduate. This takes us to an average fellow on the street, and now you add the cost of Graduate School or Med School or Law School or Professional (Pharmacy, Phy Therapist, Phy/Surg Assistant etc).

Once they become one of those, they are a Professional and in the Elite 10% without really going to an Ivy League or spending for an Ivy League.

If the same student would have gone to Northwestern Univ or Loyola Univ in Chicago, the costs were over $55K for NW and $42K for Loyola. Granted, they automatically give private scholarships to good student, and therefore it comes down to approx. $30K per year (net).

Multiple this by 4 years, and now you really have some good investments to bear with to get your student on a path of becoming an Elite Professional (as opposed to a 4 year degree). The latter has 25% to 33% of graduates still looking for jobs after 1 to 2 years of graduation, and none of us want our 4 year graduates to be unemployed after doing 7-8 semesters of hard work (7 semesters with summer schooling and 8 without summer schooling).

I advice young parents and students to really heed the advice and do some ‘super-duper advanced planning’, since the above is a real scenario, and I had planned for it, and am completely ready to handle the above. Thank God that I had faith in the planning process, and did it early.



7 Lee

Great ideas. We also did a hybrid. Our son received 3 years of Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits from me, an active-duty military officer. He also transferred in a semester of college credits taken through AP-Tests, and college level instruction taught in high school, and he received about $5,000 in merit based scholarships. He’ll graduate after 7-semesters at The University of California without loans of any kind.


8 Ryan

That’s awesome, Lee. Transferring the Post 9/11 GI Bill is a great way to pay for your child’s college if you don’t plan on using it (and as an officer, there are often many opportunities to do continuing education through the military). Graduating without student loans is a huge benefit for your son, and a big relief on your pocket book!


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