The Ultimate Guide to Cutting Your College Costs
By Haley DeLeon | Last Updated: Sep 14, 2022
Make no bones about it — the college experience can be expensive. With student loan debt at an all-time high, cutting college costs is essential.
Luckily, there are clear-cut strategies future and current students can implement to mitigate expenses. Follow these tips to cut your college costs at every stage of your education journey.
While You’re in High School
Start slashing your college expenses in high school by getting college credit and earning money.
Earn College Credit Before Starting College
Earning college credit while you’re in high school can help lower the number of college courses you will have to take, which in turn can help you save on tuition. AP, IB, and dual enrollment programs are all ways you can earn college credit while you’re in high school. Choosing which is right for you depends on your learning style and goals.
USF Dean of Admissions and Associate Vice President of Student Success Glen Besterfield recommends researching the credit-equivalent policies at your target schools to make sure your credits-by-exam or dual-enrollment credits will count toward your degree.
Another option is taking a College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) test for college credit. CLEP exams allow you to test out of introductory-level subjects if you earn the minimum score.
Work a Summer Job
Working a job during the summers of your junior and senior year can help you save up money for future college expenses. Setting this money aside for specific items like textbooks can help you budget for expenses in the future.
When You’re Choosing a College
Weighing costs while you’re deciding which college to attend is an important part of the decision process. Here are some factors to keep in mind.
Consider Attending a Public University
Attending an in-state public university can help with cost savings. According to College Board figures for the 2019-2020 school year, average tuition and fees at out-of-state public universities and private colleges were much higher than in-state public universities:
- In-state public university – $10,440
- Out-of-state public university – $26,820
- Private nonprofit college – $36,880
Private colleges are more than two times the cost of a public in-state university, and an over 100 percent increase from an out-of-state public university. Clearly, where you attend college is a big factor in what your overall costs will end up looking like.
Look for Affordability
Various organizations provide rankings on affordability that you can use as a guide to help compare the cost of different colleges. The U.S. Department of Education has a wealth of college affordability and transparency data on their College Cost website.
Use a Net Price Calculator
To accurately compare what the net price of attending an institution will be, use a net price calculator. The net price is the amount that you will pay to attend an institution in a single academic year after subtracting the scholarships and grants you receive. You can find the net price calculator for most colleges at the U.S. Department of Education’s Net Price Calculator Center.
Evaluate Scholarship Options
While you're applying for colleges, be sure to evaluate different scholarship options that are available. For example, USF has admissions scholarships that are automatically applied to a student's file as long as they meet certain criteria and apply before our admissions scholarship deadline, January 15th.
Explore All Aid Options
Before looking into student loans, apply for financial aid and scholarship options. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators recommends applying for financial aid from each institution that interests you and to which you have applied. Then, once you receive each college’s offer of financial aid, you can compare the aid offers to determine which option is best for you.
You can also appeal the amount of financial aid you’ve received, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of SavingForCollege.com, in an interview with CNBC.
“Appeal if you have been affected financially by the pandemic,” he said. “That can include job loss, salary reductions, being furloughed.”
While You’re in College
Cutting costs doesn’t stop after you’ve started studying. You can continue to watch your expenses and take cost-saving measures during your four years in college.
Attend School Full-Time
While 12 credit hours is normally considered full-time, 15 credit hours is typically what you need to graduate on time. Taking a full course load can help ensure you graduate in four years and avoid accruing additional years of tuition expenses.
Compare Housing Options
Compare the cost of living on vs. off campus to ensure you’re making the most affordable choice of housing. Some schools, like USF, do not require students to live on campus even in their first year. This may help you save money depending on if it's more expensive to live on vs. off campus. If you choose to live off-campus, consider living with roommates to lessen the burden of rent.
Plan Your Path to Graduation
Having a clear plan for which classes you need to take, and when you need to take them, can help you graduate on time. Work with your academic advisor to plan the most efficient path to graduation
Work While You’re in School
There are several ways to earn while you’re in school, including work-study programs, being a Resident Advisor (RA), or getting a part-time job. If working during school is too stressful for you, you can work part-time or full-time over the summer to earn money.
Live Like a Student
Take advantage of all the amenities your university has to offer: health care, the recreation center, counseling, the library, free activities, etc. Also, don’t be afraid to use your student discount for clothing, activities, electronics, and food. Finally, attend free events on campus for entertainment.
Save on Textbooks
If possible, buy used textbooks or rent your textbooks instead of brand-new ones to save money. If you buy textbooks, try to sell them back to the bookstore or sell them online. Alternatively, you can look online for eBook versions of your textbooks, as these can sometimes be less expensive than print versions. In addition, the USF library has several textbooks that are needed for classes available for students to check out/make copies of by using the free printing service.
Be Responsible With Your Loans
If you do have to take out student loans, remember that you will have to pay them back with interest. Therefore, if you have any student loan money left over after paying for your expenses, you should ask the college to return the funds to your lender. Don’t take out more money than you need to. Also, make in-school payments on your student loans if possible. This will help you avoid accruing interest. Even a small payment can make a difference in the long run.
Plan Your Meals Wisely
If you decide to sign up for a meal plan, make sure you use it to the fullest. Get your breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks all through the meal plan. Otherwise, you’re leaving money on the table.
If you don’t think you’ll leverage the meal plan effectively, make sure you are planning your food affordably. Learn how to cook, limit eating out, and plan your own meals.
Claim Credit on Your Tax Returns
The American Opportunity Tax Credit provides a tax credit on your federal income tax return worth up to $2,500 depending on what you spent on tuition and textbooks.
Continue to Apply for Scholarships and Financial Aid
The scholarship search doesn’t stop after you’re in college. Some scholarships need to be renewed on an annual basis, and some are only available to upperclassmen.
In addition, make sure you fill out the FAFSA every year. Otherwise, you’re essentially leaving free money on the table.
Be Proactive With Your College Budget
Staying on top of your college expenses is no easy feat, but there are ways you can minimize your costs, from earning college credit in high school to taking advantage of being a student while you’re in college. Download our Cutting College Costs Guide so you can keep all our cost-saving measures at your fingertips.
About Haley DeLeon
Haley DeLeon is a content developer with extensive experience in the higher education sector. She is passionate about creating content that helps students and their families throughout the admissions journey.