Paying for college is expensive for most families, but even if you’re wealthy enough to pay for it without worrying, you’d probably like to get a better deal.
When you’re having to pay tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to send a single student to college, any significant savings is welcomed. Fortunately, there are several strategies you can use to save money on college and lower your costs.
As a college planning specialist and Certified Financial Planner®, I’ve taught hundreds of families how to use these strategies over the years. As many of them have been thrilled to discover, these tips can make a big difference in how much you pay for college and allow you to make your child’s college dreams come true.
With those goals in mind, let’s take a look at my 5 Strategies to Lower Your College Costs and how they work.
1. Get a feel for your local state colleges.
When I advise families on ways to reduce college costs, I tell them to start by using the public colleges and universities in their state as a baseline. This gives you a quick sense of how expensive it is to attend college in your state, and how costs compare between individual schools as well as public colleges in neighboring states.
In California, there are two major public college systems. Schools in the University of California system average about $35,000 per year to attend. But schools in the California State University system are typically much less expensive and cost an average of $25,000 per year. They are all public universities, and their academic standards and requirements differ, but there’s a big difference in cost between the two systems.
Public colleges in Illinois have a total cost of attendance of $24,000 to over $32,000 per year, including $32,636 per year at Northern Illinois. But in neighboring Indiana, the range is only $19,000 to over $24,000 for public colleges, including $24,427 per year at Indiana and $22,812 at Purdue.
Researching these costs as a starting point is a good way to get a feel for how expensive your state is and whether you could potentially save money by attending a school in a neighboring state, especially if there are tuition reciprocity agreements or policies in place. These are arrangements that allow students from certain states to be considered in-state students or receive discounts for tuition purposes.
For more on these possibilities, let’s take a look at the next college cost strategy you can pursue.
2. Look into less expensive and adjacent schools
Once you’ve reviewed the costs of public colleges in your state and you’ve compared them to costs in neighboring states, there may less expensive options you can consider.
In the state of Texas, the total cost of attendance for in-state students is over $25,000 per year at the University of Texas in Austin. That’s cheaper than Texas A&M at over $28,000 per year, but it’s more expensive than Texas Tech, where the baseline cost is around $23,600 annually.
You may also find less expensive options in neighboring states, and an important factor is whether your student might qualify for in-state tuition or tuition discounts at an out-of-state school.
There are regional college organizations where schools have banded together to offer in-state tuition rates or discounted out-of-state tuition to students from neighboring states. One is the MSEP, the Midwest Student Exchange Program, where over 50 colleges from Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio and Wisconsin offer savings of $500 to $5,000 per year for out-of-state students from one of these states.
The Western Undergraduate Exchange is a similar program available to students from Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. Through the WUE, Students can attend certain schools located in other member states and pay only up to 150 percent of the in-state tuition rate.
Some states have their own tuition reciprocity agreements and arrangements with other states or institutions. For example, the state of Minnesota has agreements with the states of Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, and one institution in Iowa that allow Minnesotans to attend public colleges in those states at discounted rates.
The states of Colorado and New Mexico have an agreement in place to offer tuition reciprocity to students from the other state, although spots are limited and they must maintain at least a 3.0 GPA. At the University of Toledo in Ohio, the school has an agreement with the state of Michigan to allow all students from Monroe County, Michigan, which borders Ohio, to attend college at Toledo for in-state tuition rates.
Tuition reciprocity policies or agreements can have restrictions based on geography, academics, majors, or a maximum number of students who are allowed to receive reciprocity. But some have no restrictions other than where you happen to live. To learn more about these possibilities, you can check with individual colleges and search their websites to find out if they have any tuition reciprocity agreements. Or you can do a Google search for “tuition reciprocity” and add other keywords such as your state or the name of a particular college.
3. Find more generous colleges.
One of the biggest revelations about college costs for many families is that the price you see on school websites or from many other sources is not the actual price your family will pay. The real cost of college is what you’ll pay after any federal and institutional grants and scholarships are awarded, which are based on your family income and assets as well as your student’s merit.
If you’ve been accepted to a college and have submitted your financial aid forms on time, you’ll eventually receive an offer that shows how much financial aid your family will receive and what your real bottom-line cost will be.
To get an idea of what your net cost might be for each year of college, go to my Cost of Colleges by State page, choose your state, and view the average annual net price of college for families in your income bracket. My data tables are based on the actual cost data that colleges report to the federal government, and they’re broken down into public vs. private colleges and different income brackets. Find your family’s income bracket and then look at each column to see the average in-state costs that families like yours paid for one year at each college.
As you’ll quickly see, some colleges are more generous than others when it comes to financial aid, and this is especially the case at private colleges, where schools often need to lower their costs to make them more attractive and affordable to prospective students.
By looking through the data in your state and for other states, you will likely be surprised. A school that appears expensive at first glance will sometimes be far less expensive for your family. And your student could potentially attend some private colleges for the same price or less than going to a public university.
It all depends on the school, your income, and your student’s merit, but keep in mind that these net costs are only averages, and they’re based on in-state tuition, room and board, books and supplies, and travel or personal expenses. Your family could be above or below the average, and if your student won’t qualify for in-state tuition, these numbers may not apply.
However, by looking at net prices, you can find schools that are more generous than others and may help your student attend college for a significantly lower cost.
4. Negotiate for a better deal.
Another big surprise for families who are planning for college is that, under the right circumstances, you can actually negotiate a better financial deal from colleges where your student has been accepted. There are a few ways to do this.
One is to apply to and get accepted at cheaper colleges so you have some leverage with more expensive colleges. Generally this won’t help you much with public colleges, where it’s difficult to get a better deal because they often don’t have budgets to provide much more financial aid than what they initially offer. As public institutions, they’re already the low-cost college option, and many are not in the business of negotiating beyond that. But private colleges usually have more flexibility, and some may be willing to negotiate and offer you a better deal if your student tells them they’ve been accepted at a much cheaper school.
For out-of-state public colleges, there’s more room for negotiation than there used to be. We hit peak enrollment at colleges a few years ago, and now there are not as many students enrolling. Colleges lower on the pecking order may not be able to fill their classes, so they may be willing to work with you. The big schools like the University of Wisconsin-Madison or Harvard don’t have any issues. But other schools do, and they may be willing to provide out-of-state students with scholarships or grants that bring their cost down to the in-state cost or something closer to it. In rare instances, especially if your student shows exceptional merit, they may lower the price even further.
However, when it comes to getting a better deal at any college, it all depends on your starting point. If you’re being asked to pay the full $60,000 per year at Marquette University, and you’re asking for $5,000 or $10,000 off that price, you can probably get it. But if Marquette has already offered you $25,000 in scholarships, you don’t have much leverage. You might even be asking the school to take a loss on your student.
Make sure to ask if there’s anything the school can do to help you with the cost, no matter what your situation is. The worst a school can say is “no.” And when you’re negotiating, you’re not really negotiating. You’re asking the school to help you make your colleges dreams a reality or to appeal its financial aid decision.
Take a constructive approach such as asking, “Can you help me make this more affordable?” It’s also helpful if you can say something to back up your request. For example, you might say, “My dad says I can’t come to college there because it’s too expensive. But I love your school.”
Whatever you do, avoid a combative approach, and don’t make ultimatums. Don’t say, “If you don’t lower the price, we’re going somewhere else.” Colleges don’t like the alpha-male approach you might use with a car dealer.
5. Take advantage of opportunities late in the process.
The last strategy typically comes last in the college process as well. You can take opportunities to get a better deal late in the game, when colleges might have more scholarship dollars available or might need to admit more students.
As we get into the later stages of the college process, some schools may suddenly have more scholarship funds available or may be looking to convince more students to choose their college and enroll there. This sometimes happens because some of their admitted students have chosen to attend college elsewhere, and the scholarship dollars they would have awarded those students are now available. In other cases, the school realizes it isn’t going to make its numbers for incoming freshmen, and it may be willing to get more of its admitted students to commit by offering them a better deal.
You can’t necessarily count on opportunities like this being available, but it’s something you can certainly explore, especially if you still haven’t chosen which college your student will attend. Just keep in mind that some schools will offer you a better deal at this late stage, but they may put short time limits on it to force you to make a quicker decision.
Want More Help with College Planning?
Subscribe to my free e-newsletter and get great tips and advice on how to plan and save more money for college, how to reduce your costs, and how to put your student on the path to a bright future. You can also check some of my other helpful blog articles and resources below.