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Control Costs All Four Years of College

Suzanne Shaffer

Every parent with college-aged children knows that higher education comes at a cost. The price of textbooks goes up every year. Housing, food, clothing and entertainment costs increase. Families struggle to budget for these increased costs in addition to paying for tuition, which may increase each year as well.

How can families economize and control college costs?

1. Take advantage of scholarship opportunities.

Scholarships and merit aid are the best way to control college tuition costs. This is free money that you and your student never have to repay.

If your student received merit aid in the form of grants and scholarships that came from the college (rather than the federal government), it may not be renewable. College-sponsored scholarships often have GPA or credit hour requirements. Review last year’s financial aid award. It should list requirements or guidelines for renewal.

Your student should do some research on the college website for major-specific scholarships or scholarships for upper-level students. Once those scholarships are located, review the requirements and application deadline. These scholarships could help pay for next year’s tuition!

Every student should keep searching for outside scholarships while they are attending college. There are many available — leave no stone unturned! Search within your major. Search locally. Search online using social media. Do a Google search with specifics in mind, such as “scholarships for liberal arts students.” Finally, use these popular scholarship search engines:, SchollyScholarships360 and Cappex.

To prep for applying, advise your student to:

  • File income tax returns on time and complete the FAFSA and CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE as soon as they become available.
  • Maintain a current resumé to keep track of work and extracurricular experiences, academic recognitions, etc.
  • Cultivate relationships with professors and supervisors and think ahead about whom to ask for letters of recommendation.

2. Apply for financial aid.

Every college student should apply for financial aid. Even if they didn’t apply last year, they should apply this year. Always complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE, too, if it is required. First-year students who were awarded financial aid must re-apply each year. Recent changes to the FAFSA — including the fact that it’s now available on October 1st — make it easier than ever to apply for/renew financial aid.

If your student applied last year and didn’t receive any aid, apply again. Their academic record could qualify them for college scholarships and grants. Another reason to apply is if your family financial situation has changed: loss of job, care of an elderly parent, another family member in college, or a change in income.

Every family’s financial situation changes from year to year and it just makes sense to always apply for financial aid. Also remember that colleges use the FAFSA when disbursing their own merit aid. So, even if your family doesn’t qualify for government aid, you must complete the FAFSA if you want money set aside by the college for its current students.

3. Borrow wisely.

In order to qualify for federal student loans, your student must complete the FAFSA. But before your student signs on the dotted line every year, encourage them to take inventory of their total student loan balance. They should investigate repayment amounts and the rules and regulations about paying back these loans.

For those government loans that your student does not have to pay back until graduation but the interest does accrue, encourage them to pay the interest. Even paying a small amount during college will reduce the overall debt at graduation.

Try to avoid taking out private student loans if possible. The rates are higher than government loans and have stricter repayment rules and penalties.

4. Graduate on time.

Remember when college took four years? It’s not true today. A recent study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics found the 6-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time undergraduate students who started in a four-year program was 60%. As you can imagine, graduating in four years or less can save your student and your family tens of thousands of dollars. You would not only save on tuition, but room and board and other expenses as well.

An on-time graduation also means your student will enter the work force (and begin earning a salary!) sooner rather than later.

Other ways to save money and manage costs:

  • If your student earned AP or IB credit in high school, or has community college course credits, make sure they do what they need to do to get those credits applied to their transcript. The academic advisor and Registrar’s office should be able to help.
  • Students who live on campus can apply for a Resident Assistant (RA) position after freshman year. Colleges typically reduce the room and board bill or even offer free room and board to RAs. It’s well worth the time investment your student will have to make and can significantly reduce the cost of college.
  • Reevaluate the student meal plan after freshman year. Odds are your student isn’t eating three meals a day in the dining hall. Why pay for meals they’re not eating? A partial meal plan should be sufficient unless, of course, your student is an athlete!
  • Take advantage of student discounts on food, entertainment and travel. Local businesses, restaurants and grocery stores usually accept a student ID card. If not, they may offer their own discount card for students to use.
  • Textbooks can be quite costly and your student can save hundreds each semester by not buying new books. They can purchase used textbooks at the college bookstore or through websites like Chegg, Barnes & Noble and Amazon where they may also search for textbook rentals using the book’s ISBN number, title or the author’s name. Your student might also explore student textbook exchanges like Student2Student. My daughter shared textbooks with her roommate since they had some of the same classes but at different times.
  • If your student’s school allows, consider making monthly tuition payments instead of paying an entire semester at once. This doesn’t reduce costs but may make it easier for you to budget for that monthly payment and therefore reduce financial stress. Information about payment plans should be available on the Bursar’s or Student Accounts page on the school website.

College can be expensive, but if you and your student employ these cost saving tips, your overall college bill can be greatly reduced.

Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been featured in print and online on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College, TeenLife, Smart College Visit, Road2College and more.
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