Cutting College Costs
College expenses have become insane. Between tuition, books, room and board, student fees, lab fees, parking fees, the dollars rack up quickly. Many graduate with loan debt equivalent to a home mortgage, so colleges now offer financial management seminars to their students.
We at the CHOC Board have a few suggestions too.
Are You Sure You Need That 4-Year Degree?
Will that degree really translate into future career dollars? Many fields require a degree for entrance or for decent advancement, but not all do. Some degrees bring little by way of job return. Perhaps self-study in the topic would have provided similar benefit with less dollar out lay leaving time and money to pursue something that is more profitable.
Many jobs rely on technical training from trade schools or 2-year community colleges or apprenticeships. Good jobs that provide very reasonable living wages. We suggest checking out Mike Rowe's Profoundly Disconnected to see if there are some trade jobs that might be a perfect fit for your goals and talents.
A college degree can be a very good thing, but not everyone needs a 4 year college degree to succeed in life. Fortunately, for those who do, there are some savvy ways to reduce the cost of that diploma.
While colleges do differ in quality of education, not all of that cost translates into educational value. (We'd argue a lot of it doesn't). The same degree can vary thousands of dollars depending upon where you get it, so don't be afraid to shop for your degree.
While some very prestigious careers rely on prestigious degrees, most businesses simply look for good grades from a reputable institution. The degree gets you in the door, but your hard work keeps you there.
Obviously avoid diploma mills, so do your homework on an institution's reputation, longevity, experience in the degree sought, and more importantly real placement statistics. Ask around in the field to see what is considered a good program. Ask actual employees where they got their degree and how helpful it was to their position.
Consider Staying In-State
That leads us to suggest staying in state and going to a public institution. If feasible, this can automatically mean substantial savings.
Currently (checked June 2021), Portland Community College is $123 per credit for resident students compared to $258 for out of state students.
Oregon Institute of Technology is about $204 per credit for resident, $650 for non-resident. Oregon State University is about $331 to $386 per credit for residents depending on degree program; $632 for non-residents. On the other hand, George Fox University, a private college is $1120 per credit hour. Keep in mind that most courses are 3 to 4 credit hours and most colleges expect a student to carry about 15 to 17 credits per term. Cha ching.
Out-of-state or private college may sound exciting, but do the math first. Compare the in-state college costs with the private college or out-of-state package. You may be surprised at the savings that can be realized. Often the same degree will cost half as much.
Stay at Home and Commute
While possibly a lot of fun, if you have the right campus atmosphere, don't be too quick to leave the home nest and join the on-campus college scene. Currently, room and board adds another $12,000 to $20,000 per year on top of yearly tuition and books.
Even with the purchase of a used commuter car (around $7000), paying gas, and insurance, the average student could be many dollars ahead by staying at home and commuting to a local college.
Another advantage is the family and spiritual support network remains in place. This can be a tremendous help as a student wrestles with college pressures and finances especially if the college atmosphere is more hostile or unproductive.
Community College Transfers
Community college can cover the first two years of college at half the expense of a state college and often a quarter of private college. For example, many Oregon colleges have transfer or dual enrollment agreements with Portland Community College. Clackamas Community College has a long list of articulation and transfer agreements with other Oregon colleges as does Mt. Hood Community College.
Always check with the four-year institution for transfer ability of community college courses. Not all credits transfer well. Also, some programs are difficult to transfer into from a community college because the 4-year college gives program admittance preference to those students who take their freshman and sophomore prep years at the institution (medical fields especially).
However, for many, completing the first 2 years at a community college means substantial savings, especially if done commuting from home.
Scholarships & Financial Aid
An obvious way to reduce college expense is through scholarships and financial aid. No one should pay "rack rate" for a college degree. However, be certain what type of aid you are signing up for. Loans must be repaid but stipends and grants do not. Scholarships are free money but may require certain criteria be met to be maintained.
Getting a strong PSAT, SAT or ACT score can snag some great scholarships, often paying for half to all of college expenses.
But your student will have to work to get those scholarships. It means pursuing community activities, having strong grades, strong test scores, and doing the things that will distinguish yourself from the rest of the pack.
The student will also have to work hard to find the scholarship and apply for it including writing an excellent essay to sell yourself to the funding committee. Approach getting a scholarship as you would getting a job. You must pursue it vigorously with timeliness and due diligence.
For further information on scholarships and financial aid, please see our section Applying to College.
The College Level Exam Placement Test
The CLEP is one of the easiest ways to get college credit cheaply. Currently in September 2022, a CLEP test costs $89. Some testing centers charge an additional $10 to $20 administrative fee for administering the test. That means about $100 to $120 for a CLEP test, tops.
While credits awarded for CLEP vary between colleges, most tests give 3 or more credits. It doesn't take higher math to compute that $120 for 3 to 6 credits is a great deal when compared to actually taking those courses at college tuition prices (at $100 to $1000 per credit plus books and fees).
There are many tests to choose, and they target the general subjects of freshman and sophomore college courses. Arguably the easiest CLEP to take first is the "Analyzing and Interpreting Literature" test. (80 multiple choice questions on essentially a reading comprehension exam of literature excerpts). American History I and II, Western Civilization I and II, American Government, Psychology and Intro to Sociology are also considered the easier CLEP exams.
This doesn't mean a student should walk into a CLEP test without any prior preparation. If a student fails a CLEP test (a score of 50 is usually accepted as passing), the student must wait 6 months before taking that same subject test again because CLEP cycles out their tests every 6 months.
CLEP credits are kept by the College Board for 20 years, however, colleges will vary in how long they will accept credits after the test is taken. We've seen CLEP credits expire within 5 years with several colleges.
CLEP preparation is easy to find. We can recommend:
Hillsdale College offers free online courses which provide excellent CLEP preparation.
Don't simply google CLEP prep. There are numerous CLEP scams by companies who offer big promises and poor materials and poorer results. Suspicion should be raised if the company requires a large sum of money up front or tries to indicate college credit is gained without actually enrolling in a college.
Advance Placement exams (the AP exams from the College Board) allow a high school student to test out of lower level college courses. That means they can advance to higher level courses as a starting point. Depending on the college, this may or may not reduce the overall credit load required for the degree, but at least you aren't paying for courses you already know.
Some colleges do award actual degree credit for AP exams. If a college does, the AP becomes credit by exam as well. Therefore, check with the accepting college to see how they treat the AP exams.
As discussed in our Preparing for College Exams section, the AP requires extra effort to schedule for homeschoolers as you must contact a public or private high school that has an AP course coordinator and ask to be included in their May testing. AP may only be taken during high school, and not all AP programs are eager to include those outside their school for testing days.
Advance placement doesn't just mean the College Board AP exam though. Many Community Colleges, like Portland Community College, require new students to take the community college placement tests to determine a starting point (usually for math and writing). If the student performs well on these placement tests, he or she can skip the lower classes required and start at the upper level courses saving time and dollars.
Most community colleges offer new students their placement test for free (PCC currently does) or for a small fee. This means free or cheap credits for those skipped courses and fewer dollars spent on that degree.
Early College Admission Programs
A number of colleges offer an early admission program for high school juniors and seniors. These early admission students can take college courses at greatly reduced rates.
There are some "fine print" catches though. Generally only a limited number of class hours are allowed for selected courses, and often the college only awards college credit if the student continues at that institution for their college years. If the credits are transferrable to other institutions, the college will likely charge the full tuition price for those transferred credits.
For example, George Fox University provides an early admission program at $50 a credit, with no additional price charged if the student goes on to George Fox for college. See their website for the details of their Early Admission program.
Portland Community College allows early enrollment for students age 16 to 17, with permission given for those younger upon petition. College courses may be taken on campus or online. Clackamas Community College makes provisions for students under 18 to earn their GED, high school diploma, or college credit, as does Mt. Hood Community College.
High School Dual Credit Programs
In a dual credit program, the student can gain both a public high school diploma and an associates degree of general studies (if college level courses are taken}.
The availability and terms of dual credit differ from district to district and from year to year, so you will have to contact your local school district directly. Dual Credit requires matriculation into public high school, so it means the end of homeschool.
While Early Admissions or Dual Credit programs can be a cost effective way to start chipping away at college while also knocking off high school subjects, these programs are not for every child or family.
College courses are taught at adult level with adult themed materials at an adult pace. Colleges also expect your child to act like an adult in class and are less eager to have parent's advocate for their children.
If you do decide to enroll your child in a community college class (or other institutional class), we recommend researching teachers at the website RateMyTeachers.com.
Get a part-time job
This option is so obvious that it is often overlooked or under-estimated at its effectiveness. Start early and save steadily. If you can work during the school year, it saves time competing for summer jobs.
Some jobs even provide more than just a pay check. Check if your company provides an educational tuition program. You may find company dollars will pay for classes.
However be realistic with your time and energy. Burn out and low grades can take their toll, and many students never finish school if the job requires too much time and effort.
Go Army, Navy, Air Force, or National Guard
Yes, it is true, many students have funded their college education by first joining the armed services. But be sure you understand exactly what will be required of you and that you really want to go this direction.
While being instructed on how to discharge a firearm, one woman seeking funds for a nursing degree woke up to the fact that while the armed service was going to pay for her degree, it was also capable of sending her anywhere and requiring her to do anything they wanted.
Also, you may have to wait to receive those promised dollars. The government is not always speedy in getting them to you. (One student repeatedly had to sit out a term as the monies were late in coming).
Investigate the ROTC as scholarships can be gained in that direction as well.
On-Line Classes or Degrees
Many colleges offer on-line courses and even full degrees at a significant discount since they do not have to provide "brick and mortar" expense to offer the class. However not all on-line classes offered are cheaper. Sometimes they are more expensive. Usually those colleges that have a physical presence will charge more for their online courses. (Explain that one to us!)
For those offering full online degrees, obviously carefully research the validity of the college and the effectiveness of an online degree for your chosen field. While disparaged by some, online degrees are becoming more and more accepted as concepts of what constitutes an education change in our society.
Two online colleges that homeschoolers have used successfully are Thomas Edison State College and Baker College. (Intel accepted an Electrical Engineering degree earned from Baker College Online, and later the student went on to work for Hewlitt Packard.) American Public University is another institution that has been providing online college degrees for years (originally started for the military).
A recent entrant into the online degree is University of the People, a venture began by Micosoft, which provides tuition free 4 year degrees in business and technical degrees. The student merely pays for test proctoring. A 4 year degree can be reduced to about $4,000. UofP accepts transfer credits from accredited universities and now lists itself as fully accredited.
A resource site listing numerous online colleges is online colleges and degree programs Also, Sources of Free College Credit and Continuing Education Courses provides additional listing of organizations that offer free, non-credit, online classes a number of which either prepare the student for the CLEP or offer exam credit.
Avoid the Textbook Money Pit
It will take some serious detective skills with early and fast action to avoid spending top (and mucho inflated) dollars on required textbooks. College books stores charge incredible prices for books, new and used. (Some books cost $300 or more each.)
If possible, a term before you take the class, ask other students who have taken the course, from that particular instructor, if the textbook is actually used. If possible, ask the instructor. Amazingly, many courses never crack it open, and you can get by without ever buying it. But don't count on that. You want all the tools necessary to get a good grade.
Plan to purchase your necessary textbooks as soon as the professor posts the required materials on the course website, usually within 2 weeks of the class start date. If the textbooks are not listed online from the professor, or through the book store website, you will have to check the campus bookstore in person as they are often on shelves before posting. Warning: college bookstores are resistant to do this over the phone as they know you are looking to go elsewhere to buy cheaper. They also are posting book requirements closer and closer to course start dates in attempt to circumvent price shopping.
Get that ISBN and Check for Peripherals
When scoping out your books, always be sure to get the full title, author, and the all important ISBN (a number that identifies the published edition). You need to be sure you can acquire the correct edition -- publishers vary books from year to year, even term to term, to secure a steady stream of dollars. Sometimes back editions work, but be sure you know if there are any significant changes before you attempt an older edition. Also check if any peripheral material is included like cd's or more importantly that online access key code for the supplemental materials your teacher really does use. Most online courses require access key codes to obtain the material.
Stalk the Used Section in the College Bookstore
Find out when the campus bookstore has buy-back days and when used books first go on sale. Often used prices will be about 2/3 of new prices at the college bookstore, if the bookstore is generous (many aren't.) Usually the used books are simply put out on the shelves with the new books just before term starts...and the used books go within hours of stocking...so stalk that store. Be aware many campus bookstores will refuse to buy back books not purchased through their store. (But if you can buy or rent them far cheaper...do you care? You usually get a pittance in buy back credit.)
Hunt for Better Bargains
Okay, now for better shopping. This is not for the faint of heart as you have to work quickly to get the right book in time for your class.
There are a number of places to look for textbooks other than the campus bookstore used sale day. If it is a non-required book, the campus library should have a copy. Also check your local community library and look into inter-library loan programs. Be aware you will be in competition with all the other students who have figured out free is a good thing. But that can also be a benefit. Figure out who else on campus has what and pass textbooks back and forth -- if they are trustworthy.
Textbooks.com, BarnesandNobel.com, and Textbooksrush. provide good hunting grounds. Compare their prices to the campus bookstore used/new prices. Once you stop laughing, see if you can get your order in early enough to avoid fast delivery costs. The savings can be substantial.
Amazon both sells, and rents, textbooks. Further, it offers discount prime accounts for students.The discount allows free 2-day shipping, textbook discounts, and more freebies including streaming prime videos. Fun for short study breaks, and the academic channels can even give educational help.
Many of these companies will purchase your textbooks back at prices that far exceed the campus bookstore buy-back program. Borders has a local pick up policy and often can ship to your local store within a couple of days. If you study neatly, treat your books kindly and don't mark in them, you can get top resell dollars which can do a lot to offset purchase of the next set of books.
If you know you really don't want to keep that textbook, consider renting. Yes, RENT your textbook for a term or semester or even whole year. Amazon as stated above rents text books. Two other recommended sites are Chegg and Cengage Brain. Cengage Brain's site also provides a web forum for students who are using your textbook and other study guides.
Read rental agreement terms very carefully because they often require returning the textbook in the same box it was received in, using their prepaid label. So don't toss the box when you get the book.
Shipping is often free for both coming and going with rental. Be aware that the rental agreement includes keeping your credit card on file in case you damage the book or don't return it .
You can save up to 2/3 price of new textbook. That usually more than offsets buying at the college bookstore used and getting pennies on the dollar for buy-back. (My son's C++ textbook went from $138 new, to $103.50 campus used, to $46 rental price. Wow!)
Finding More Ways to Cut College Costs
College Without Compromise by Scott and Kris Wrightman. This book provides detailed information about the different ways to cost effectively achieve an education without going into debt. A great resource for the do-it-yourself-ers.
Educated Choice: Advice to Parents of College-Bound Students offers advice in choosing colleges and the college path and practical information about finances, curriculum, social influences, and preparing to receive a good education.
the CHOC Board
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(Permission is given to print for personal use or link to this article as long as credit is given to Tammy R. Arp at the CHOC Board and our website address is shown.)