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5 Ways to Cut College Costs

Jan. 7, 2016
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By Brian Kuhn

Learn more about Brian on NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor

You can be successful without graduating from college, but numerous studies have shown that getting a postsecondary education greatly increases your chances of having a solid career that pays well.

Expensive tuition and other costs can make college seem out of reach for many bright students, but there are several ways to make higher learning more affordable.

Here are five ways you can cut college costs to a minimum:


Getting a scholarship is one of the smartest and most common ways to reduce higher-education costs. Many colleges offer both “full-rides” — which cover all costs as long as a recipient meets certain academic requirements — and partial scholarships. Some third parties, such as cultural groups, also offer them. Use websites to search for scholarships, and remember to start your applications well in advance of the deadlines.

If your scholarships more than cover your tuition and fees, you’ll receive the excess in a residual check. I know many students who did this for years and went shopping at the beginning of every semester when their checks arrived.


Like scholarships, grants are free money that you can apply to your college costs. They’re typically awarded based on financial need more than other factors. Many sources offer grants, including professional associations and federal and state agencies.

The federal Pell Grant is among the most popular. To obtain government financial aid, such as a Pell Grant, you’ll need to fill out the proper forms — usually the FAFSA. If you do receive a government grant, you can fail a class without ending up on a probation list, unlike with an academic scholarship.

>> MORE: Everything You Need to Know About Federal Aid for College

529 plans

529 plans help families set aside funds for future college expenses. Just about every state has a 529 plan, though the details vary.

Tax advantages are a major perk of 529 plans. Funds in a plan grow free of federal taxes, and withdrawals that are used to pay for college aren’t taxed. In addition to the federal tax savings, more than half the states and the District of Columbia offer residents a full or partial tax deduction or credit for contributions to the plans.

Employer assistance

Not everyone seeking college financing is a high school student. If you’re a professional hoping to return to college, ask your manager or human resources department whether your employer offers tuition assistance. Many forward-thinking companies provide this perk because they know a better-educated workforce is ultimately good for the company. Gaining more education can make you a stronger contributor and put you in line for promotions.

AP classes

If you’re a high school student, you might be able to earn college credit for free through advanced placement classes. If your college accepts these credits and you’ve gotten a sufficient grade on the course’s AP test, you’ll be able to take one less class in college, potentially saving hundreds of dollars.

AP classes are available at many schools in subjects including art, English, history, social studies, math, computer science, science, and foreign languages.

Going to college is a great way to set yourself up for success. And by knowing how to defray the costs, it can be more affordable than you originally expected.

Image via iStock.