5 Ways to Reduce College Costs

Yesterday I made a presentation for College Week Live: “How ACT & SAT Scores Can Lower Your Tuition Bill.” You can login and listen to the 40-minute presentation here. I give multiple examples showing how higher test scores can save you money and help earn scholarships. If you are looking for a little motivation to start (or continue) test prep, you might want to check it out.

Today I’m going to give you some other ideas to help save on tuition and/or pay college costs.

1. Select the right schools.

If you do only one thing to help manage your college bill, this is the one! Add colleges to your list based on the likelihood of receiving money.

If you have estimated what your family will pay each year (EFC) using a college net price calculator or the FAFSA4caster and know your out of pocket expenses for college will be very low due to financial need, you want to look for schools that are more likely to award aid in the form of grants or work study. In other words, you want to find colleges that are unlikely to meet a majority your need with student loans. You will also want to include schools that could meet your financial need with academic awards.

If you have estimated your out of pocket costs will be high, possibly resulting in no need for financial aid, you want to look for schools where merit aid or scholarships are likely. These tend to be schools where your grades and test scores fall into the above average category for admitted students. Because you would improve the academic profile of these schools, they are willing to offer scholarships to attract you and similarly qualified students to their campuses.

Keep in mind the scholarship aspect of selecting the right schools is based on supply and demand. Highly selective universities and those with recognizable and prestigious names don’t need to entice top students with scholarship money; these schools already have more potential students than they can admit. But a student who could get into Duke, NYU, or Brown could find a number of colleges, equally recognized in academic circles, that don’t have the household name status. Those schools are more likely to offer merit money.

2. Apply for scholarships.

(Yes, this seems obvious!) By the time students have prepared for and taken the ACT / SAT, put together a resume, researched schools, written essays, secured letters of recommendation, and finally sent all the college applications, most are simply too exhausted to apply for scholarships. But you can’t win if you don’t enter the game.

I’d encourage you to come up with a reasonable number of scholarships—either total applications sent or applications per month—and stay organized. Make your initial goal manageable, maybe 5 total applications. Take on more only when you have met your initial goal.

My students who have been most successful in applying for scholarships were persistent and organized. Be ready with a well-written resume. Repurpose essays whenever possible. Make sure you double-check everything and never miss a deadline.

With the same amount of time and some effort, students can “earn” more in scholarships than they would working a minimum wage job. (Of course, they could always do both!)

3. Work.

Work and save. Some students aren’t interested in applying for scholarships or they feel with lower grades it might not be worth their time, but everyone can work.

I’ve seen a lot of creative work options over the years. One of my neighbors set up a booming business as a high school freshman. She makes monograms, the kind you could put on your car, a tumbler, or a shirt. My Yeti is personalized thanks to her talents. She’s been able to save a lot of money for college– $5 to $10 dollars at a time.

Of course good old-fashioned babysitting, yard work, and summer jobs count too. The trick is to plan ahead and have a goal.

4. Earn credit through less expensive means.

You don’t have to give up on the four-year college experience and live at home to make this approach pay off.

Many high school students have the opportunity to earn college credits by taking dual enrollment courses through their high school or by doing well on Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) exams.

I was doing a little research on one of the colleges my daughter is considering. The cost of a single course at this private school is $4,167. A score of a 4 or 5 on the AP U.S. History exam would save us over $4,000. (Sure makes the AP exam fee of $94 look like a great deal!)

You can save 25% off the cost of your college education if you graduate in three years instead of four. Earning less expensive credits can make this happen.

5. Get free food and housing by working as a resident assistant.

Responsible college sophomores, juniors, and seniors can live on campus in a single room with a free meal plan if they work as resident advisors. Most of the job involves being open and approachable and serving as a contact point for the residents on your floor. Unless you have been assigned to “Animal House” the amount of money you save by getting a free room and meal plan will more than make up for the few hours a week you put in resolving roommate disputes and organizing activities.


Do you have other money-saving college ideas? Leave them in the comments below.

The Best Online Resources for Finding Scholarships

best place to find scholarship


Whether you are a high school freshman, a current college student, or a graduate student, you can find scholarships to help pay for your education. In addition to working with the guidance counseling or financial aid office at your high school or college, you can find scholarship search tools online.

Before you embark on a scholarship hunt there are a few tips you should consider:

  • Agree on the number of scholarships you will apply to each week, month, or in total. It can become a full-time job.
  • If you haven’t already, create a separate email account for college/scholarship information versus your personal and school communication.
  • Don’t let the volume of information overwhelm you. Be ready to adjust your email preferences to get weekly summaries rather that separate emails for every possible scholarship.
  • Organize your written responses so you can reuse answers as much as possible. This helps if you plan to apply to multiple scholarships.
  • Before you work on any scholarship or apply to any program you find online, verify that the program is still in existence. Companies and colleges discontinue funding at times and you don’t want to invest 15 hours of effort only to find the program ended last year.


Watch Out!

First, NEVER PAY FOR SCHOLARSHIPS. Ever. If you are told there is a fee to accept your award, it is a scam. You should not have to pay for legitimate scholarships.

The sites listed in this article work to include only legitimate programs, but there are a lot of companies out there preying upon people’s desire to find college money. These shifty businesses promise results. Use your good judgment. No one can guarantee scholarships.

Also, these scholarship search sites ask for your personal information to help find scholarships that meet your specific profile. Use caution when providing personal information, as some sites may sell your information. Read the registration forms carefully, and if you do not want your information shared with third parties, be sure to opt out.

Here are some top online resources for finding scholarships.


Fastweb is an online scholarship database with more than 1.5 million programs listed. Students can register with Fastweb, create a profile, and receive customized emails with scholarships right for them. Fastweb has scholarships for every year of study, beginning with high school freshman and going all the way through graduate school. Since 1995, Fastweb has been helping students with free scholarship search information.




Scholarships.com is another online database dedicated to helping students find money for college. Scholarships.com features 2.7 million scholarships and grants worth more than $19 million. Students and guidance counselors can search according to a variety of criteria. In addition, Scholarships.com includes a matchmaker and directory feature to help students find the right college.



Big Future

Big Future is one part of the College Board’s extensive website. You are probably familiar with the College Board site because it’s the resource for SAT practice and registration. However, the site’s “Big Future” section also includes college and scholarship search features. The scholarship search feature is a recent addition that includes 2,200 programs totaling more than $6 million in awards. College Board is working to expand the listings, so the number of scholarships listed will increase.




Cappex, a popular college search site, gives you access to more than $11 billion in scholarships. It is a great tool to search for scholarships offered by specific colleges and universities. The focus of the site is matching students with merit and academic scholarships offered by more than 3,000 schools.




CollegeNET is a technology company that focuses on web-based tools for education. The scholarship search program is unique, because in addition to information on programs and awards, CollegeNET encourages students to create forums and vote online for the most interesting discussion. Weekly voting and site participation determines the CollegeNET social networking scholarship, which ranges from $3,000 to $10,000 depending on the level of participation. In addition to the social aspect, CollegeNET has a database of $1.6 billion in scholarships.



By using these online resources you can find scholarships, even if you are not a top academic student. There will be overlap in the scholarships described on these sites, but each site claims to have unique content. It’s a good idea to use more than one of these sites as part of your scholarship search.


FAFSA Change: October 1 = Financial Aid for 2017


Today I want to list some actions you can take now that will make life easier throughout the rest of this school year improve your financial aid awards. This information is immediately relevant to families with high school seniors or current college students. If your child is younger, you may want to get ahead by understanding the process now.

Here’s the big news for 2016—the FAFSA application will open on Friday, October 1 this year. In the past families began the FAFSA in January while they tried to estimate their past year’s income tax information. Now you will use your already completed (hopefully!) 2015 tax return.

What is the FAFSA?

FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the first step in the process of obtaining need-based aid from colleges and universities. The FAFSA is a means of evaluation. Completing the FAFSA is like being let in the front door. It doesn’t award you any aid but it’s your first step in the right direction.

Who gets financial aid? Should we apply?

Lots of people. Even middle-class and upper-middle-class families receive financial aid.

Financial aid is based in part on your family income / assets. The other factor in determining financial aid is the cost the college or university your child ultimately attends.

Financial aid is intended to cover the gap between the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and the cost of a year’s education at a particular institution. A family with an EFC of $30,000 may not qualify for financial aid at a state university with an expected annual cost of $26,000. However, that same family would qualify for financial aid at the private university that costs $60,000 a year to attend.

How do we know if we qualify?

(Or, do we make too much money to apply?)

There are some online tools to help you estimate cost and financial aid. A good resource is the FAFSA4caster Of course, a lot of the equation depends on your family’s final college choice which may not be determined for months. So the first step in the application process is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

How can you submit the FAFSA?

You can save time and frustration by completing the FAFSA online at https://fafsa.ed.gov

There is an option to complete a paper copy of the FAFSA, but you are more likely to experience delays and data entry errors if you send in a paper application. In this day and age, even for people who don’t have regular Internet access at home, it is well worth completing the online FAFSA even if you need to use a computer at the local library, university, or high school.

How do you apply?

Step 1. You need to get a FSA ID which takes the place of the old pin number. This ID allows you to electronically access and sign your FAFSA application. The process should take less than 5 minutes and can be completed online at https://fsaid.ed.gov/npas/index.htm

Once you have a FSA ID put it somewhere where you will be able to safeguard it, but where you won’t forget or lose it before it’s time to file.

Step 2. Complete the FAFSA application. The window for submitting the FAFSA opens October 1st of a student’s senior year of high school. You will want to have these details handy:

  • Social Security Number (or Alien Registration Number)
  • 2015 federal income tax returns
  • Bank and investment statements
  • Records of any other income that may not be included on your tax return (untaxed income)

The FAFSA looks at student and parent finances, so have these documents handy for you and your student.

Step 3. Submit and wait. Once your data is processed, you will receive an SAR or Student Aid Report. The SAR is essentially a summary of the information you submitted in your FAFSA.

Verify the accuracy of the data and pay careful attention to your EFC– your Expected Family Contribution. This is the amount your family is expected to pay for college next year.

Step 4. Send your FAFSA results to all of the colleges on your list, complete any school specific aid forms, and wait. The FAFSA is the tool to start the process, but it does not award funds; individual schools do. Think of the FAFSA as one part of your application, like the SAT. Make sure you have completed all other required paperwork for financial aid at every college you are still considering. Contact financial aid departments if you have questions or special circumstances. Colleges should contact you with financial aid offers in the spring (and possibly in the fall once your are officially admitted.)

Do you need help completing the FAFSA?

If you can copy numbers from your bank statements and tax return, you can complete the FAFSA without paying someone to help. FAFSA questions about income will prompt you with the exact line numbers from your tax return, so you aren’t left guessing. Take a look at the FAFSA worksheet to see for yourself: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/sites/default/files/2017-18-fafsa-worksheet.pdf If you want to pay for help, you can, but they can’t “find” you extra money; they will just enter your numbers and hit the submit button. You can do this.

Do it now!

The FAFSA starts holding your place in the financial aid line. If you submit it now (in October) you will be in the front of the line when colleges start distributing the “good” aid like grants, which do not need to be paid back. If you forget to fill out the FAFSA or wait until April when you find your son actually was admitted to that really expensive Ivy League school (yes, this happened to a former student of mine), you will find the only aid remaining is student loans.

Ask if you need help.

I’m not a financial guru or a CPA. When I have questions, I pick up the phone and ask for advice. I’ve gotten plenty of free help from college financial aid officers. Additionally, you will find a live chat feature on the FAFSA site to help with questions and most area community colleges offer sessions to help parents and students complete the FAFSA. If you need help, ask.

I’m glad to see the FAFSA timetable start earlier this year. I think it puts the financial process in line with the college application process and helps families with the reality of selecting schools that will ultimately be affordable.



Does Indicating Financial Need Impact Admissions Chances?


I heard that when applying to college not to say that you need financial aid, but when you get accepted, then go ahead and fill out financial aid information.  Is this correct?  My daughter will be working on her application this summer for early decision. Will stating we are looking for scholarship money decrease our chances of getting in?

Great question. Unfortunately, I have to give my most common answer – it depends. Here are some factors to consider.

Need Blind Admissions

Some colleges and universities are “need blind” in their admissions process. This means admissions decisions are made with NO consideration of a student’s ability to pay or potential financial need.

If your daughter is applying to need blind schools, you don’t need to worry about need affecting her admissions chances.

When Need Matters

Many colleges and universities take an “it depends” position. Need isn’t their primary consideration, but it may become a factor. Here are some examples:

  • A clearly outstanding candidate indicates he will apply for financial aid. This student has grades, test scores, activities, and essays above the typical profile for this college and he meets the criteria for academic scholarships. Need is likely overlooked in admissions because this guy will be a real asset to the school and a probable scholarship recipient.
  • A good student applies to her flagship state university and indicates she expects to apply for financial aid. The admissions office uses the established formula—likely a combination of class rank / GPA and standardized test score—to make a decision. Need never entered into the equation.
  • A marginal candidate at a particular university needs financial aid. The university is “need aware” in its policies (the opposite of need blind) and has already given out significant aid to attract top applicants. The university may choose to waitlist or reject this marginal candidate in favor of another borderline student who is able to pay the full cost with no aid.

You can see there are a variety of factors to consider. Usually the issue of aid doesn’t impact admissions at all. The times when a family’s ability to pay matter tend to involve borderline applicants, those who barely meet that year’s standard for admission. In these cases, colleges and universities are willing to pass on that student in favor of a similar one who can pay the full cost without aid.

New Financial Aid Process May Change the Answer

This fall seniors in the class of 2017 will find the college financial aid process has changed. The timetable for applying for financial aid has been accelerated to bring it more in line with the college application timeline. So instead of applying to college in the fall and waiting until January, February, or March to apply for aid, families will complete the FAFSA and financial aid applications beginning October 1.

This is good new for families.

  • FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) numbers will be based on your 2015 taxes, which are already done. In the past families had to estimate their taxes and submit early in order to “get in line” for institutional grants and aid.
  • Families will know their EFC (expected family contribution) sooner. This is the amount your family is expected to contribute towards your child’s college education on an annual basis. Financial aid will help with expenses that exceed this amount. (Many families discover this total is much higher than expected, so be ready.)
  • Because families will have information sooner, they can better target schools that are a good fit financially (or for scholarship potential.)

But the new timeline for financial aid may eliminate the strategy of applying for admission first, getting accepted, then applying for aid.

Other Considerations

I have a few other ideas on this topic.

First, I’m a rule follower by nature so the suggestion that a student should knowingly mislead a college or university rubs me the wrong way. Over the years I have seen very few students successfully game the system when it came to admission or aid and I have seen many more who got caught by their own omissions (or in some cases outright lies.)

Second, keep in mind that financial aid only covers the gap between your EFC and the cost of attendance. And the most common type of financial aid is a loan. Financial aid is NOT the same as scholarship money. (Financial aid is based on need; scholarships are based on merit / achievement.) So you may be considering all this “strategic timing” just to qualify for some student loans. A student who is seeking scholarship money can best do so by intentionally selecting schools where she will be above average for grades, test scores, and other personal achievements.

Next, you want to apply for financial aid as soon as possible. Under the old system, you couldn’t apply for aid before January 1, so it was possible to get an offer of admission before applying for financial aid. But the new system will not have this time gap. If you wait to apply for aid until your daughter is accepted, you risk missing out on the “good aid”—things like grants and work study which don’t need to be paid back.

Finally, keep in mind that the issue of need rarely impacts the final admission decision. Yes, you might hear a lot of people citing it as the reason their sons or daughters didn’t get in, but that’s because it is easier to attribute rejection to bureaucratic policies than personal inadequacies. In reality, most admissions offices, even those that consider need, are weighing the merit of a students’ application more than their potential for institutional need.