Paying for college: While you’re in school (Part 2 of 3)

Children, Education, Family/Kids, Money

In the first article in this series, we looked at how students and parents can pay for college before school even starts. In this article, we’ll look at how they can help minimize costs while students are in school.

When it comes to higher education, tuition charges are just the beginning – with room, board, transportation, books and other miscellaneous fees making up the rest. Fortunately, once school starts students still have many options for helping defray the costs of education. In addition to tried-and-true tactics like buying used textbooks and living at home, students can lower costs by shortening time in school, making strategic school transfers or taking advantage of their employer’s tuition-reimbursement programs.

Researching your school’s programs

First, students can look into cost-lowering programs offered by their school. Many colleges have resident advisor (RA) programs, in which students take on a leadership role in a dorm in exchange for reduced room and board costs. Before signing up, be sure to check that becoming an RA does not affect your financial aid package.

Around 3,400 institutions of higher education take part in the Federal Work-Study Program, which allows students with financial needs to earn money while in school. Many also have state-run work-study programs.

Students interested in military service can apply for the ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) program if their school offers it. ROTC programs offer stipends and scholarships to qualified applicants, and upon graduation students enter the military as an officer. More information on ROTC benefits can be found here.

Financial aid at online colleges can vary widely by institution, but there are resources dedicated specifically to helping students who pursue their degree digitally.

Making smart lifestyle choices

How a student lives while in school has a big effect on how much they’ll need to pay. Simple things like renting textbooks, or buying them used, can save $1,000 or more over four years. Choosing wisely when it comes to housing options and meal programs can save significant amounts of money. Living at home during college is a great option for students who are able to do so.

That’s what Michelle Dunn of New Hampshire had her two sons – Nathan, now 26, and Jonathan, 24 – do. Her goal was for them to avoid taking out student loans. “I wanted my kids to get an education to get ahead, to have a better life. If they graduated with debt, I really didn’t help them get ahead,” Dunn explains.

Dunn and her sons, who were the first members of the family to graduate from college, took time to choose the right schools to fit their interests and budget, and to apply for multiple scholarships and grants. Dunn even had her sons fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) themselves.

Once college started, Dunn let her boys live at home rent-free. They both got jobs during the summer to help pay for books and other expenses, but during the school year they focused on academics. Dunn believes that contributing to their school payments made the boys appreciate their education more. They also appreciated graduating with no debt.

“They realize what a great gift that is,” says Dunn.

Planning your course load strategically

Another way to lower costs is to reduce the amount of time spent in school. Students can do this by taking a heavier course load during the school year or by attending summer school classes at a local, and less expensive, college to earn transfer credits.

Students can also get credit for studies they completed before college. Many high schools offer AP (Advanced Placement) courses, and students achieving a high score on an AP exam – typically a 4 or 5 out of 5 – can use their scores to fulfill intro-level credits. The same is true for colleges that accept credit from the IB (International Baccalaureate) program. Colleges and universities differ on which AP or IB courses they accept for credit, and the tests do cost money, so be sure to check which scores are accepted before paying for the test.

Students can also test out of certain classes if their school allows. Both the CLEP (College-Level Examination Program) and the DSST (DANTES Subject Standardized Tests) exams allow students to show knowledge in a subject area and earn college credit or skip intro courses. DSST exams are designed especially for students who have learned skills through real life experience, such as adult students who have been in the workforce. Students interested in these programs should look into their school’s policies on accepting credits from CLEP and DSST exams.

Non-traditional students: Learning in the real world

Calling students over 25 years old “non-traditional” is a misnomer considering 51 percent of students now fall into this category, according to Jayson Boyers, Vice President of Continuing and Professional Studies at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. Non-traditional students have unique needs when it comes to paying for college, as many are trying to juggle schoolwork along with jobs and family commitments.

To help address these needs, Boyers works directly with companies to give employees access to the school’s resources as part of Champlain’s “True Ed” program. With “True Ed,” students get an education at a low cost by paying a subscription fee rather than by the credit hour, and their employers reap the benefits of a better-educated workforce. The subscription-access model is ideal for adult students because it keeps costs down, an important consideration for someone with fewer earning years remaining, compared to a 22-year-old graduate.

“If you’re an adult and you’re changing careers, you [have] a lot less time, both for return on investment and to move up the ladder,” says Boyers.

Adults in the workforce who want to go back to school should check to see if their employer has a tuition reimbursement program. Boyers suggests students take time choosing the right program for their interests and investigate whether the companies they want to work for in the future recruit from that program. Boyers says the question to think about is, “when they get out, is that education going to open the doors they need to open?”

With many excellent programs now taught online, students don’t need to feel chained to a school near home; it’s more important to pick the one that’s the best fit for the student.

Getting small wins

We typically think of college as an experience lasting four years, but the majority of students at four-year colleges don’t graduate in that time. Many will graduate after six years, and some won’t graduate at all.

“Far too many students don’t get their baccalaureate degree,” says Mark Bilottachairman of the board of Massachusetts Education and Career Opportunities Inc. and author of “Paying for College: A 2015 Guide to Saving Time and Money.” He recommends that students who are on the fence about attending school take things one step at a time.

Using the “stackable credits” method allows students to work while getting an education, without becoming overwhelmed. “Take a small bite of the apple with a certificate program and get that early win,” recommends Bilotta. Once you complete one program, go on to the next and continue taking classes until you’ve earned enough credits for an associate degree. And so on. As a bonus, employers might increase a student’s salary as they improve their credentials.

Other students can benefit from a “reverse transfer.” Starting out at a community college and then transferring to a four-year institution is a common money-saving tactic. However, some students make the jump from community college to four-year institution and then don’t end up completing their bachelors degree at the new school. In those cases, students can actually do a reverse transfer, allowing them to apply credits from the new four-year school back to the community college and receive their associate degree from the original school.

That way, if they don’t complete their bachelor program, they aren’t left with nothing to show for all of their time and effort. “There’s nothing worse than having 25 credits, no credentials and student loans,” says Bilotta.

Exploring your options throughout your school career

It’s always best to plan ahead and start saving early, but if you missed the boat and want to pay for college while you’re already enrolled in school, you still have plenty of options.

You can continue to apply for scholarships, grants and other programs as a student; work to earn money while in school; and make strategic choices about the courses you take and degrees you pursue. Paying for college can seem overwhelming, but it’s doable, as Michelle Dunn and her sons demonstrated.

The goal is to graduate with a degree and no debt, but of course it doesn’t work out that way for everyone. If you have already graduated with debt, be sure to read the third and final part of this series where we’ll look at eliminating, reducing and managing student loan debt.

Photo credit: littleny /