It's no secret that college is increasingly difficult to afford. Tuition rates have more than doubled since the 1980s, and wage increases are still lagging behind. With demand for a four-year degree mounting, many prospective students and their families find themselves worried about how to afford a degree without joining the 44 million Americans with student debt.
The world of college financial aid can be confusing – it's a warren of federal programs, private scholarships, and assistance offered at the discretion of the university – and it is easy to get overwhelmed. But many options are available to make college more affordable.
1. Do your homework.
Before you or your child are ready to head off to college, you should sit down and explore what financial aid options are out there, what you can realistically afford and how you are going to pay.
"Many families choose the colleges and then figure out how to make them work," said Jim Anderson, financial planner and owner at Making College Worth It. "Ideally, the college is the last piece of the puzzle."
Anderson suggested that students take the time to get a general idea of the career they want and the academic requirements to succeed, then narrow down a list of colleges that can work with their budget. Be sure to look at every aspect of cost while you're searching, however.
"Look at the net price in addition to sticker price," cautioned Sabrina Manville, former university administrator and co-founder of Edmit. "The price on the website is not the price you're likely to pay. Cost of living is just as important as tuition."
You should also know the difference between a grant, which you don't have to pay back, and a loan, which you do. Always fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), since it determines your eligibility for grants, work study, federal loans and other forms of aid.
If your aid from FAFSA is unsatisfactory, you can always appeal, said Charlie Javice, founder and CEO of Frank, a startup that streamlines the FAFSA process. "Be honest; [talk about your] good merit, community service and awards; and be sure to follow up with the financial aid office."
Experts also recommend starting a 529 plan while your children are still young, which offers tax and financial aid benefits.
2. Get creative.
Matthew Ross, co-founder and COO of RIZKNOWS and The Slumber Yard, shared how he hacked his college experience: "I figured out which community colleges had arrangements with the California State University system so that credits would transfer without issues. I started taking easy online courses at junior colleges while in high school. Then, once I was accepted to San Diego State University, I took two classes, which allowed me to classify myself as a part-time student."
Between his part-time studies at SDSU and his transferred units from community colleges, Ross was able to save thousands of dollars in tuition and still graduate with a degree from a prestigious university.
You can also look into accelerated learning or fast-tracked degree programs, which offer early graduation or two degrees in a shorter span of time. A heavy course load, classes during summer and winter terms, and AP credits from high school can all help you get out in less than four years, which means fewer years of tuition.
There are also lesser-known ways to come into college with credits already under your belt. Dale Leatherwood, co-founder of ClearDegree, said that many students do not know about the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), which offers 33 exams covering many general education courses offered at most colleges.
"If [a student achieves] a sufficient score, the college will accept the exam in lieu of the corresponding course at their school," Leatherwood said. "You could save over $1,000 per test."
3. See what your college can give you.
It's always worth it to take a deep look into what a university offers to help students save money. Does it have part-time campus jobs? Does it offer merit scholarships based on your GPA and/or test scores? Can you be a resident assistant (RA) for free room and board?
Additionally, you should look ahead to after your four years are up and see what the university can give you post-graduation, or what your return on investment is.
"The best returns are those colleges/universities that provide you with a high probability of landing a job in your field, at a reasonable cost relative to your projected earnings," said John Champoli, vice president for enrollment management at Husson University.
Internships are a great way to build practical experience in your field before you graduate that can lead to a full-time job. They can be completed during summer and winter terms, or even during the semester on a remote or onsite part-time basis (and some are even paid).
4. Find uncommon ways to save.
There are plenty of money-saving tactics that many families ignore or just don't know about. Kristin Sullivan, senior college counselor at Collegewise, suggested that parents check their workplaces for any company-based scholarships, contact their child's high school counselor (many are sent information and can even nominate students for scholarships), and go through their own budget.
"Tighten up finances before college happens," she said. "Look for money in your budget. For example, most college kids don't need a car. You might consider dropping them from your insurance plan."
As a student, you can also look for scholarship opportunities while on campus through organizations such as clubs, academic fraternities and sports teams, which can offer invaluable networking opportunities as well.
While it may seem like student debt is an inevitable demise, with some strong research, financial savvy and a little creativity, you can keep the cost of college at a manageable level and step into the real world on the right foot.