One of the realities of higher education is that it's expensive, regardless of the type of education you're choosing to pursue. Ultimately, it's important to view the cost as an investment in your future, one that will usually pay off - studies show that you will significantly increase your earning potential by earning a degree, and this is especially true if you're pursuing a degree in a high-growth field, which will help you build in-demand skills.
Nevertheless, in the short-term, you will need to find a way to afford college. The options available to you in terms of financial aid have been well-documented, and present a great option for off-setting the overall cost of college tuition. However, most individuals find that their federal financial aid packages (which consist primarily of student loans) do not fully cover the amount that they'll owe, and must come up with ways to pay for the remainder. While private loans are often the solution for many individuals, high interest rates and a lack of flexibility when it comes to payback options make this a less desirable option, and it's highly recommended that students pursue additional ways to reduce the overall amount that they'll owe before going this route, so that the amount that they're taking on in private loans is as minimal as possible.
Here are some of the best ways to afford college while minimizing your debt.
How to Afford College Without Taking on Additional Debt
Maximize Transfer Credits
One of the best ways to reduce your future college costs is to take advantage of transfer credits. This is a particularly good option for adult students, many of whom have completed some college at one or more other institutions, or have completed professional trainings that may be applicable to a degree program. Look for institutions that have a generous transfer credit policy - the more credits you can bring in, the less time it will take you to complete your degree (and the less money you'll have to spend on tuition).
Look Into Alternative Course Options
Many higher education institutions offer options for students to take alternative, self-directed versions classes in which they already have experience. This can take a number of different forms - for example, in a test-out scenario, Advanced Placement (AP) classes taken in high school often count towards credit for introductory-level college courses. At some institutions, you might be asked to pass an equivalency test, or complete a course assessment such as a final project or exam, in order to gain credit. These options tend to cost significantly less than what you'd pay to take the full course, and if you're an adult learner with a great deal of on-the-job experience, you may be able to reduce your tuition costs by quite a bit.
Take Online Courses
One of the challenges with assessing the cost of college is that, in addition to tuition, students must also take into consideration the hidden costs associated with higher education. These can include things like transportation to and from campus, a potential loss of wages (if you have to reduce your work hours to be able to attend classes), books and materials, and general living expenses. One of the ways to avoid these expenses is to attend an online college. Online courses tend to be slightly less expensive in general, since there are fewer overhead costs that these institutions must cover with tuition (for example, building maintenance and electricity to power classrooms). Beyond that, online classes eliminate the need to change your schedule or find transportation to and from campus, since you're able to attend class when it works for you, and often have most of the course materials you'll need available online, reducing the cost of textbooks.
However, some online institutions do have "hidden" fees associated with distance learning and technology. These can add up quickly, and usually are not advertised upfront. This is something you should be sure to research before applying, or ask an admissions representative about.
Start Out at a Community College
Another way to reduce your overall tuition costs is to start your education out at a community college to gain your associate degree or any prerequisite classes for your degree program of interest, then transfer to a four-year institution. Community colleges are one of the most cost-effective higher education options available, and many students find that it's a great way to gain their educational foundation to set themselves up for longer-term financial flexibility.
Pursue Employer Tuition Assistance
If you're looking to go back to school but are employed full-time, you may have some additional tuition assistance options available to you. Many employers offer some form of tuition reimbursement (usually in the form of a yearly, capped stipend) to their employees, which can help offset the cost of tuition. Some employers also have partnerships with higher education institutions, which allow them to offer their employees access to discounted tuition rates. While there can sometimes be limitations associated with the use of this assistance (for example, only being able to pursue degrees in certain fields, or rules around paying the assistance back if you leave the company), it's a great option that shouldn't be overlooked.
Apply for Scholarships
Scholarships are a great way to offset some of the cost of your tuition. Some schools offer institutional, merit-based scholarships; you can also look into community-based or national scholarships (which can be based on anything from your field of study to your membership in a cultural group). If you do pursue this route, make sure that any funding you stand to receive is from a legitimate source. A good place to verify that a scholarship is real, or to find scholarship opportunities, is the U.S. Department of Labor's scholarship finder tool.
Look into Other Funding Opportunities Based on Your Background
It's important to look into all funding opportunities that might be available to you. Many financial aid options are available to people who have belong to certain groups - for example, current or former military service-members or military spouses. Consider your past experiences and talk to a financial aid advisor to see if you could be eligible for additional education benefits.