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Ways to Lower Costs

Here are some suggestions for how to limit your college costs. Some will be useful for everyone. Others will apply only to some of you, depending on your particular financial situation.


Read a book


Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price (2nd Edition), focuses on finding affordable colleges with the right fit. It includes overview information, practical explanations and how-to tips for maximizing your college dollar. She also writes a blog. Several of the links in this section are to her postings. Here’s her take on ways to limit costs:


Pick a lower-cost college


Not every college has a $50,000 price tag. California State University campuses usually cost less than University of California campuses. Some private schools are less expensive than others, as well. You don’t have to go to an expensive school to get at great education.


If you don’t go to an elite, expensive school, it also does not limit your chances of earning a high salary. This post refers to recent research on the subject.


The resources at this website can help you identify some of these colleges.


Private schools often have more aid.


Private colleges often have the resources to offer more grants and scholarships and fewer loans in their financial aid packages. This can help reduce your costs.


Look for colleges that have a high endowment per student.


A college’s endowment is the value of its financial investments. Colleges with large endowments per student will have more funds to use for financial aid and their aid packages will tend to include more grants.


Look for colleges that meet full need and limit or exclude loans in their aid packages.


Starting your after-college working life with a lot of student debt can limit the kinds of jobs you may consider and slow your ability to save for the future. Every family must consider how much debt it is willing to take on while paying for college. You can minimize debt by focusing on schools that include few or no loans in their aid packages. Also look for schools that say they meet full need, because if they don’t, you will have to make up the difference. This could cause you to take on even more debt.


This link will show you a way to find some of these colleges:


This link will show you a way to see the average amount of merit and need-based aid a college offers:


These are some of the schools with the best aid packages, but it’s very hard to get in to them.


Use the net price calculators on college websites to find the schools that give you the best outcome.


Colleges that offer federal aid are now required to have a net price calculator on their websites. Make good use of these tools to estimate your real costs. Similar schools may have very different formulas for deciding who gets what kind of aid. Run the calculator on each school you’re considering. This article shows how different they can be.


Different calculators sometimes include different factors, so pay attention to what the results really tell you. This article points out some things to be aware of.


Find schools that give credit for AP tests—you may finish your degree sooner.


If you don’t mind finishing college in less than four years, look for schools that give graduation credits for the AP tests you pass. At those schools you might even be able to start college as a sophomore if you get enough credits. You will likely need to focus in on a major sooner than you would have if you were going at the usual speed, but if this fits your goals, go for it.


Be sure to check the AP policies of each college carefully. They vary widely. Some schools give full graduation credit for AP tests you pass with a certain score. Others may only give credit toward a major. Still others may waive introductory level courses, but give no credit.


Live at home or with family for low/no cost.


Most high school students dream of living in a dorm and experiencing the real “college life”, but you can save a lot of money by living at home or with a nearby family member for low or no cost. You would have to commute to college, but as we’ve noted elsewhere, there are many great colleges in the Bay Area within commute distance. Maybe you could move home after a first year in the dorm if you really want that experience.


Go to Community College for the first years, then transfer to a four-year school


The cost of going to a California Community College is much lower than going to a four-year school. By starting at a Community College, you can take the basic introductory required courses at a lower cost and then transfer to a four-year college as a junior. You’ll miss out on the freshman dorm experience, but it may be worth it financially. The Community Colleges also have some programs that guarantee admission to certain UC or CSU campuses. There are rules and GPA limits to these programs, so check with the colleges to find out about them.


Learn more about the University of California Transfer Admission Guarantee program here:

Learn more about the California State University-Community College Associate Degree for Transfer program here:


Be aware that some students have trouble concentrating on their studies when they live at home and attend a Community College. It can also take longer than two years to complete two years of work due to difficulties in getting into classes. It still may be cheaper in the long run.


You aren’t limited to your local Community College. You can go to any of the campuses around the state. Each school has its own transfer guarantee agreements. So you may consider going to a Community College with an agreement with the particular four-year school you’re interested in. Of course, you will lose the financial advantage of living at home if you go to school in another part of the state.



Pick a school where you’ll be among the top students in order to maximize merit aid opportunities


The most selective colleges usually don’t offer merit aid. Many of the rest of the colleges in the country do. They offer it to their top applicants. To increase your chances of getting merit aid, find schools where you will be among the top students. Look for schools where your test scores fall within the top quarter of their reported ranges. It’s no guarantee, but it will increase your chances of getting a grant, whether or not you qualify for need-based aid. Sometimes these merit grants include special privileges like undergraduate research opportunities, honors dorms and meetings with honored guests to the campus. Pay attention to the whole range of reported scores, though, so you don’t find yourself in a school where you won’t be challenged academically.


This article contains a sortable list of colleges that give merit aid:


This article explains how to find colleges that offer merit aid:


Pick a school where you’ll be among the top students in order to maximize need-based aid opportunities, too


As we’ve said, the most selective colleges usually don’t offer merit aid, but they do offer good need-based aid. They usually cover 100% of the student’s need, and most keep loans to a minimum. Sounds good, but it’s very difficult to get into these schools, even for Lowell’s highest achievers. Schools that don’t have the resources to offer such good aid packages will often use their aid money to attract students who will enhance the school’s academic profile. Those students could have more of their need met with fewer loans than might students with lesser accomplishments.


To increase your chances of getting the best need-based aid package that you can, find schools where you will be among the top applicants. Look for schools where your test scores fall within the top quarter of their reported ranges. Check the academic profile of the latest freshman class to see how you compare. You may improve your chances of being admitted and of getting a good aid package if you compare well. Of course, you also want to be sure that the school is a good fit for you.


Attend a public school in another Western state for 50% over their in-state tuition – not all schools, not all majors, some have limited slots, but go for it.


The Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE) is a program of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE). Students in WICHE states can request a reduced tuition rate at a participating college in another WICHE state. The reduced rate is 150% of the in-state tuition of the college. The reduced rate is not automatic, and many schools limit the number of WUE awards offered. It’s important to apply as early as possible to be considered.


The WICHE states are: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. You may find that even with the extra 50% over the in-state tuition, the WUE tuition is less than the in-state UC tuition.


Learn more about the program and search for participating schools here:


Look for out-of-state public colleges with low out-of-state tuition


Sometimes the out-of-state tuition at public schools in other states is close to the in-state tuition at California public schools. Investigate these schools to see if you find one that matches your needs. This posting on the Do It Yourself College Rankings blog has a list of public schools with the lowest out-of-state tuitions.


Look for public liberal arts colleges to get the advantages of a small liberal arts college at a public university


If you’d really love to go to a liberal arts college, but your financial situation puts it beyond your reach, consider going to one of the public liberal arts colleges. You can learn more at the website of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges. Sonoma State is the only California public liberal arts college, but read about the schools in other states as well. Check their out-of-state tuition costs to see if any are workable for you.