8 Ways to Cut College Costs

College costs sure are daunting, but the sticker prices are meaningless.

I recently wrote about how my son and the other two boys in his high school carpool shrank their college costs dramatically. The tuition for the three boys for the coming year totaled a whopping $136,500, but they received grants from their respective liberal arts colleges for the 2010-11 school year that totaled roughly $98,000.

When my two children were visiting schools, one of their main goals—beyond finding great colleges—was locating schools where we wouldn’t have to pay anywhere near full price. Checking the generosity of a school is a great way to cut college costs.

Today, I’m sharing eight ways to shrink college costs, but I’m first going to direct you to a story in The Wall Street Journal today that contains more. I happened to be quoted in the WSJ story: How to Tame College Costs – It’s Not Just Tuition.

8 College Cost Tips

1. Don’t just look in your backyard. About one out of every three college students attends a school that’s no more than 50 miles away. And most of these schools are public institutions.

For some students, however, distant private colleges will cost less than public universities after financial aid and scholarships. The boys in the carpool will be attending Beloit College in Beloit, WI. and  Carleton College in Northfield, MN, which is a quite a hike from San Diego.

2. Pay attention to graduation rates. Most families mistakenly assume that their children will graduate in four years. Fewer than 60 percent of college students graduate in six years! Always examine a school’s graduation rates and find out what it takes to get out in eight semesters.  College Results Online can help you pinpoint grad rates.

3. Look for the schools with generous financial aid packages. A good place to evaluate the generosity of a school is to look at its financial aid statistics on the federal College Navigator site.

4. Obtain a preliminary EFC. Before you begin looking at schools, check what your family’s Expected Family Contribution will be. This will be the amount of money, at a minimum, that you will need to cough up for one year of college. In many cases, you will have to kick in more than that figure. You can find online EFC calculators at FinAid.org and the College Board.

5. Apply for aid regardless of your income. Families that make $150,000 to $200,000 a year can sometimes qualify for significant need-based aid at pricey colleges. If you don’t file the FAFSA—and the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE for some private schools—you won’t qualify for need-based help. Without completing the FAFSA, you also won’t have access to federal college loans.

6. Look for merit scholarships. At private schools, 82 percent of students receive merit aid. About two-thirds of students at public and private institutions combined receive some type of grant. An excellent resource for scholarships that colleges offer—the biggest source of college grants—is MeritAid.com.

7. Beware of reach schools. The danger of reach schools is that they often give little or no financial aid or scholarships to students who barely get in. Most schools reserve their best financial aid packages to the students they really covet.

8. Get good grades. The most important factor that colleges value more than any other is usually grades. An applicant’s GPA routinely matters more than SAT or ACT tests. So one of the very best ways to cut college costs is to simply earn a high grade point average in high school.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller, and she also write college blogs for CBSMoneyWatch and US News. Follow her on Twitter.

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  1. She will probably run into some issues, but not because the college cares about her debt. Firstly, it is likely that her transcripts are frozen until she brings her debt current, as is the case with me. Without transcripts, you can’t get accepted. Secondly, with her loans in default, she will be ineligible for any additional financial aid.

    I would recommend trying to rehabilitate or consolidate any federal loans before going back to school to bring them out of default first. Once she starts school, they will be deferred since she doesn’t have to pay while she is enrolled at least half time.

  2. Do college’s screen applications for debt?

    My daughter wants to return to college after laying out for a few years. She has Sally Mae debt, that she had to default on. Will this affect her chances of getting back into engineering school?

    Concerned Mom…