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How to Save Money on College Tuition

Updated on February 3, 2015

Community College

It’s affordable, use it. It’s tons cheaper than a four year school and will cut your costs considerably. It’s a great way to start your education whether you know exactly what your goals are, or are only going through the motions until you have better direction. If you decide after your first semester, that you are not ready for tertiary education yet, you won’t be out that much money.

Make sure you enroll in an actual “community college” for this plan to work. If you enroll in a technical, seminary, or vocational school instead, don’t expect any coursework you complete will ever transfer anywhere else. If you start at one of these schools, you must finish a program at the same school or risk wasting all any time and money you spend there.

Acceptance at Other Schools

Your acceptance isn’t revoked because you don’t enroll and attend immediately, choosing a community college instead. You will still be able to register after completing general studies elsewhere, so go ahead and apply wherever you like. If you’re rejected, keep trying every year. Your chances of getting in only increase with additional effort and good grades.

Out of State Universities

Community colleges can guarantee your courses will transfer to a four year university in the same state, but not an out of state one. If you want to save money and go to your dream school, plan on moving nearer now. Continue your plan to use a low cost school for general studies, but don’t bother enrolling right away because you will still only qualify for out of state tuition prices. Get yourself into that state and spend a year just living and working there. You will appreciate spending between $120-200 per credit hour as opposed to $300-400.

General Studies

You need them no matter where you decide to go. Typical general studies requirements for four year degrees range from 29 to 35 credit hours. They will vary within a single institution depending on the type of degree you desire, but all will share the same core elements.

  • English Composition

  • English Research Composition

  • Math

  • History

  • Speech Communication

  • Natural Science w/Lab

  • Natural Science

  • Multicultural, Diversity, and/or Art courses

Specific courses in GS vary between degrees, but it is always prudent to take the “guaranteed transfer” option, or the seemingly stricter of the discipline elective. A liberal arts degree won’t have the same requirements for the math aspect in your general studies as a major in any field of science would. You can get away with taking an alternative, more appealing course that more fits your specific degree needs in this case, but keep in mind you’ll have to take the more traditional choice anyway if you change your major. Taking a potentially inapplicable course is a waste of your time and money.

Other Four Year Degree Requirements

Some universities have additional general studies requirements like foreign language. Review the degree requirements at several potential transfer universities and consider taking these at your community college. If you are unsure if they will transfer, contact both the university and your community college to speak with a transfer advisor.

Read the Tuition Rates & Fees

Your school will have these rates posted on their website. Understand what you will be paying in tuition and fees, and what you might spend on books, software, and miscellaneous supplies. First, add up all the fees per semester. Then add the tuition for the amount of credit hours you would like to take. If you cannot afford this amount, decrease the number of hours and see if you can come up with something affordable.

Example Fee Scenario: 7 courses in 4 semesters

Most fees cover multiple aspects of campus life and operations, but some vary depending on the department your current courses are in. Try not to mix these in a single semester. For example, there is a fee at my university of $300 per semester if I take any fine arts courses, and a $100 fee for taking a computer information course. If I choose to take both courses in one term, I’m paying $400 in department fees. What I should do, is group fine arts courses together one semester, and the computer info courses in another. This allows you to knock out shared course prefixes/departments in fewer semesters, which is fewer fees overall. The tables below illustrate how fees affect your education costs.

Courses
Fee Description
Fee Amount
Semester 1
 
 
Fine Arts: Studio I
ART Department Fee
$300
Fine Arts: Drawing I
 
 
Semester 2
 
 
Fine Arts: Studio II
ART Department Fee
$300
Fine Arts: Drawing II
 
 
Semester 3
 
 
CIS: Intro to Databases
CIS Department Fee
$100
CIS: Business Applications
 
 
Semester 4
 
 
CIS: Database Management
CIS Department Fee
$100
 
Department Fee Total
$800

I can only take a maximum of two classes each semester because of my work schedule, so here are my best and worst decisions for seven specific courses.The above table demonstrates good fee planning. Below is the worst possible schedule choice I can make, almost doubling the amount of department fees I pay.

Courses
Fee Description
Fee Amount
Semester 1
 
 
Fine Arts: Studio I
ART Department Fee
$300
CIS: Business Applications
CIS Department Fee
$100
Semester 2
 
 
Fine Arts: Drawing I
ART Department Fee
$300
CIS: Intro to Databases
CIS Department Fee
$100
Semester 3
 
 
Fine Arts: Studio II
ART Department Fee
$300
CIS: Database Management
CIS Department Fee
$100
Semester 4
 
 
Fine Arts: Drawing II
ART Department Fee
$300
 
Department Fee Total
$1,500

Financial Aid

You can use financial aid to pay for courses. Federal loans will pay for everything IF you are willing to take them out. Student loans are permanent and you cannot eliminate them by filing bankruptcy. They will follow you everywhere.You’ll need a cosigner if you don’t meet certain requirements, which your parents may or may not be willing/able to help with. Credit is irrelevant here, it’s simply a matter of tax return history, age, and marriage status.

Your student loans will remain in deferment, a status in which you do not have to make payments yet as long as you are enrolled at least six credit hours, usually the equivalent of two courses each semester. If you stop taking courses, or take less than six credit hours, loans go through a six month grace period before they go into repayment. This gives you time to sort your life and finances before your first bill. If you choose to go back to school, they will go back into deferment and you will have a new six month grace when you leave again.

The decision to work while going to college is highly dependent on your situation. My best advice, personally is that you make every effort to pay cash for your classes, which means working. Because if you read your table of tuition and fees on your school’s website, you will know exactly what it will cost you up front and what kind of job/hours you need to cover it.

Different grants are available for both full time and part time students maintaining this same minimum schedule. I hear a lot of first time students say, “but I have to stay full time to keep my financial aid!” This is simply not true. It’s an oversimplification of these requirements and inaccurate. Plan on taking a minimum of 6 hours and you will still qualify for aid.

Scholarships usually do require full time enrollment with many other stipulations on their disbursement. Apply for as many as you think you qualify for. It’s free money with no strings attached other than GPA and enrollment requirements.

Working While Attending College

This is difficult, but almost always necessary. I’m obligated to work full time because I am the sole income earner in my household. My educational expenses would be greatly decreased if were I able to work only part time and take more classes at once. Remember our semester fees example? Here is the same scenario, but including the rest of the fees.

Courses
Fee Description
Fee Amount
Semester 1
 
 
Fine Arts: Studio I
ART Department Fee
$300
Fine Arts: Drawing I
Semester Fees
$600
Semester 2
 
 
Fine Arts: Studio II
ART Department Fee
$300
Fine Arts: Drawing II
Semester Fees
$600
Semester 3
 
 
CIS: Intro to Databases
CIS Department Fee
$100
CIS: Business Applications
Semester Fees
$600
Semester 4
 
 
CIS: Database Management
CIS Department Fee
$100
 
Semester Fees
$600
 
Fee Total
$3,200

The first table shows a part time enrollment of only six credit hours per semester. Below is full time at twelve credit hours. This halves the amount of semesters needed to complete the same number of courses.

Courses
Fee Description
Fee Amount
Semester 1
 
 
Fine Arts: Studio I
ART Department Fee
$300
Fine Arts: Drawing I
CIS Department Fee
$100
CIS: Intro to Databases
Semester Fees
$600
CIS: Business Applications
 
 
Semester 2
 
 
CIS: Database Management
CIS Department Fee
$100
Fine Arts: Studio II
ART Department Fee
$300
Fine Arts: Drawing II
Semester Fees
$600
 
Fee Total
$2,000

As you can see, the ability to take four courses a semester is extremely valuable in cutting educational costs. The lower your monthly expenses otherwise, the less you have to work, and the less college will cost you in the end. In this example of seven courses, I spend $1,200 more than a traditional student will. On my entire degree, this extra cost comes to about $20,500. Take as many courses as you can, but not so many you can’t complete them.

Important Deadlines & Completion Rates

Pay close attention to withdrawal and refund dates on your school's academic calendar. These are usually listed on your course schedule too. You can get a full refund on a course you're registered for if you drop it within the first five days of the start date. The next date is the 50% refund date, then the withdrawal without refund, and finally the no credit date.

Withdrawing removes the course from your transcript. Requesting NC leaves the course as attempted on your transcript, but lets you drop the class without it affecting your GPA. However, your completion rate is affected and that influences your ability to receive financial aid. Failed courses also count in your completion rate, and too many NC and failed courses will prevent further disbursement of aid, including federal and state grants. GPA and completion rate are both something employers look at. Avoid taking on extra coursework you can't handle, it's a huge waste of your money.

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