I was lucky when I headed off to college. I never had to foot the entire bill on my own. My grandfather and parents had stashed some funds away to help my brother and me through school—and those funds made all the difference in the level of debt burden we had to repay.

But even if you have savings or funding going into your college years, with costs rising as they are, it can still pay to approach paying tuition fees from a creative angle. After all, the less you pay for school, the less you have to repay after graduation!

Here's hoping some of these neat tips might help put a dent in your college costs!

College costs calculator

College Board has developed a costs calculator to help students estimate costs for a variety of college options. This link also offers other helpful calculators so you can estimate how much you need to save, how much you may need to repay after graduation, and more.

1. Take placement tests

Some campuses (online and brick-and-mortar) offer placement tests to assess subject knowledge among incoming students. If you take a test and "place out" of the basic course for that subject, you still get the credits for your transcript, but you don't have to pay for the course.

  • Potential savings: With a traditional 3-credit hour course running anywhere from $200 (in-state public college) to $1,100 per credit hour (Ivy League), you may save anywhere from $600 to $3,300 per course by placing out.

2. Start at a two-year local community college

This proved to be a great strategy for me. I completed all of my basic, or "core," courses at our local community college, where the tuition and fees expenses were cheaper. Then I transferred to our state university to declare my major and finish out my upper class degree hours. In a nutshell, this strategy cut my costs for the first two years of college nearly in half (plus I lived at home so I didn't pay for rent or food the first two years).

  • Potential savings: You can expect to save 2/3 of what you would pay for two years at any in-state, public, four-year college.

3. Consider trade or technical school vs. college

Not every career path requires a traditional 4-year degree. Over the years I have heard countless stories from folks who began studying in college, only to realize their career dreams were not being served by their coursework.

  • Potential savings: You can expect to save around $4,000 per year by attending a technical or trade school rather than a public four-year college. 

4. Attend an in-state institution

I spent my first semester of my freshman year of college at an out-of-state school. An injury and subsequent illness required me to return home, which was devastating at the time but proved a boon to my debt burden. I finished up my degree at in-state institutions, which were much cheaper!

  • Potential savings: Estimated tuition for a public, in-state, 4-year college is around $34,000. Estimated tuition for an out-of-state, public, 4-year college is around $52,000 higher ($87,000).

5. Consider attending school tuition-free

Did you know that certain institutions offer tuition waivers to every student they accept? Still other institutions don't charge tuition at all, but have other types of structures in place to ensure higher learning stays affordable (such as participating in on-campus work opportunities, maintaining stellar grades, or simply getting accepted to a very prestigious program).

  • Potential savings: $12,000 (two-year, public, in-state, college tuition) to $34,000 (four-year, public, in-state, college tuition).
  • Work Colleges Consortium: Each of these colleges offers a work program that waives tuition!

6. Earn a certificate or two-year degree

Again, depending on your career goals, you may not need to complete four years of college before entering the workforce. If you can get by with a certificate (typically a 10-month program) or a two-year degree, that gives you two additional earning years over your 4-year college peers. Even if you decide to return to college later, any debt burden will be eased because you earned income in the interim.

  • Potential savings: College Board estimates savings of up to $5,000 per year when you choose to attend a two-year rather than a four-year public college.

7. Work off your tuition

Certain institutions offer work-study programs, which can include residencies and assistantships (although these are more typically offered in specialty 5-year programs and master’s degrees), on-campus job placements, and partnerships with local area on- or off-campus companies that employ students.

  • Potential savings: The typical work-study program ranges from 10-20 hours per week. Hourly wages can vary depending on your duties. You can expect to earn enough to at least cover fees and expenses (books, gas, etc.) through what you make.

8. Consider an online degree plan

While you may forfeit certain perks of attending a brick-and-mortar college, there are numerous ways to save by attending college online. Your overhead expenses (fees, parking costs, etc) will be lower. You won't have to pay moving costs or cope with college life in an expensive area. You may also have greater flexibility to pay.

  • Potential savings: It’s not a given that an online degree plan will be cheaper. However, you save in the ways noted, and even if tuition is higher, your overall expenses can be lower depending on your situation.

9. Use the heck out of your student ID

Today's college students may not command their full post-graduation income earning potential, but they have plenty of options to save money here, there and everywhere! From discount travel (see Student Universe) to creative debt repayment (see Smarter Bucks) to loan comparison tools (see Simple Tuition) to cheap meals and entertainment (see Student Rate)—the savings possibilities are literally endless when you have a student ID.

  • Potential savings: Discounts as high as 50% on student necessities (computers, technology, Internet), free gift cards, cash back options for the shopping you do anyway, paying down your loan just by shopping for necessities online, finding the lowest interest rate loans and much more!

10. Finish your degree early

Last but not least, if you can swing it, finishing your degree early can help you save. This may mean attending summer courses, taking extra credit hours during the semesters, or taking online courses while also attending classes on campus.

  • Potential savings: Save on up to a whole year's worth of college expenses and fees (an estimated $8-$10,000 depending on your program), plus enter the workforce a year early earning a college graduate's salary in your new profession!



10 Creative Tips to Keep College Affordable