Definitive Guide to Making College Affordable

A student studying with her pen and laptop

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Today, attending a four-year college has become more expensive than ever. The financial burden could be even higher if you take longer to graduate. To counter the rising cost, the only resort for most students is to go for student loans, which skyrockets the debt load. 

However, what you might not know is that college doesn’t have to break the bank. There are a multitude of smart strategies you can implement to ease your financial burden. In this definitive guide to making college affordable, you’ll find some surefire ways to do so! 

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Definitive Guide to Making College Affordable: 10 Smart Ways 

With the crazy price tag, it’s only natural to think twice before attending a four-year bachelor’s degree program. According to the Education Data Initiative, college graduates owe an average of $33,500 a year after graduation. While that’s a bitter truth, a bachelor’s degree is a significant deciding factor in your career path. 

If you’re convinced you want to take the leap, the good news is that there are several ways you can cut down on the total cost of tuition. So, let’s take a closer look at the definitive guide to making college affordable:

A student putting her textbook inside her bag

Opt for a Community College 

One of the most affordable pathways to a reduced college fee is to opt for a community college, particularly one that offers transferable credits. Annual tuition at community colleges is lower compared to four-year institutions, even at public colleges with in-state rates. In fact, the average fee for community colleges is $8,220 total or $2,055 per semester

However, it’s important to note that some courses don’t easily transfer from a community college to a university. While many students start out at community colleges to pursue a bachelor’s degree, less than half of them end up doing so. So, if you’re planning to take this route, be prepared that things might not always go your way. 

The best way to go about attending a community college is to create a transfer plan with your academic counselor beforehand. This helps you select courses that both align with your goals and can easily be transferred to your desired four-year college. 

Pursue a Part-Time Job 

Many full-time or part-time students pursue jobs to cover their college expenses. While taking on part-time jobs helps you pay for your school and living expenses, this valuable perk comes at a cost. Pursuing a job alongside your degree may potentially divide your attention, drain your energy, and impact your grades. 

Fortunately, there’s a way out – working through work-study programs while you’re still on campus. These programs let you earn those extra bucks without compromising on your studies. This is mainly due to the fact that on-campus managers prioritize your academic success and understand your commitments outside work life. 

If working during the school year feels too draining, you can work during summer breaks to earn some extra cash without the added academic pressure. The good news is that there are plenty of flexible job opportunities available to college students. Better yet, most of them may be done online. Some jobs worth considering include: 


  • Tutoring 
  • Freelancing Services (depending on your expertise) 
  • Selling Crafts 
  • Blogger 
  • E-commerce Specialist 
  • Virtual Assistant 


  • Tutoring (in-person) 
  • Lab Assistant
  • Intern in the relevant industry 
  • Fitness Instructor 
  • Photographer 

Attend an In-State Public University 

Typically, colleges offer lower tuition rates to in-state students, mainly because they take state tax revenue to support education. As a result, in-state students can complete their bachelor’s without going broke. On the flip side, out-of-state students often have to pay twice or thrice as much as in-state students (unless they’ve agreements with other states).

A student taking notes on her planner

It’s hardly surprising why attending college in your home state is a rather smart way to save money. According to the College Board, the average in-state fee for a public four-year college is $11,260, while it’s $29,150 for out-of-state students. While this sounds like a solid reason for sticking to your home state, there’s more to the picture. 

Another financial advantage of attending an in-state university is not having to bear those hefty living costs. Alternatively, you might establish residency in the state where you plan to attend college. While residency requirements mainly depend on your state, the two general requirements to qualify for in-state tuition rates include: 

  • Proof of financial independence 
  • Documents to prove you’ve lived in the state for at least a year 

Explore Financial Aid Options Early 

Although tuition fees for colleges are high, most students don’t pay the full price. In fact, stats show that 84% of students received some form of financial aid in 2022. However, the key to qualifying for aid options is to do the homework beforehand and apply early. 

Federal student aid plays a significant role in making higher education accessible to all. Yet, the complex paperwork and tight deadlines pose a major setback whilst applying. These barriers make low-income families believe they won’t qualify for aid, so they don’t fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Nevertheless, students from low-income backgrounds stand an excellent chance of receiving scholarships through the FAFSA. It’s worth noting that the FAFSA is available every year, starting October 1, for financial help in the following year. Starting early gives you enough time to gather the right documents and submit them timely. 

Look for Second-Hand Textbooks and Supplies 

Textbooks and college supplies add up to the financial burden, especially if you’re on a tight budget. In 2023, an average student paid around $1,290 for books and school supplies. For certain fields like business, the expense per term can really take a toll on your savings. 

One simple solution is to opt for secondhand books and supplies. Your best bet is to contact seniors who can offer you editions from previous years at lower costs. Most towns even have off-campus bookstores that buy and sell textbooks at lower prices. Another smart move is to turn to platforms like Bookboon or Library Genesis with free college textbook resources. 

You might also seek out classes that use Open Educational Resources (OER) that have freely accessible learning materials. These resources include free online textbooks, articles, and multimedia content. This way, you can save hundreds of dollars each semester. Some quick tips to save money on supplies include: 

  • Allocate your financial aid award to cover the costs of textbooks and supplies.
  • Repurpose the supplies you already have instead of buying new ones. 
  • Purchase secondhand books or e-books from learning platforms. 
  • Claim your college’s technology support options, such as laptops or any gadgets they provide to facilitate learning. 
Two students collaborating on a laptop in a quiet library setting

Avoid For-Profit Colleges 

For-profit colleges aim to maximize profits, so they prefer students who can pay the maximum fee. While this sounds like enough reason to avoid for-profit colleges, educators and policymakers also criticize them for targeting underserved students and burdening them with debt. This is a major reason why the default rate on loans for students here is pretty high. 

Additionally, for-profit colleges sometimes use deceptive marketing tactics and false promises to admit students. These colleges sometimes fail to graduate students or connect them with the job opportunities initially promised. Unlike traditional colleges, for-profit colleges also offer the least benefits to graduates, including the smallest earning gains. 

Earn College Credits in Advance 

In addition to the high cost, the lengthy duration of the bachelor’s program may also be a huge financial setback to students, particularly from low-income families. The best way out of this is to earn college credits in advance or start college with AP credits. These credits can help you skip the basic prerequisite courses and opt directly for advanced-level courses. 

Jerome L. Rekart, Ph.D., who was the Vice President of Research and Insights at Southern New Hampshire University, thinks this is one of the best strategies for making college more affordable:

“Earning college credits in advance through AP courses, dual enrollment, or IB programs can significantly reduce the overall cost of a college education by shortening the time needed to earn a degree. This strategy not only makes college more affordable but also allows students to engage with advanced material early on, setting a strong foundation for their future academic endeavors.”

Today, tech companies, online colleges, and big universities are teaming up to change the college landscape. Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs are part of this change – open to anyone with internet access, covering thousands of topics. While many are free, those offering college credit usually charge a fee since they include a test. 

Another way to earn affordable online credits is by using your existing knowledge. For instance, Prior Learning Assessments (PLAs) let you skip classes and go straight to exams. If you pass a proctored exam showing your skills in subjects like English, math, or psychology, you qualify for credits that you can transfer to your desired college. 

Go for Certificates in Your Career 

If pursuing a four-year degree program isn’t your main goal, you can opt for certifications instead of a degree. The good part is that for many career paths, traditional bachelor’s degrees are not mandatory requirements. In this case, certificate programs win over, helping you gain relevant skills without putting in extra time, effort, and money. 

Some certificates are now even replacing bachelor’s programs entirely. One strong example of certificate programs offering an alternative to traditional degrees is the Salesforce Trailhead program. Salesforce offers different certifications in areas such as sales and customer service. Opting for these certificates opens doors to career opportunities without a four-year degree. 

Likewise, Google’s Career Certificates aim to provide Americans with the right skillset required for high-paying and high-growth job fields. This shows that you don’t necessarily need a college degree to begin building a career. When deciding between a certificate or a degree, look at the following variables for more clarity so your next step aligns with your goals:

  • Work-school balance 
  • Time Constraints 
  • Career Interests 
  • Professional Goals 
  • Finances 
Three students studying in a library

Graduate Early or On-Time 

Regardless of your degree, every extra semester adds up to the total tuition cost you pay for it. If you wish to make college more affordable, graduating in the shortest possible time can be your best bet. Getting done with your degree early or on time means having to pay for fewer semesters of tuition and other college expenses. 

Although taking time off to explore classes beyond your degree requirements may offer valuable experiences, it prolongs your time in school. So, one of your major goals must be to complete your degree on time. However, don’t rush it; overloading your course load means your grades will suffer. 

To make this happen, plan your course schedule ahead of time, enroll in summer sessions, and meet the prerequisites to avoid repeating courses. You might also consider attending a summer semester at a public university or a community college. Once you’re done, you can transfer those credits to your existing college to speed up your graduation timeline. 

Cut Down Living Expenses 

If living with family isn’t an option while attending college, you can still lower your expenses by cutting costs. While it’s natural not to think about the small costs while choosing a college, it’s smart to tally them up and find ways to lower them beforehand. When living off-campus, expenses like rent and transportation quickly add up, seriously straining your budget. 

Luckily, cutting down these costs isn’t too hard. Start by sharing an apartment with roommates, cooking your meals at home instead of dining out, and using public transportation instead of owning a car. Although you won’t see it upfront, these simple adjustments can accumulate savings over time, making college more affordable.

Another smart way to minimize the costs is to limit the number of trips home from college. As mentioned above, you don’t have to bring a car to campus and pay that parking fee daily. Instead, rely on public transportation or ride-sharing services. If you bring a car, consider carpooling during your free time to earn extra cash. Some additional tips include: 

  • Limit unimportant purchases and prioritize necessary items.
  • Utilize campus resources for free or discounted services, like fitness centers or libraries.
  • Opt for affordable housing options, such as on-campus dormitories or off-campus apartments with lower rent.
  • Set a budget and monitor it weekly to avoid going off-track. 
  • Rely on student discounts for entertainment purposes 

Top Five Ways to Pay for College 

Now that we have discussed the expenses associated with a four-year degree, the next big question is: how can I pay for my college? It’s one thing to talk about the costs associated with college. Working out ways to make them affordable is another. 

A student seated on a desk looking at her laptop

Sure, a degree can transform your life, yet you need to strike a balance. You can’t spend the rest of your life paying back loans you borrowed during college. This is why we’ve done the legwork and put together the top 5 ways to help pay for college without being saddled with indefinite debt. 

529 College Savings Plan 

First things first, families can invest in their children’s future education expenses using a 529 college savings plan. This plan is a dedicated savings account offering several tax and financial aid perks to facilitate college tuition and related expenses. Here are the two fundamental  advantages that make a 529 plan stand out: 

  • Tax Advantage 

Over two-thirds of states offer tax deductions or credits for contributions to their 529 plans. When it’s time to pay for higher education expenses, you can withdraw the funds you’ve invested entirely tax-free. 

  • Financial Aid Advantage 

When a student or their parent owns a 529 plan, it’s recorded as a parent asset on the FAFSA. More so, the distributions from the plan are ignored during aid calculation, so there’s minimal impact on the student’s eligibility for need-based aid. 

Scholarships and Grants 

Scholarships are everywhere, from federal programs to local nonprofits. They’re essentially free money, requiring no repayment, unlike student loans. Even better, data suggests that more than 1.7 million scholarships are awarded annually. They’re mostly merit-based, which means you can win them based on your academic excellence or extra-curricular activities. 

When it comes to funding college, make sure you follow the right tips and tricks to maximize your chances of winning a scholarship. Now, here’s a list of factors that most scholarship sites use to arrange the award: 

  • Financial Need 
  • GPA 
  • Standardized Test Scores
  • Ethnicity 
  • Military Affiliation 
  • Major 
  • Aware Type 
  • Deadlines 

Unlike scholarships, grants are awarded solely based on the financial need of the student. You need to seek grants at various levels – federal, local, and institutional. Grants can also depend on factors like: 

  • Race 
  • Gender
  • Sexual Orientation 
  • Location 
  • Religious Affiliation 

Jobs Alongside Study

Part-time work during school is a practical option, especially for students with scholarships covering some expenses. It helps offset costs like room and board, textbooks, and supplies and contributes towards tuition fees. Plus, full-time summer employment can provide funds for the next academic year. 

Students with financial needs may also opt for federal work-study programs to get part-time job opportunities to help cover college expenses. However, securing an on-campus job is necessary before receiving any funds through work-study. While this program may cover some of the college expenses, you’ll need additional resources to meet educational costs.

A student studying with her pen and laptop

Federal Financial Aid 

Most US students access unsubsidize federal student loans and federal parent loans by submitting the FAFSA. Those with financial need may also qualify for subsidized federal student loans, where the government covers the interest while the student is in school and during a 6-month grace period after graduation. 

If you have trouble bearing the cost of attending college, it’s best to go for federal loans due to their lower cost and more favorable repayment terms, unlike private loans. Once you’ve applied for federal loans, resorting to any other loan could mean borrowing more than you can repay. Ideally, you should be able to repay your loans within 10 years or less after graduation. 

Private Loans 

Once you’ve exhausted every other option, it’s time to opt for the last resort, i.e., private loans. These loans can cover various college expenses, such as transportation and childcare, helping you through the financial strain. Even though borrowing private loans racks up debt, you can focus on your studies without fretting much about expenses. 

However, before opting for a private loan, carefully assess repayment costs and the future earning potential of your chosen career path. This is because, unlike federal loans, interest on private loans quickly adds up, thrusting you into debt before you even graduate. 

Quick Tips to Help You Budget Wisely 

Let’s be real, you won’t be able to pay for your college by saving up on a few pennies or skipping occasional shopping. College is a major expense, and no shortcuts work in trying to afford it. However, budgeting your finances still remains the most clever strategy to allocate your money. 

Once you know what the most fraction of your money goes into, you can cut down on unnecessary expenses. Here’s a rundown of some quick tips to help you budget wisely: 

  • Eliminate unimportant subscriptions 
  • Cut down on dining expenses by preparing your meals at home 
  • Opt for secondhand books and supplies 
  • Use budgeting apps to track your spending habits and receive financial advice.
  • Sell items you no longer use 
  • Ask your internet and cable provider for potential discounts or promotions
  • Look for student discounts for entertainment, software, and other purposes.
  • Buy groceries in bulk to save money 
  • Set a monthly spending limit and stick to it to avoid overspending. 

Related Questions 

How Do Work-Study Programs Work?

Work-Study is a federal program offering part-time employment opportunities to undergraduate, graduate, or professional students who require earnings from employment to pursue their studies at eligible institutions. Once you submit the FAFSA, your financial situation is thoroughly evaluated to determine your eligibility for the program. 

Which Method of Paying for College Is the Least Expensive?

One of the best and least expensive methods for applying to college is securing scholarships and grants since they do not need to be repaid. If you’re good at handling pressure, working part-time through programs like work-study may be your best bet. 

Can I Negotiate My Financial Aid Package With Colleges?

Yes, it’s possible to negotiate your financial aid package with your college. If you’ve received offers from multiple institutions, it’s best to reach out to their financial aid offices to discuss your situation. Chances are that most of these colleges may be willing to adjust your aid package based on your financial circumstances. 


A bachelor’s degree is a major milestone that sets you up for a brighter future. Yet, there’s no denying that it may be insanely expensive. This definitive guide to making college affordable will help you figure out a way to make your college dreams a reality! 

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Aya Andrews


Aya Andrews is a passionate educator and mother of two, with a diverse background that has shaped her approach to teaching and learning. Born in Metro Manila, she now calls San Diego home and is proud to be a Filipino-American. Aya earned her Masters degree in Education from San Diego State University, where she focused on developing innovative teaching methods to engage and inspire students.

Prior to her work in education, Aya spent several years as a continuing education consultant for KPMG, where she honed her skills in project management and client relations. She brings this same level of professionalism and expertise to her work as an educator, where she is committed to helping each of her students achieve their full potential.

In addition to her work as an educator, Aya is a devoted mother who is passionate about creating a nurturing and supportive home environment for her children. She is an active member of her community, volunteering her time and resources to support local schools and organizations. Aya is also an avid traveler, and loves to explore new cultures and cuisines with her family.

With a deep commitment to education and a passion for helping others succeed, Aya is a true inspiration to those around her. Her dedication to her craft, her community, and her family is a testament to her unwavering commitment to excellence in all aspects of her life.

Find your perfect value college is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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