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How to Reduce College Costs

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Are you coming up short on your college savings? Here are some steps you can take now—and during college—to lighten the financial burden.

Going off to college is exhilarating, but opening up college bills can be sobering. These "last-minute" steps can help you bring college costs down to earth.

1. Improve Your Chances of an Affordable College Cost

Apply to generous schools. Your chances of reducing college costs are better at financially friendly colleges that have a history of offering generous financial aid—and are likely to want you as a student.

  • If your grades and test scores put you in the upper 25 percent of the college's most recently enrolled freshmen, you are more likely to get better aid as an incentive to enroll.
  • Look for colleges that meet a significant portion of students' financial need without padding the aid offer with loans.

Don't commit early to a college. To find the best deal, compare aid offers. Wait until you have all your aid packages in front of you before you make a college decision.

Look for scholarships before and during college. Search throughout your high school years and during college. Once you are settled on a major, take some time to research specialized awards you might be eligible for.

2. Get the Best Financial Aid

Improve your financial aid eligibility. Even if you are starting college within a year, you can still take steps to increase your financial need.

  • Student assets have a far higher impact on financial aid than do parents assets. Consider paying down assets held in the student's name on college-related needs, such as a car or computer. See How Student and Parent Assets Affect Your Financial Aid to learn more about transferring child assets to a parent and the impact of assets on aid eligibility.
  • Put money in a 529 college savings account. Although the money will be assessed at the parent asset rate, it won't be counted as income when you withdraw it to pay for college.

Learn how to evaluate aid packages. Look for gift aid (scholarships and grants) since they reduce college cost dollar for dollar. Make sure you are eligible to receive that gift aid for all four years of college.

3. Reduce Your College Bill

Get college credit on the cheap. Get low-cost college credit by taking AP tests in high school and taking classes at a local college. If you plan to get an advanced degree, investigate colleges with combined programs that let you get both a bachelor's and a graduate degree in five years.

Get a student job during college. Indicate on the FAFSA that you want a work-study job. Otherwise part-time jobs are usually available on or near campus.

Sign up to serve. The federal service program AmeriCorps offers a grant that can help cover college expenses or repay federal student loans. Joining the ROTC can also defray college expenses.

Start paying off your student loans. Unsubsidized federal student loans and private college loans charge interest as soon as you receive the funds. You'll owe much more interest if you wait to start repayment.

Graduate on time. Many students take more than four years to graduate. That means paying for at least one extra year of college.

4. Use College Expenses to Reduce Taxes

Take college tax breaks. Depending on income, parents might be able to use qualified college expenses and federal student loan interest to reduce federal income taxes.

Take tax deductions for 529 accounts. You will not pay federal income tax on withdrawals of earnings from a 529 college savings plan if the money is used to pay for qualified college expenses. Some state-supported 529 plans also offer tax deductions.

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