U.S. student debt has swelled to $1.7 trillion, but you can make college more affordable through a combination of grants, jobs, and other money-saving tricks.

How to Make College More Affordable


  • The student debt crisis hinders the financial success of millions of college graduates.
  • Federal financial aid, scholarships, and work-study can bring tuition costs down.
  • Students can also take advantage of low-cost online credits and certificate programs.
  • Both in-state public universities and community colleges offer lower tuition rates.

Since 2010, college student loan debt has ballooned from around $800 billion to $1.7 trillion, surpassing all other forms of consumer debt in the U.S. Students take out bigger loans to cover bigger tuition bills, financially setting back college graduates and dropouts alike.

Graduates' low unemployment rates and high lifetime earnings make strong arguments for higher education, but prospective students shouldn't look to loans alone to foot the bill. Student loans can help with tuition and living expenses, making college possible for millions — but in the long term, the average student loan adds thousands of dollars to the bottom line.

Today, roughly 70% of students complete college with debt. Maximizing college’s return on investment means keeping loans to a minimum.

Today, roughly 70% of students complete college with debt. While student loans have become standard, maximizing college's return on investment means keeping loans to a minimum.

For many, the best way to pay for college is a combination of methods. You can find free money for college through grants and scholarships, earn cheaper credits and certificates online, work a part-time job on campus, or even graduate a semester or more early. Ultimately, it's up to you to decide which methods work best for you.

Table of Contents

9 Ways to Make College More Affordable

Attend an In-State Public University

Staying in your home state for college is a great way to save money. Colleges assume you and your family pay taxes in your state of residence; those tax dollars support education, so in-state students get a break. Barring any state agreements (common among public colleges in neighboring states), out-of-state students can pay two or three times as much in tuition costs — closer to private college rates.

According to 2020-21 data from the College Board, the average tuition cost for in-state college students is $10,560. This year's average out-of-state cost is $27,020. Attending college out of state nearly triples the sticker price.

The average tuition cost for in-state college students is $10,560.

Another financial boon of staying in your home state is not having to pay for housing. Students able to live at home with their parents while attending college stand to save at least $10,000 annually. The College Board estimates that room and board cost both in-state and out-of-state students over $11,000 a year. Meanwhile, private college students pay over $13,000.

Schools may waive some or all of the out-of-state markup as part of a scholarship bundle, but such a write-off is far from guaranteed. If you're determined to attend an out-of-state school, apply for grant and scholarship money early, and be sure to communicate with the admissions office if tuition is still out of reach.

There's also the possibility of establishing residency in the state where you would like to attend college. Residency rules vary by state and institution, but the rule of thumb says students must be financially independent and able to prove they've lived in the state for at least one year.


Start Out at a Community College

One of the most affordable pathways to a bachelor's degree is to start out at a community college. Annual tuition at community colleges is a fraction of what you would pay at four-year institutions — even at public colleges paying in-state rates. For the 2020-21 school year, community college students pay an average of $3,770. (For the average private college tuition, tack on another zero.)

Community college students pay an average of $3,770 per year.

While community colleges provide a cost-effective alternative, they're not overwhelmingly successful at transferring their students to universities. Eighty percent of community college students intend to pursue a bachelor's degree, but within five years of starting out, just 25% of them successfully transfer to a four-year college.

If you're interested in taking the community college route to save money, make a transfer plan with your academic counselor. They can help you navigate course selections to ensure your credits transfer to your target school.

Avoid For-Profit Colleges

For-profit colleges have come under fire from educators and policymakers who say these institutions prey on underserved students, leaving them with debt rather than viable career options. Currently, the default rate on loans for students attending for-profit schools is twice that for students attending public two-year colleges.

For-profit colleges are said to prey on underserved students.

For-profit schools make big promises to students using deceptive marketing practices and then fail to graduate their students or connect them with promised job opportunities. The Obama administration had required for-profit colleges to prove they were preparing students for gainful employment, but the Trump administration has since rolled back these provisions.

Not only do for-profit institutions cost more, but they also benefit graduates the least. While any education will increase projected income, researchers estimate that graduates of associate degree programs at for-profit colleges experience the smallest earnings gains of all.


Apply Early for Financial Aid

Though college tuition is steep, most students don't pay the full sticker price. According to the Department of Education, about 40% of students from families earning less than $125,000 a year receive enough financial aid to fully cover tuition at public universities.

Federal student aid keeps college affordable, but complicated paperwork and unclear deadlines work against underserved students. Low-income families — who are the most in need of financial assistance for college — are the least likely to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Many say they thought they wouldn't qualify.

The FAFSA connects students with more than $150 billion in free money for college.

Students from low-income families who apply early stand to be awarded the most in FAFSA aid. In addition to need-based programs such as Pell Grants, there are state-based merit aid programs and thousands of grants and scholarships. The FAFSA connects students with more than $150 billion in free money for college.

While completing the FAFSA can be a major hurdle, especially for first-generation students, it's getting easier. In 2019, the Department of Education streamlined the FAFSA, cutting out as many as 22 questions.

The FAFSA is available every year (for aid the following school year) starting October 1. There's no need to wait until January to fill out the application, so get started on it as soon as possible.

Earn College Credit Before Enrolling

The cost and duration of bachelor's programs cut into the degree's returns and put up steep barriers to low-income students. But new partnerships between tech giants, online colleges, and flagship universities promise to recreate the college experience.

MOOC sites like Coursera and edX offer thousands of courses for college credit.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) offer an early glimpse into the future of higher education. These online classes are available to anyone with an internet connection. Although many are free, most that earn you college credit cost something since they must include a proctored exam. Aggregate MOOC sites, like Coursera and edX, offer thousands of courses for both personal enrichment and college credit.

Another path to cheap online credits is to leverage what you already know. Prior learning assessments (PLAs) allow you to bypass classes and skip right to the exams. You'll earn credit if you pass a proctored exam proving your proficiency in general education subjects, such as English, math, and sociology.

Be aware that while colleges are becoming more flexible in their matriculation rules, MOOC and PLA credits don't transfer to all schools. Check with your home college before enrolling to make sure those cheaper credits align with its transfer policy and residency requirement.


Opt for a Certificate Instead of a Degree

Transferable credits are the priority if you're pursuing a traditional college degree. But four-year degrees aren't necessary or practical for all career paths. Certificate programs allow you to gain the relevant skills for your chosen career path while spending less money and time on your postsecondary education.

Some of these certificates are now entirely replacing bachelor's programs. Google, for example, plans to launch a cheaper certificate alternative to a college degree. Earned in six months, Google Career Certificates bear more similarities to vocational certificates or apprenticeships, but are said to have the same earning potential and prestige of a bachelor's degree.


Kent Walker, senior vice president of global affairs at Google, said the company "will now treat these new career certificates as the equivalent of a four-year degree for related roles."

Though there will be internships and employment opportunities within Google, the certificate is intended to prepare graduates to work for any company in any sector. A consortium of high-profile employers are already signed up to tap into the program's graduate roster. Google predicts more employers will offer training programs of their own, allowing them to hire for personality first and provide skills-based training second.

Look For Cheaper Textbooks

No matter your major, buying each term's required textbooks can add substantially to the cost of college. For certain majors, especially business majors, that per-term cost can be in the thousands of dollars.

Opting for used textbooks is one easy hack. Because students are more inclined to snap up last year's dog-eared version for $70 instead of this year's $140 edition, it's a good idea to head to your campus bookstore early, before the shelves clear. Plenty of college towns are also home to off-campus bookstores, which frequently buy back student books and sell them at an even greater discount the following year.

Amazon has greatly expanded its academic textbook footprint, offering new, used, and lease options for a huge array of college textbooks.

Then there's the worldwide web. Amazon has greatly expanded its academic textbook footprint, offering new, used, and lease options for a huge array of college textbooks. Unlike campus and local bookstores, however, Amazon inventory is not specific to any college, so you'll want to double-check that the edition is correct before adding it to your shopping cart.

The cheapest textbook of all is the one you borrow from the library. Again, the edition your on- or off-campus library offers may not be the exact one your professor asks for, but plenty of academic libraries do carry required texts and lend them out for a substantial chunk of the term.


Get a Part-Time Job While in School

Many full-time and most part-time college students work. Whether working during college helps or hinders students remains debatable. Taking on a part-time job or short-term gig work while in school could divide your attention and negatively impact your class engagement or grades. But learning how to make money now could also serve you well in your future career.

On-campus managers see their employees first and foremost as students.

If you need extra cash but also want enough time to dedicate to your studies, an on-campus or work-study job will be your best bet. On-campus managers see their employees first and foremost as students. If you need to work fewer hours around midterms or if your grades take a dip, they'll work with you to ensure you succeed.

There are also a ton of flexible jobs college students can pursue, many of which are online, such as tutoring, posting class notes, freelancing, and selling crafts. More traditional off-campus jobs — from serving in a restaurant to holding down the front desk at a gym — offer other benefits, like income-boosting tips or downtime for reading.

If working during the school year is too hectic, consider working during your summer breaks.

Graduate College Early

Every semester of college adds to the total cost of your degree. Extending your time in school — e.g., by taking time off, exploring classes outside of your degree requirements, or switching majors — can provide meaningful, positive experiences and even benefit your career. But embarking on those meandering paths adds to an already steep total.

Graduating early, even by just a semester, can greatly reduce the total cost of college. Rushing to graduate can backfire, however. You don't want to cram your course load each term so much that your grades start to suffer. Planning ahead is key.

Graduating early, even by just a semester, can greatly reduce the total cost of college.

Take college courses during high school, test out of general ed subjects you don't need to take a 101 class in, and rack up credits during the summer term. The less time you spend in class, the less you'll have to pay.

But it's not just about what you save — it's about what you earn. The sooner you obtain your degree, the sooner you can make money off of it. Hitting the job market a year early could put you one step ahead for promotions and raises for the rest of your professional life.


Feature Image: Evgeniia Siiankovskaia / Moment / Getty Images