Secrets for Cutting the Cost of College

Bellevue University LogoIf you are thinking about returning to school the issue of finances has likely come up. You’ll hear a lot about affordability and the cost of school interchanged, but affordability is different than cost. Think of it this way: cost is just the baseline; affordability can be considered how you’re going to manage that cost. In order to best figure the true cost, you must get a clear picture of all the expenses, and look for ways to reduce them when possible.


Take a look at the following seven factors when conducting your research:

1. Cost per credit hour based on the academic calendar. Don’t just pay attention to the cost per credit hour – this can be different due to variations in academic calendars, leading to extra fees and valuable time spent. There are two factors to consider here. What is the baseline cost per credits and how are credits figured? Make sure you look at all the factors involved when you determine affordability.

2. Length of program. How long will it take you to complete your degree? Are you starting brand new, do you have some credits? What is the pace of the program? When you know how many credits you need, that can help you figure cost based on how many credits are included in tuition, or if you are paying per class.

3. Transfer credits. If you have previously earned credits how will they transfer in? Are you able to save time and money if you get credit towards graduation for previous coursework? When credits don’t transfer, you could be spending more to retake classes.

4. Books and supplies. For first time students the average cost of books and supplies was more than $1000, according to The National Center for Educations Statistics. Books can get expensive, but are required. Take advantage of shopping strategically to try to land used books, renting textbooks or selling back books when possible, and research how other savings opportunities can be found. Does your school offer text book grants or scholarships to alleviate the burden of this expense?

5. Fees. Get a comprehensive list of all fees that you are required to pay as a student. Are there student fees, semester fees, lab fees, parking fees, etc.? Determine how fees are figured in. Are they included in tuition, are they separate, how often do you pay them?

6. Housing and transportation. Once you have figured out the cost of credits and fees to complete your program, explore this sometimes costly expense. Will you be living on campus? How much will you be spending commuting to campus? What is the value in the convenience of being on campus? Is online an option for you?

7. Other ways to earn credits. Can you test out of classes to earn credits? For example if you can take a CLEP or DSST test in place of a class you could save money on the cost per credit hour as well as the cost of books. According to, CLEP tests are accepted by over 2,900 colleges and Universities, so explore if the school you are considering accepts them, and work with an advisor to see how they would fit your needs. Also ask how corporate and military training can count towards your degree plan.

College can be expensive, but planning and research can ease the burden without sacrificing the integrity of earning a respectable, accredited degree. Utilizing previous credits, and finding a school that works on your timeline to help you make the most of your funds can reduce costs and make college more affordable.

This post was provided by Dr. Mary Hawkins, President of Bellevue University, who was a guest on College Smart Radio “Tackling the Runaway Costs of College,” on April 12th, 2014.  Listen to this broadcast on YouTube here.


How Does Financial Aid Really Work?

11943267226_18cbe8371d_bThe staggering costs associated with attending college is enough to discourage any high school graduate or anyone who began a 4 year program, but never completed it. Tuition has increased across the country. But for the student who is willing to put a little time into finding free money to pay tuition and related costs, the effort is well worth it.

I speak from personal experience about my search for financial aid to pay for three degrees. Today, I am a Financial Aid Advisor at Albany State University, but 14 years ago, I was a Dougherty High School graduate from Albany, Georgia wondering how my dream to complete college would be funded. My mother and father constantly reinforced the importance of getting a degree for financial independence, but had little or no resources to help me after working to make ends meet for our family home. I got serious about planning my future. With their encouragement during times I needed it most coupled with determination, I secured funds to complete four degrees.

So far, I have secured an Associate’s Degree in Business Administration from Darton College, a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Resources at Georgia SouthWestern State University, and a Master’s in Public Administration with a concentration in Human Resources at Albany State University. I am currently working on a second Master’s in Business Administration at Albany State University and I am set to graduate this year on December 14th.

I am also a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Incorporated and other campus organizations. I completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (better known as FAFSA) and was qualified by the Department of Education to receive financial aid such as Pell and SEOG grants, and work study to pay for the 2 year and 4 year degree. I was also awarded institutional scholarships and aid based on information I provided on the FAFSA. Tuition assistance offered through a program at my job helped pay for the completion of two master’s degrees.

I am now helping students navigate the maze of financial aid. Most times, problems arise when they file the FAFSA at the last minute. The FAFSA is available every year after January 1st. I encourage students to begin applying for aid at the beginning of the year and then load their parent’s tax information on the application filing. I always recommend that students look for scholarships in their junior year of high school to jumpstart their research.

I am truly thankful for the opportunities afforded me to further my education. I am now able to speak to students because I’ve walked in their shoes. A sense of fulfillment fills me as I watch them stroll the  stage at graduation knowing I had a hand in opening the doors to a new chapter in their life.


Denata Williams

Financial Aid Advisor  MBA, MPA

Albany State University Office of Financial Aid

Phone: (229) 430-4648

Fax: (229) 430-3936

This post was provided by Denata Williams, a financial aid advisor at Albany State University, who was a guest on College Smart Radio “Tackling the Runaway Costs of College” on January 18th, 2014.  Listen to this broadcast on YouTube here.

Photo Credit: Simon Cunningham

What You Need to Know and Do about Paying for College: Six Essential Tips


When thinking about paying for college, parents often worry most about what they don’t know. College financial aid is a complicated topic, with an alphabet soup of acronyms and jargon. They fear making a mistake that will ruin their child’s future. Despite the complexity, there are only a few things that most families must do to secure their child’s future.

1. Start saving for college as soon as possible. Every dollar you save is about a dollar less you’ll have to borrow. It’s never too late to start saving, because it is literally cheaper to save than to borrow. Every dollar you borrow will cost about two dollars by the time you repay the debt.

2. Start searching for scholarships as soon as possible. Every dollar you win is about a dollar less you’ll have to borrow. There are many scholarships with deadlines in the fall of the senior year in high school, and several that can be won in younger grades, even in elementary school. Search for scholarships for free at web sites like and Answer all of the optional questions for about twice as many matches.

Apply for every scholarship for which you are eligible. Winning a scholarship depends as much on luck as it does on skill. By applying to more scholarships, you increase your chances of winning one. Students often dislike applying for scholarships that involve lower award amounts (e.g., under $1,000) or writing essays. But these are easier to win because they are less competitive, the amounts add up, and they add lines to your resume that can help you win bigger awards. It also gets easier after your first half-dozen scholarship applications, since you will be able to reuse your essays, tailoring them to each new scholarship sponsor.

Beware of scholarship scams. If you have to pay money to get money, it’s probably a scam. Never invest more than a postage stamp to get information about scholarships or to apply for scholarships.

3. File the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) every year, even if you think you won’t qualify for financial aid. The FAFSA is used to apply for financial aid from the federal and state governments and all but about 250 mostly private colleges. It is also a prerequisite for low-cost federal education loans, which you can borrow even if you are wealthy. File the FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1. Several states are on a first-come, first-served basis, awarding state grants until the money runs out. (California’s deadline is in early March.) Do not wait until you are admitted or have filed your federal income tax returns.

It is ok to estimate income based on W-2 and 1099 statements and/or the last pay stub of the year. You will have an opportunity to correct any errors later. You can file the FAFSA for free at Use the IRS data retrieval tool to update your FAFSA information a week or two after you file your federal income tax return. Call the US Department of Education’s federal student aid information center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) with questions about federal student aid and filing the FAFSA.

4. Compare colleges based on the net price, the difference between the total cost of attendance (tuition, fees, room and board, books and supplies, etc.) and just grants (money that does not need to be repaid). This is the amount you’ll have to pay from savings, income and loans to cover college costs. It is a more accurate measure of the bottom line cost. But beware of two caveats: about half of colleges practice front-loading of grants, yielding a lower net price for freshmen than for upperclassmen, and a college’s outside scholarship policy dictates whether private scholarships are used to replace loans (yielding a lower net price) or the college’s own grants (no change). Relying on the net price will help you make a more informed decision about the tradeoffs between college affordability and other considerations, such as college quality and reputation.

5. Borrow as little as possible. You can economize on college costs by enrolling in a less expensive college, such as an in-state public college or a college with a generous “no loans” financial aid policy. But tuition represents only about half of college costs. Students can also save by buying used textbooks (or selling the textbooks back to the bookstore at the end of the term), living at home with their parents, minimizing trips home from school and economizing on everyday expenses. For example, students don’t like the cafeteria food and so tend to eat out a lot. But a $10 pizza a week will cost you about $2,000 over the course of a four-year college career. If you pay for that pizza with student loan money, it will cost you about $4,000 by the time you repay the debt. So live like a student while you’re in school, so you don’t have to live like a student after you graduate.

Keep your debt in sync with your income. A good rule of thumb is that total student loan debt at graduation should be less than your annual starting salary, and ideally a lot less. If total debt is less than annual income, you will be able to repay your loans in ten years or less. Otherwise you’ll struggle to make your monthly loan payments. Parents should borrow no more for all their children than they can afford to repay in ten years or by retirement, whichever comes first.

As an alternative to student loan debt, consider a tuition installment plan. These spread out the costs over 9-12 equal monthly installments. Tuition installment plans don’t charge interest, but do have up-front fees that are typically less than $100. They are a good way of avoiding long-term debt.

If you must borrow, borrow federal first. Federal student loans are cheaper, more available and have better repayment terms than private student loans. Federal student loans have low fixed rates, while private student loans tend to offer variable rates. Variable rates may initially have lower rates, but those interest rates have nowhere to go but up. Federal student loans also offer income-based repayment and public service loan forgiveness, while private student loans do not.

6. Don’t forget about the education tax benefits, such as the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), because these are claimed when you file your federal income tax return instead of when you pay the college bill. These tax credits give you up to $2,500 back based on amounts you paid for tuition and textbooks.

This post was provided by Mark Kantrowitz, the Senior Vice President and Publisher of, who was a guest on College Smart Radio “Tackling the Runaway Costs of College” on October 5th, 2013.  Listen to this broadcast on YouTube here.

Photo Credit: Edvisors

Applying for College Financial Aid Is Not As Scary As The Monster Under Your Bed

The Department of Education

The Department of Education’s new website can help families with financial aid.

When you were a kid, were you afraid of the dark and the monster under your bed? Well, if you think that applying for college financial aid is like the monster under the bed, I’ve got good news for you, you can tame the monster if you understand the process.

First, let’s look at the most common myth about the college financial aid process: “We don’t want to apply for financial aid because we make too much money and my son or daughter won’t qualify for financial aid. Wrong! There are three basic categories of financial aid: need-based aid, non-need based aid, and merit aid (scholarships). Even if you are lucky enough to make a good living, your son or daughter is at least eligible for a non-need based federal loan (Unsubsidized Direct Stafford Loan). If your student is a high achiever, she or he may get a merit based scholarship to help with the cost of college.

Let’s take a short look at the process.

Federal and State Financial Aid
Applying for federal and state financial aid is easier than you think. The U.S. Department of Education has created a very good web site: This site has great information about the application process, the types of financial aid, and student loan repayment plans.

To apply for federal and state financial aid, the student (and at least one parent for 18-24 year olds) must get a PIN and then fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) on the web beginning in January of the year that the student wants to attend. Huh? If your high school student is graduating in June, apply for financial aid with the FAFSA in January of that year.

You can list several colleges and universities on the FAFSA. Once the on-line FAFSA is filled out and submitted (and signed with your PIN), the FAFSA record will be sent to each college listed. Colleges across the country receive FAFSA application records and begin to process applications by about March of each year. Many colleges may send your student an award letter (offer of financial aid) by March – some colleges may send awards earlier. The FAFSA determines how much your family can afford to pay for college for one year. This amount is called the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The college establishes each student’s need by subtracting the EFC from its cost of attendance. Depending on the student’s eligibility, the college will offer need-based federal and state aid up to the student’s need. Additional non-need based aid may be offered to the student and parent up to the cost of attendance at the college. The college can offer state aid because your state’s grant authority gets information from the FAFSA also.

Need Based Aid Non-Need Based Aid
Pell Grant Federal Unsubsidized Stafford Loan
Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant Federal PLUS (parent loan)
Federal Work Study Federal GradPLUS (graduate students only)
Federal Perkins Loan Merit Based Scholarships
Federal Direct Subsidized Stafford Loan School Tuition Discounts
State Grant Athletic Aid (may have a need component)
School Tuition Discounts (need or non-need)

Accepting Financial Aid and School Processing
Generally, schools offer financial aid to students early so that families will know the amount of aid to expect. The process is not finished at this point. A student and parent may have to answer questions about the FAFSA and provide information to the school to document the data on the FAFSA. A student will have to accept the offer and the student who wants to borrow in the loan programs will have to complete an on-line entrance interview and master promissory note. Parent borrowers will have to complete a promissory note. Once everything is in place, the school with disburse funds to the student’s account at the beginning of fall semester.

Is It Really That Simple?
Not quite, but this is a short article! Remember the best source of information about the financial aid process is the college’s financial aid staff. If you can, visit the schools that you are interested in and talk to the financial aid staff. They will explain their process and make sure you can complete the process in time for your financial aid funds to be ready on the first day of the semester. Remember that students must fill out a FAFSA for every year they attend school and want to get federal and state financial aid.

This post was provided by Sam Collie, a senior consultant for Evans Consulting Group, who was a guest on College Smart Radio “Tackling the Runaway Costs of College” on August 3rd, 2013.  Listen to this broadcast on YouTube here.

Photo Credit: DonkeyHotey

Ways to Utilize High School Counselors

One resource that students often under utilize is their high school college counselor.

One resource that students often under utilize is their high school college counselor.

Finding the right school or college is one of the most important decisions your student will make. When it’s time to apply to colleges, it makes good sense for families to take advantage of as many tools and resources available as possible. One resource that students often underutilize is their high school college counselor. High school counselors have information about college selection, admission tests, college preparation plus education and career options. They are one of the most important resources for student career counseling and college help. Here are a few ways to start utilizing your student’s high school counselor.

Develop a Relationship

Make sure your son or daughter gets to know their high school counselor and let him get to know your student in return. It’s a good idea for them to develop a rapport with the high school’s college counselor because they will be able to give your student information on schools that may be more tailored to their wants and needs. This will also help when your student is filling out college applications and the schools ask for a letter of recommendation. If your high school counselor knows your son or daughter, they will be able to write a better, more personal letter that colleges will value more. They may also be more willing to do extra work for them if they’ve developed a relationship. Continue reading

CSS Profile: What You Need To Know

Why do some colleges require the CSS Profile?

Why do some colleges require the CSS Profile?

Financial aid season is upon us and in addition to filling out the FAFSA application form some students will also have to file the College Scholarship Service Financial Aid Profile, also known as the CSS Profile. It is a financial aid profile produced by the College Board allowing college students to apply for financial aid and is much more extensive than the FAFSA. The CSS Profile is used by more than 350 private institutions throughout the U.S. and is primarily designed to give private member institutions of the College Board a closer look into the finances of a student and their family.

Similar to the FAFSA, the CSS Profile asks questions about the financial status of the student and the student’s parents. The one difference is the CSS Profile has a more detailed questionnaire than the FAFSA, focusing on information about the specific programs at schools you will be applying to. The information the student gives in the CSS Profile is then sent to colleges or universities that the student specifies. It can qualify students for enormous nonfederal financial aid packages funded by their college such as institutional scholarships, grants and loans. Continue reading

14 Ways to Ensure You Graduate in Four Years

The average time to get a degree at a four-year college is about five years.

College seems to be taking longer and longer to get through.  The average time to get a degree at the (so-called) four-year college hovers at about five years, with only one-third of students graduating in four years and another third taking six or more years to finish.  The situation at community colleges is no better:  Only fifty-percent of students graduate within two to four years, while a full quarter take more than four years to complete their Associate degree.  All those extra years cost money and delay your entry into the work force.  It’s not all that hard, though, to complete your program in the traditional four or two years if you follow our fourteen tips for getting college done on time: Continue reading