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6 Offbeat Ways to Cut College Costs

To trim terrifying tuition tabs, think creatively

By Leah Ingram

Whether you've just dropped your freshman off at college or are wondering how you’ll pay your teen’s looming tuition bills, you're likely dealing with sticker shock.

According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition, room and board at American private colleges now tops $42,000; the tab at some schools is nearly $60,000. At public colleges, in-state students pay $18,900, on average, and out-of-staters are charged $32,800.

A few offbeat tactics might help you reduce your college bills, though. Here are six:

1. Look at colleges beyond your backyard. "Small schools are extremely anxious to create geographic diversity in their student body and will often throw merit scholarships at your child in an attempt to entice them to enroll," says David DeLong, author of Graduate to a Great Job.

Sending your child to a college abroad could save you a bundle, too. When Marcia Turner's 16-year-old son starts looking at schools, the Pittsford, N.Y., resident plans to have him visit McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Not only is McGill ranked by U.S. News on par with Brown University, Cornell University and New York University (NYU), it's significantly cheaper. The cost per credit hour at McGill is about $640; at Brown University, it’s almost $6,000.

A recent NPR story which said the United Kingdom, Canada and Germany are the most popular choices for American students attending college abroad also noted that in Germany, tuition is often free.

2. Encourage your children close in age to attend the same school. A handful of colleges offer a family discount if your kids attend simultaneously.

McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., gives $2,000-a-year scholarships to a second sibling enrolled concurrently and $4,000-a-year to a third.

Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va, has a “Family Grant” program that takes as much as $8,000-a-year off a student's tuition for as long as his or her sibling is enrolled full time.

Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., has a “Family Discount” that trims tuition 10 percent a year for the older student when a younger one in the family attends, as well as 20 percent for the first student and 10 percent for the second if a third child attends as well.

"Having siblings attend the same school offers numerous advantages," says Bobbi Dempsey, author of the Kindle Single, Degrees of Desperation: The Working Class Struggle to Pay for College. "They can share an apartment, cutting down on housing costs, and other essentials, such as a car. Adding a tuition discount on top of it makes this a great scenario, financially."

3. Look to your alma mater. Many colleges love legacies — families with multiple generations who graduated there — and will often discount tuition to encourage them.

For example, Cabrini College in Radnor, Pa. has annual $1,500 Alumni Legacy Awards for full-time, undergraduates whose parent, grandparent or sibling graduated from the school. Currently, 44 Cabrini students benefit from this award.

Another Pennsylvania school, Lebanon Valley College, in Annville, offers a similar award: legacies there get $10,000 scholarships over four years.


Michigan Tech University, in Houghton, has an Alumni Legacy Award for non-Michigan residents whose parent or grandparent graduated from MTU. The award, given for all four years, is the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition: $15,964 for 2015-2016.

4. Target unusual, little-known scholarships. "Smaller scholarship programs get fewer applicants," says Dempsey, "so students may have better odds, even if they aren't necessarily a genius or star athlete."

Jefferson Blackburn-Smith, director of admissions at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, agrees. "Families should ask about endowed scholarships that may have special criterion, like county of residence, academic major or affiliation with a special group,” he says.

Happen to be a New York resident and have a child who volunteers as a firefighter? The Firemen’s Association of the State of New York has a tuition reimbursement scholarship so firefighters can attend community college in New York State for free.

The FastWeb site, a good resource for college financing information, has a long list of “weird, wacky and outlandish” scholarships, ranging from the $500 Wholesale Halloween Costumes Scholarship (applicants must submit a creative meme for these getups) to the $1,000 Custom Jewelry Scholarship (given to the best essay on the topic: Why buy custom jewelry?) to the $10,000 Vegetarian Resource Group Scholarship (for students who have promoted vegetarianism).

5. Combine college degrees. If your child plans to get a master's degree, look to schools that let students save money by combining degrees, such as earning a master's in four years or getting a fifth-year of tuition free for a master's. You can find some by doing an online search for “combined undergraduate and master’s programs.”

Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. has a four-year bachelor's/master's degree program in political science, chemistry, math or math/computer science.

Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., (where my daughter is a freshman) does not put any degree restrictions on its President's Scholars Program, for its free year of graduate tuition but an undergrad there must have completed 92 credits and have a 3.75 GPA or greater when applying.

6. Have your kid ask family and friends to help him or her pay for college with a GoFundMe or Kickstarter campaign. This may take a little chutzpah, but some students are doing it. According to Business Insider, there were nearly 107,000 GoFundMe campaigns for college expenses in 2014, raising more than $13 million.

Leah Ingram is a health, lifestyle and frugal-living writer and the author of Suddenly Frugal: How to Live Happier and Healthier on Less. She is also founder of the money-saving blog, Suddenly Frugal, and writes for magazines and websites including Good Housekeeping and Read More
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