6 Ways to Pay Less Money For A College Degree


A four-year college degree can be one of the most expensive purchases in a person’s lifetime. In fact, many hard-working professionals continue to pay for their college education long after graduation. Here are six ways you can expect to pay less money for a traditional four-year college degree.

Start early. Some colleges allow high school students to begin taking college courses while attending high school. Homeschooled students and those attending a participating high school can take up to 12 semester hours before graduation. By paying for and completing these classes early, it can help to offset costs later on.

Attend a community college. With costs at half of their pricier private and state counterparts, community colleges are a great buy. If getting a degree there doesn’t interest you, consider their generous transfer programs. They allow a student to initially obtain a large number of credit hours at the cheaper college cost. You would still be considered a graduate of the state or private college.

Do it in three years. Several colleges offer summer class options to their students. By combining the summer semester with two 20-hour regular semesters, it is possible to graduate well ahead of schedule. Even with the summer semester costs, it is far cheaper than going the full four or five years.

Challenge the requirements. Many colleges allow students to “test out” of required classes. To do so, a student must prove that they already know the course material, and therefore, they do not need to take the class. Providing documented life experience or taking a competence exam will often be enough to skip a course entirely.

Let your boss pay for it. An increasing number of workplaces offer tuition reimbursement programs and will “pick up the tab” for up to 30 credit hours a year. Some employer plans require that you maintain a satisfactory grade level (C average or higher) and that you work a minimum number of hours. In addition, you may have to pay up-front costs, which will then be reimbursed by your place of employment.

Go in the off-season. It may be possible to get a 50% discount on your college courses, if you’re willing to attend during unpopular class times. Early morning, late evening, and holiday class offerings are often more difficult to fill. Some colleges will reduce the price for these classes to ensure adequate enrollment.

In addition to the traditional methods of scholarships, grants, loan forgiveness , and work-study, there are less traditional methods of saving college money. Tailor a unique schedule or program at your school, and it is possible to pay far less. By being as flexible as possible, you just might avoid the highest price tag on today’s college education.

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Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

Yeah, I pretty much didn't go to school my last year of college and worked at internships and then took one class the second semester for a fraction of the cost.  My school had an extension campus where professionals paid for classes on an individual class basis, so instead of paying a full semester's tuition I just paid for that one class I needed to graduate.  Sometimes when you just need 2 to 3 credits to graduate you may be able to find the credits somewhere cheaper!

Nora Dunn's picture

Getting the boss to pay for education is a great way to keep learning and to forward your career at the same time. I've done it myself and it works wonderfully.  

Great article, Linsey!

Guest's picture

I'm getting my employer to pay for over half of it ($15,000) when all is done. I have to stay on for a year after the reimbursement date, so if I leave now, I owe all 10k. If I leave this summer, only 5k and if I leave next Feb, then nothing (except they'll have reimbursed one more semester then). I definitely count that money as a big benefit!

Guest's picture

Get your parents/spouse to teach at the university of your choice. Nearly every university provides free or greatly reduced tuition to the dependents of its teaching staff.

I only just realized that this might be a possible back-up plan for getting my sons through their college years, should the savings plan I'm currently using not be enough. I've taught at the college level, and would be willing to go back to doing so in another 12 years when my sons would be ready to go.

This isn't a plan that everybody could use, but perhaps a few readers might consider it for their dependents.

Guest's picture

My hubby is a full-time student and not only does it NOT cost money, we actually have a postive cashflow.

+ FAFSA provides us with a free ride due to our income.

+ He served in the military (National Guard). While he was inactive duty, we received about $700 per month while he attended college (not during the summer), and now that he is retired from the military we receive about $500 per month. This money is a stipend, it is not reliant on other financial aid.

+ He is studying nursing, and there are many individual scholarships. You can get a scholarship if you're Hispanic, if you have red hair, if you're from a certain neighborhood, if your name is John Jacob Jingleheimer Smith ("Hey! That's my name too!") We spent all night one night going through the booklet of nursing scholarships he got from the financial aid office and circling the ones that applied to him. Many are only for $50-500, but it adds up! Again, most of these scholarships are in the form of a check so they are not reliant on other financial aid you may receive.

We decided with these sources of income it would be worth it for him to study full-time (no job) to maximize his grades and therefore earning power once he graduates.

Scholarships are awesome. Never assume that one doesn't apply to you, and take everything you can get!

Guest's picture

Check your local listings, but some places you can take a lot more than 12 hours of college classes by the time you finish high school. Also, if you're a senior and have wrapped up all your high school graduation requirements, you can consider taking a class or two at a local community college. I did several of these, and entered my freshman year with over 50 hours of college credit.

Taking community college classes that'll transfer to your school of choice is also a great way to save some money - the classes are usually cheaper, and you might have the option to live at home during that time.

Guest's picture

I think this is great advice for people that are looking to save some money, but I think it misses the most important part of college. For me, that was the entire experience - living away from home, being on my own, meeting people from all over the country and the world, experiencing a new place...that wouldn't have happened if I had looked for the cheapest way out.

I'm currently in Grad School at UMass Boston, and I'm doing that for the cost factor. I firmly believe that you can get a good education almost anywhere and I don't think it's at all necessary for me to spend $40k/year for a master's in education. BUT, I wouldn't trade my undergrad experience for the world - even though my degree was essentially useless (Art History) the rest of Tulane was amazing. I do wish that I had gotten more involved in on campus activities and organizations, but even without that, just the experience of living in New Orleans with a bunch of other people was fabulous.

It's also important to point out that at the time Tulane went for about $30k/year - not cheap - and UMass went for about $11k/year but when all was said and done UMass wanted me to pay $9k/year cash (with $2k in loans) vs. $5k/year cash with $5k in loans for Tulane. I came out $20k in debt - but the cost was essentially the same and the initial out of pocket expense was significantly cheaper in New Orleans. And I got to live in New Orleans instead of Amherst in the snow.

So, have a plan, but definitely apply to a variety of schools in a variety of places and find the one that fits. If you're just going for the piece of paper, by all means, do it the quickest and cheapest way you can - but remember that's not all there is to a college experience.

Guest's picture
Glad to be done with my bachelors

20 hours semesters?! I hope whoever tries that doesn't have classes like I had.

I started out as a music major, where it is remarkably hard to do 12 hours if you focus on performance classes. For those that think it's an easy major, it's not. Many classes are 1 credit hour, but meet 4-5 times a day. Then there are the 0 credit hour classes that are still mandatory to take. I didn't know better, focused too much on music classes, and I had to quit, even though that was pretty much all I did.

When I did go back to college, I changed my major to something in the liberal arts and sciences college. Despite that, 12 hours was more than enough. 15 credit hours was a necessary evil sometimes. I did 16 credit hours once, but that was hell.

Now, I am not a bad student by any means. I'm a very fast learner and I do know how to budget time. But I've seen how hard it can be to take too many classes at once. I had friends that took too many and as a result, they often ruined their GPA and lost their scholarships.


Take your time with college. Enjoy it. Work part time if you absolutely must. But don't take a load you can't handle because even if you make it through, you may well come to hate the field you're studying.

Guest's picture

I wonder if it's possible to test out of some classes under the "life experience" or "competentcy" categories by taking the free college courses you mentioned in an earlier Wisebread and mastering the material.

Guest's picture

I earned my bachelor's on a cash free basis. I went to community college for as long as it took me to transfer to university. Community colleges are a lot less expensive. I know this sounds weird, but I worked my way through college and lived very frugally...and when I was done, I didn't have any large debt hanging over my head. It took me longer to graduate than most, but it was well worth it. I also took 3 summer classes that were online. It was a little more expensive to do that where I was it, but the classes were easy and I could do it in my underware in front of the computer. One fellow I know worked at Chili's as a bartender and paid for his college with cash also - even though his rich daddy lawyer offered to pay for it. I think earning your way through college shows determination, responsibility and focus - a great thing to have on your resume when you go to land that first all-important job in your field. It can be done and I am living proof of it - I only graduated 7 years ago and had 2 children during my school years.

Guest's picture
Tennessee Riddle

I think the "college experience" is overrated. My husband and I are thinking of requiring a one year wait time to traditional college for our kids. Instead they could travel, volunteer, work at a job or internship, or take advantage of non-degreed educational opportunities. One of my favorite English professors was also a licensed electrician. My friend's son worked as an Americorp volunteer before he went to college, both paying for his education and gaining experience. Who do you think appreciates and puts forth more effort in college? Another friend lived a few months in India before going to school. These are the kinds of experiences I want my kids to have early in life. They also happen to be considerably less expensive than what automatically happens to most 18 year olds.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Took several years to graduate with his BSBA.  We did have to take out loans, and it took him many years to finish.  He went part-time while working and helping to raise 4 kids!  After being in the workforce a few years, he wasn't making what he wanted or doing what he loved.  He is now going back to graduate school for a brief period to get his teaching certification. 

With a career change and more school then we planned, I'm glad we pinched every penny and took advantage of online and transfer programs!

Thanks so much for the comments! 

Guest's picture

Re Russell's suggestions. Many universities also give 50% to 100% off tuition for the kids of staff that have been there a certain number of years (3 years, 7 years, it varies). So, for example, you could work in the accounting department or something similar, and if your kids want to go there, they can save a nice amount.

I agree with Tennessee Riddle's motivations. However, the state of health insurance in the U.S. is dreadful. Even if for that year off of school they work for some place that provides a decent health plan, when they go back to college they might not be able to get back on your health plan, and then they'll have to pay outrageous student plan amounts. ($1800/year per student is still cheaper than COBRA, though.)

Guest's picture

You should also consider hiring a professional financial advisor who has specialized in financial aid rules.

I have a handful of friends who went to see a local planner, Brent Reader, here in northwest Arkansas about their juniors and sophomores in high school. He worked with them to restructure their income and assets to minimize what the government expected them to pay.

For instance, one of my friends had put quite a bit of money in her daughter's name to save money on taxes or something. Apparently, you can be penalized for this on the FAFSA. Brent helped her and her husband reduce their share from $23,000 per year to just $3800! All my other girl friends who hired him mentioned similar results.

When it was all said and done, their kids will be going to really nice private schools for little more than our local community college would have cost.  Wish I'd known about these services when I was in high school!

Considering how much money one of these specialists can save people, their fees are cheap. Will definitely hire him when my son is a little older.

Here is his website for anyone that is interested.  I don't know if he works anywhere besides locally:


Guest's picture

There's also the option of studying overseas for your degree. Studying abroad is horribly expensive if you do it through your college, but normal tuition costs are frequently much cheaper if you just enroll.

I did an entire one-year graduate program in Malta (a small EU country) for $10,000 including a living space. I also had the option of studying anywhere else in Europe for a semester without paying a study abroad fee.

In Europe, many of the countries subsidize college expenses for students, and it's even a lot more affordable for foreign students.

Guest's picture

We went for free... but this is great new trend for "low-income" parents. Hurray.

Dear Alumni,

This morning, the MIT Corporation approved an increase in student financial aid. MIT has long been a proponent of need-blind admissions and need-based aid and this additional investment in our brilliant student body continues to award aid based solely on need. The press release below summarizes the changes.

I also highly encourage you to read MIT's report to the Senate Committee on Finance on endowment spending policies. It is data-rich and guaranteed to make you proud of MIT's contributions to the nation and the world. You can find President Hockfield's cover letter to the report and the report online. President
Hockfield covered many of these same topics in a letter to the MIT community last week.

You should be particularly proud that most of this financial aid is possible because of generations of alumni contributions. Thank you for your continued support of MIT as ambassadors and as financial supporters of this special place.

Please feel free to send any comments or questions to me at alumvp@alum.mit.edu, and I will forward them or respond as appropriate.


Beth Garvin


MIT to be tuition-free for families earning less than $75,000 a year

Nearly 30 percent of MIT students to have all tuition charges covered

March 7, 2008

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) today announced its financial aid program for 2008-2009. Increases in financial aid will make it possible for a larger fraction of MIT students to have their tuition and fees completely covered.

Under the new plan, which will take effect in the 2008-2009 academic year:

* Families earning less than $75,000 a year will have all tuition covered. For parents with total annual income below $75,000 and typical assets, MIT will ensure that all tuition charges are covered with an MIT scholarship, federal and state grants, and/or outside scholarship funds. Nearly 30 percent of MIT students fall into this tuition-free category.
* For families earning less than $75,000 a year, MIT will eliminate the student loan expectation. MIT will no longer expect students from families with total annual income below $75,000 and typical assets to take out loans to cover expenses beyond tuition. Under this provision, for example, students in this income group who participate in MIT's paid Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) each semester would be able to graduate debt-free.
* For families earning less than $100,000, MIT will eliminate home equity in determining their need. In determining the ability to pay for college, MIT will no longer consider home equity for families with total annual income below $100,000 and typical assets. On average, this will reduce parental contributions by $1,600. For families who rent, rather than own a home, MIT will provide a comparable reduction in the expected parental contribution.
* MIT will reduce student work-study requirements for all financial aid recipients. During the past decade, MIT has steadily lowered the amount it expects students to provide through term-time work. MIT will take a further step in this direction by reducing the work-study expectation for all financial aid recipients by an additional 10 percent.

The Institute has a long tradition of opening its doors to talented students from a full range of economic backgrounds. For more than four decades, MIT has made its undergraduate financial aid decisions by following a three-part financial aid philosophy. "First, we are need-blind in admissions, meaning that we admit all undergraduates on the basis of academic merit alone, without considering their ability to pay," said Dean for Undergraduate Education Daniel Hastings. "Second, MIT meets the full demonstrated financial need of all students we admit. Third, we award all our aid based on need alone; MIT does not award any academic, athletic or other forms of merit scholarships."

Total financial aid budget is one of the highest per enrolled student in the nation. Building on this commitment, MIT will increase its financial aid budget to $74 million. MIT's total financial aid budget is one of the highest per enrolled student in the nation. Sixty percent of MIT undergraduates receive scholarship aid from the Institute's internal resources. Fully 90 percent of MIT undergraduates receive financial aid of some kind, from a range of sources. While MIT focuses assistance on those with fewer resources, it also provides aid to families with incomes well above $100,000 who demonstrate need--for example, because they have more than one child in college at a time. In fact, approximately 38 percent of our current MIT scholarship recipients come from families earning more than $100,000.

Tuition and fees for the upcoming academic year will increase 4 percent to $36,390; however, this figure represents less than half of what it costs MIT to educate an undergraduate. As Hastings noted, "In a pattern MIT has followed for many years, we are increasing funds available for financial aid this year at a far greater rate than the rise in tuition." During the past decade, the net tuition for undergraduates--what students and families pay after financial aid--has, on average, dropped by more than 15 percent when adjusted for inflation.

"For those receiving an MIT scholarship, which is six out of every 10 MIT undergraduates, net tuition is $8,100--an amount that approximates the in-state cost of many public universities," Hastings added.

Tradition of ensuring access and affordability for those who need it most.
MIT has long taken an aggressive position on aid because its students demonstrate a much higher level of need than students at peer institutions. More than 22 percent of MIT undergraduates come from families with annual incomes less than $60,000 a year; 17 percent come from families with incomes under $45,000.

Two years ago, the Institute took a leadership role in the national debate on financial aid when it became the first private university to match Federal Pell Grants, dollar for dollar, effectively doubling this federal grant for the neediest students. Approximately 14 percent of MIT undergraduates receive a Pell Grant, the largest federal grant program for undergraduate education.

"We will continue our longstanding financial commitment to students and their families in the years ahead," Hastings stated. "That we can welcome to our campus such extraordinary students, regardless of their economic background, is due to our historic dedication to need-based financial aid."

Guest's picture

Great tips, but I also have some techniques where I get "creative" scholarships. See, my school doesn't really give scholarships for academic performance, so what I do is either apply as a Student assistant and get 75% off on all tuition and fees or make a special deal with the school. One semester I paid almost nothing because I made a website redevelopment proposal for the school's website. They loved it and gave me a 100% discount to work on the project. If you have a special skill that you can offer your school in exchange for tuition discounts, do it. Just make sure everything is put down in writing.

Guest's picture

A couple fairly standard things folks haven't mentioned:
Being an RA (undergrad)
Graduate Teaching Assistant (grad school)

Other schools offering to cover tuition and fees for people/parents making under a certain amount include Stanford, Yale, and Harvard.
Article about that: http://www.diversityinc.com/public/3117.cfm

Also, MIT offers a ton of course material free online:
Sure, it's not a degree, but still, useful.

Guest's picture

This is somewhat on topic. Rather than getting a full degree you could opt for a specialized college certificate. These are often much cheaper and you get the learning experience plus you can still put down on a resume that it was from a college. If you're looking for an education in sales, rather than getting a bachelors in sales you could go for a sales training certificate.

An example of this training is the University of San Francisco which offers a sales management certificate. The added benefit is this is 100% online and you can work at your own pace. In my opinion it's actually a pretty good alternative that a traditional degree.

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