All those horror stories about the expense of attending college are true. Attending a four-year college or university in the U.S. has never been so expensive. And the prices keep climbing. A Recent New York Times article pointed out that more than 41 states cut their higher education budgets last year. In Florida, Republican Governor Rick Scott and the Republican legislature slashed state college budgets by 25%, forcing state universities to raise tuition prices by up to 15% this year.
It’s not just the tuition that’s a killer, it’s all the added fees and the cost of room, board and textbooks. The average price tag for a full year at a Florida state university is about $20,000. That’s like paying for a new car every year for four years.
But if you’re hoping to send your kids to college or attend yourself, don’t give up just yet, because there are ways to attend college and not break the bank.
- Start preparing early. This means opening an account in a government-sponsored college prepaid program, where tuition is frozen at the current price, and you pay a monthly premium before your son or daughter attends college. Not all states have these programs. A good alternative is to start a 529 college savings account which it tax free. And remember, in-state college tuition is always cheaper than going out of state.
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- A good GPA is always a good thing. Many grants and scholarships require a high GPA. In Florida, the Bright Futures Scholarship is a monetary award that helps supplement tuition money for thousands of students, and you don’t have to have 4.0 to get one.
- Sports, music, theater and other extracurricular activities in high school can lead to scholarships. Many people stick to the big-ticket sports like football, basketball and baseball, but schools also award scholarships for sports like swimming, tennis and soccer. They also award scholarships for music, acting, art, and a wide range of other talents.
- Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA as early as possible each year. Many awards are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.
- Check for scholarships. There are thousands of scholarships out there. Fastweb is a good source for all types of scholarships, but don’t neglect your university’s financial aid office. Search the school’s website for the different scholarships they offer. I recently spoke with members of a club that awards scholarships to students at a state university, and they said they were having a hard time giving money away. People were just not applying. And don’t forget the community where you live. Many clubs and organizations award scholarships to local high school graduates who are getting ready to go off to college.
- Pell Grants. The Obama Administration has extended and infused cash into the Federal Pell Grant program, a need-based grant to help students pay for college. The maximum paid for the 2011-2012 school year was $5,550 per student.
- You get what you pay for, and in many cases this is true of universities. And the type of student you are should in part determine what school you pick. Sometimes a two-year community college or a large state university is not the place for someone who needs more personal attention or has a hard time staying organized. If you want to save money by attending a community college and living at home, you’ll have to be disciplined and do most of the work yourself. And I don’t mean just class work—I mean navigating the maze of financial aid, registration, awards, clubs and so on.
- Don’t rule out an expensive private university. In many cases these small universities offer women and minorities special scholarships. Also, grant money is sometimes given based on the price of the school. If the school is more expensive, you might get a bigger award.
The fact is that a college education is expensive, and it doesn’t seem as if that’s going to change any time soon. It is best to prepare early, do the research, make contacts and work hard. Try to avoid borrowing money from the different student loan options that are offered once you fill out the FAFSA. There is free money out there, you just have to find it, and go get it.