Minimizing College Costs: You don’t have to spend a fortune on your degree

The cost of college is something everyone seems to be worrying about these days. But you don’t need to end up in a ton of debt to get a standard bachelor’s degree. In this post I’ll share ways of minimizing the cost of college in order to reduce or eliminate your student debt afterwards. As I discuss in this post, I don’t think student loan debt is evil or always a terrible idea. If it makes sense, it is a reasonable way to pay of school. But we still want to minimize them if we can. I’ll introduce the main ways most people can reduce the cost of education, then show you an example of a full program including room and board where applicable with and without my suggestions. One note with school tuition: Almost all schools allow you to use a monthly plan to pay off a term’s tuition in installments. There is usually a fee between $5 and $10 for processing each payment, but it is a way to spread the cost out over a bit of time.


Scholarships are a great way of reducing your costs without taking on debt. Most schools offer merit-based scholarships, so keeping your grades up can help reduce your tuition. On a related note, many schools also offer need-based grants that reduce college costs for low income earners. Make sure you fill out the FAFSA ever year to qualify for both grants and student loans.

But there are tons of private scholarships as well that can grant money towards paying for school. has put together a list of sites that search for these scholarships. Some require you to be a particular gender, ethnicity, religion, or major. Others are general. But there is literally millions of dollars out there all together in these scholarships. If you’re taking classes on a regular fall/spring semester schedule, use the summer to search out and apply for scholarships for the next year. Even if you don’t fully fund it, it can lower your total bill.

Advanced Placement High School Classes and exams

If you’re still in high school and are able to, take AP classes and Exams. Many colleges accept AP Exams as credit for general education classes if you score a 4 or higher on the 1-5 point scale. There is a cost for AP exams, but it is far below the tuition of an equivalent college class. AP classes are typically harder than general college prep level, so be sure you can excel in these classes and the subsequent tests to maximize the number of classes you could get credit for. Most college/universities have a limit to how much AP credit they will accept, so check with each school for the necessary scores and maximums credits they require and accept.

Start With Community College

Most County/Community Colleges offer the same general education programs as 4-year schools and 2-year Associate degrees in a number of programs that can be put towards a full Bachelor’s degree. Community Colleges don’t offer housing, so you can live at home for a couple more years and cut out room and board expenses. Their cost per credit for in-county residents is also typically far below what even a public 4-year college charges. Most 4-year schools have agreements with local community colleges to simplify the process of transferring credits between them. Check with the Student Accounts office or website of a 4-year school to confirm which community colleges they typically work with.

Live at home for the full degree and commute to school

Room and Board is easily have the yearly cost of a typical 4-year, live on-campus degree. If you’re willing to go to local school, you could eliminate that by commuting from home. Most schools have a mix of on-campus and commuter students and reserve parking and a lounge for commuters to use. (The lounge is a place to hang out between classes since you don’t have a dorm room to go back to.) You may still eat same meals on campus as a commuter, but that’s much cheaper that full room & board. Some schools offer separate commuter meal plans that recognize you’ll be eating primarily off-campus and cover few meals.

Choose Public Over Private Schools

This isn’t always welcome advice, but public 4-year schools charge much less in tuition than private ones. Within a 30 minute drive, I have 2 colleges. The College of New Jersey is a public school that costs $8,471.43 in tuition and fees per semester for an in-state student, Rider University is a private school that costs $14,619 per semester in tuition and fees. (Neither number includes room & board or meal plans.) That’s a difference of $6,146.57 a month. Both schools offer similar degrees. So why pay the premium on private school if you don’t have to. (In fact, for nurses and teachers, TCNJ is the better choice since those are among the school’s specialties.)

Another thing to consider is on-campus or on-line. If this is a first degree and you are able to, I urge students to go to classes on-campus. I’ve done both and found it was far easier to connect with my professors, make friends, and get all those social side benefits of college on-campus, but not online. I’m in my mid 30s now and still friends with several of my college friends. We were from around the state and never would have met if we hadn’t all been at school together. (Not to mention, I would have never met my husband.) If you’re getting a second degree and have experienced college life once already, look into online programs from public schools. Online programs often charge tuition at the in-state rate, and many of the fees that go towards maintaining campus aren’t charged to online students. That makes it possible that the costs could be lower than they would be if you attended classes on campus.

Work part-time during your degree

You can’t fully fund a college degree on a part-time job, and even on a full-time job it would be difficult. (Both working and going to school full-time is extremely challenging and having tried it, I don’t recommend it for most people.) The value of a full time job has to do with any loans you take on, which requires me to explain a basic concept of loans first. Federal student loans (the ones you need to do the FAFSA to qualify for) come in two versions: Subsidized loans defer any interest on the loan until your repayment period starts, typically 6 months after leaving school. Unsubsidized loans earn interest during school and the 6 month grace period before repayment begins. Prioritize subsidized loans to put off interest accrual to reduce the total interest cost.

If you work part-time for $8.50 an hour, 15 hours per week, you’d earn enough to pay around $2,500 towards your loans WHILE IN SCHOOL. That is a total of $10,000 towards your loans during a 4-year period of school. On subsidized loans, you would reduce your loan balance by a full $10,000 because there isn’t any interest being earned at this states. On unsubsidized loans, you wouldn’t reduce it by the full amount. Some of that money would be paying the interest, so you would lower by a lesser amount based on your interest rate. Either way, that reduces the total loan bill you are looking at after you graduate, which will lower your minimum monthly payments.

Go to School Part-time

This is the nuclear option of advice since it is the only piece that changes your graduation date. If money is really tight and nothing else works, you can consider going to school part-time while working part or full-time to bring in money towards covering tuition. I am hesitant to recommend this as a first line of cutting costs because it is hard to do, especially if you’re working full-time. My own experience working full-time and going to school online part-time was that I was often very tired after work, and sometimes very stressed. That made it harder for me to keep up with school and reduced the quality of my work. You have to be extremely dedicated AND organized to make full-time work, part-time school work well.


A straight 4-year degree with no reductions in cost

For this example, I’ll use The College of New Jersey since I have attended that school and am familiar with their tuition and fee structure. I am not considering a private school because I don’t consider the premium they charge to be work it if a decent public school is also available.

  • I am assuming FULL COST in this example. No need-based aid or merit-based aid. Those are determined based on your FAFSA application and every school has a slightly different way of handling merit-based aid in particular. At an in-state For a student who lived on-campus, took classes full time, and did not work, the total for a 4-year program using the 2020 Academic year tuition and fees rates at TCNJ would be:
    • Tuition and Fees: $67,771.41
    • Room and Board: $56,190.48
    • Total Cost: $123,961.89
  • You can see how room and board nearly doubles the cost of the degree. If you attended TCNJ full-time for 4 years but commuted from home you could reduce the cost to $67,777.41, tuition and fees only. Commuting is typically the biggest single lever you can pull to reduce college cost. (TCNJ doesn’t offer online programs, so they weren’t considered.)
  • If you’re commuting and also have a part-time job, you can put around $2,500 towards your loans and reduce their balance by up to $10,000. Let’s be conservative and say you can lower it by enough to lower the costs to a flat $60,000 over the 4-years.
  • Now let’s say you decide to go to community college for the first 2 years and then transfer to TCNJ while commuting full time at both schools. Mercer County Community College, local to TCNJ would cost $11,445 in tuition and fees per for two years using Fall 2020 rates. So you could reduce the total bill by another $22,443.65 for a total cost of $45,330.76. Let’s say you pay enough on your loans while in school to get your balance at graduation to $40,000 flat.
  • Now, let’s say you used every summer to hunt for scholarships to reduce your total cost further and came up with $5,000 per year to pay towards your degree. This is a conservative estimate. I have friends who fully paid their degrees with scholarships. They were basically applying to as many as they could, all summer, each summer. If you can manage $5,000 per year for 4 years, your total cost is down to $20,000.

Not a bad reduction in total cost for the degree! From a high of $123,961.89, we were able to use a variety of cost reductions to bring the total cost of the school down to $20,000. That’s a total of an 84% cost reduction compared to base cost. Now, let’s assume you do take loans on that $20,000. In this post, I talk about how to treat that $20,000 like a car loan and pay it off in 5 to 7 years. That’s a pretty cheap education. Also, remember that I didn’t consider need-based or merit-based financial aid from the school itself or AP credit. That could further reduce your total bill to take loans on.

I hope this has shown you that reducing the cost of college is very possible. Please don’t ever write off college as something you could never afford. There is a bit of effort and sacrifice in lowering the cost, but the main benefit of college is the knowledge you gain. That knowledge will help you prepare for a career that could offer far more than what you paid to prepare for it. Get that knowledge, even if you can’t do it ideally by living on campus and not working while you study.