Brandon Hong had to figure out how to finance his education. Interested in a military career, the San Jose, Calif., native applied for a Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship from the federal government. Not only did he receive it, but the college he chose to attend—Boston University—gave him additional aid, covering virtually all of his costs. Hong majored in aerospace engineering and graduated in May 2011. He has been commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.
"ROTC is kind of like a full-time job on top of classes," Hong says. "But you learn how to manage your time." And it definitely helped that BU is "really, really supportive of the program," he adds.
Hong considered other colleges with ROTC programs—including the University of California—San Diego and George Washington University in Washington, D.C.—but their financial aid packages weren't as generous. Attending the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., was another option Hong weighed, but the application process seemed burdensome, and he wanted a more typical college experience.
[Save money by getting two degrees for the price of one.]
Hong could spend a decade or more fulfilling his commitment to the Air Force, but he is quick to see the upsides. He avoided taking out any loans at a time when the average student with loans graduates with an average of about $27,000 in debt, and he avoided job-hunting in a sluggish economy.
For most students, going to college remains an expensive proposition. The College Board reports that in 2011-2012, after adjusting for inflation, tuition and fees at public four-year universities were 3.68 times what they were in 1981-1982, while at private four-year colleges the figure was 2.81. Though financial aid can dramatically reduce the debt load, students who make smart decisions when choosing a school can reduce their costs—and not just by enrolling in ROTC.
Some other ideas:
Go to community college, then transfer: One alternative for high school grads is to attend a local community college for a year or two before transferring to a four-year institution. In California, it costs about $1,100 a year for full-time tuition at a community college versus about $12,190 within the University of California system; students can also save on room and board by living at home.
Starting out at a community college offers other advantages when the time comes to apply to a four-year school. For instance, roughly two thirds of transfer students accepted by Amherst College in Massachusetts come from community colleges. At the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the figure is more than 40 percent.
[Learn more about saving by starting at community college.]
The University of Massachusetts—Lowell helps transfer students finish their bachelor's degrees by providing up to four semesters of free tuition for those who earn associate degrees (with at least a 3.0 GPA) at one of the state's 15 community colleges. Other state university systems across the country are offering similar opportunities.
Go to an in-state school: Historically, a student who chose to go to a public university in another state has had to pay considerably higher tuition than in-staters. At the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor, for instance, in-state tuition and fees for full-time freshmen will be $12,994 in 2012-2013, compared to $39,122 for out-of-state students. At the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, the difference in tuition and fees is similarly large: $7,690 for residents versus $28,442 for nonresidents.
States are able to justify such discrepancies because their tax dollars are the main source of support for public universities, and policymakers feel they should be using that money to subsidize the education of students whose families are paying those taxes. In addition, out-of-state students are less likely to stay beyond graduation and contribute to the local economy.
In recent years, some regions have adapted and expanded the in-state model. For example, in the Midwest, states have forged reciprocal agreements to give out-of-state students a break on tuition at participating institutions, from community colleges to research universities offering doctoral degrees.
The Midwest Student Exchange Program allows residents of nine states—Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wisconsin—to study at participating public institutions in other member states for no more than 150 percent of the cost of in-state tuition. Some private schools are also among the program's 150-plus institutions, giving students a 10 percent discount on tuition.
[See U.S. News's rankings of the top public universities.]
Get your degree early: The most surefire way to save money is to finish college ahead of schedule. A handful of schools offer formal three-year bachelor's degrees, while many more grant credit for high scores on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams. Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, has offered a three-year bachelor's since 1965. Though only a few students choose this route each year, it remains an appealing option for some highly motivated and focused undergrads.
The AP and IB programs are widely recognized for providing a challenging pre-college experience, and high scores on their exams can also enable students to earn valuable college credits. All eight Ivy League universities permit students to apply for and receive "advanced standing," which allows them to graduate a semester or year early.
Students at Harvard University who have earned a 5—the highest possible score—on at least four yearlong AP courses can petition for advanced standing. Harvard students can also graduate ahead of schedule if they have earned the maximum score on three or more higher-level IB exams, or they can stick around to earn a master's degree in certain fields during their fourth year on campus.
Some of the more selective institutions outside the Ivy League, however, don't offer any credit for top scores on AP or IB exams, even though they like to see these courses on applicants' transcripts. Williams College in Massachusetts, for instance, permits students with superior scores to place out of certain introductory-level courses, but they still must complete eight semesters of full-time study just like any other student.
[Consider studying abroad to save money on college.]
Start in high school: "Dual enrollment" is another, if lesser known, way to save money on college. The basic idea is for high school students to take college-level courses that can count first toward their diploma and, later, toward their college degree. Often, through agreements with local institutions, these courses are taught on high school campuses by high school teachers. The material, however, is meant to be on par with what's taught at college.
Portland State University in Oregon has been offering dual-credit classes to high school students for more than 35 years. About 1,000 students from 16 high schools in the Portland metropolitan area participate annually, according to program director Sally Hudson. Students pay about a third of the standard tuition rate—in 2012-2013, it will be $226 for a four-credit class, discounted from $734—but study the same materials and meet the same standards as other PSU students.
All seven institutions in the Oregon University System, as well as all of the state's public community colleges, guarantee credit for dual-enrollment classes. Because it can be difficult to determine the rigor of dual-enrollment classes, some colleges—especially smaller and private institutions—give no credit for them. One way to avoid this disappointment is to look into different colleges' policies on these programs and ensure that the classes are regionally or nationally accredited.
Justin Snider is an advising dean at Columbia University, where he also teaches undergraduate writing. This article was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet affiliated with the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, based at Columbia's Teachers College.