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How to hack college costs in 17 easy lessons

Jill Madenberg, of Madenberg College Consulting, says students

Jill Madenberg, of Madenberg College Consulting, says students can land more financial aid by targeting schools where they can be academic stars. Credit: Raychel Brightman

For many Long Islanders, college ranks as the biggest expense of a lifetime apart from paying for a home and retirement. 

Costs can range to a quarter-million dollars and beyond per child.

Yet for astute consumers, there are dozens of ways to cut the price tag while still getting a quality education.

Jill Madenberg, a college consultant in Great Neck and co-author of "Love the Journey to College," said students and parents should look beyond "bumper sticker appeal" and popular college rankings to find the best financial, academic and cultural fit.  

In 2018, more than 200,000 Long Islanders were enrolled in college, including graduate school, according to Census Bureau data. Almost 125,000, were enrolled in public colleges and universities, while about 77,000 attended private schools.

Aside from providing a rich educational experience, there are hard-nosed economic reasons for pursuing a degree.

Median weekly earnings rise and unemployment falls for those who pursue higher degrees, according to 2019 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The progression goes from a doctoral degree with a $1,883 median weekly paycheck and 1.1% unemployment, to less than a high school diploma with median weekly pay of $592 and 5.4% unemployment (pre-COVID).

"People who go to college, make more than people who don't," said Susan Silverman Quigley, a Garden City certified financial planner. "Employers expect it. It's going to be a competitive edge. It also shows your ability to follow through."

A 2019 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, however, found that though college and postgraduate education drives increased income, it no longer guarantees an increase in a family's net worth. One likely factor: the cost of college tuition and fees has increased "by a factor of almost 14" since 1978, more than triple the overall increase in consumer prices.

In short, education still pays, but beware the price tag.

In 2018-2019, the average cost of attendance for full-time undergraduates living on campus at four-year institutions ranged from $51,900 for private nonprofit schools to $24,900 for public colleges and universities, according to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics.

What follows is a list of ways to cut those costs, according to interviews with experts in college finance.

Just as there is no one-size-fits-all college, each tip may apply only to specific life stages, whether it's parents considering how to finance college for toddlers, high schoolers browsing colleges, or working adults seeking a degree.

1. Don't stretch:

Students with strong grades and standardized test scores could reach for colleges whose admission standards are the most challenging. Alternatively, they could land a "boatload of money" in financial aid simply by applying to schools seeking academic stars amid an incoming class with lower average scores, said Madenberg.

2. Study abroad

This is not about taking a semester abroad. Many foreign colleges offer free or greatly discounted degree programs that are open to Americans. "You're not just getting your degree, you're learning a culture," said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research at Savingforcollege.com. Languages may be a hurdle, but about two dozen countries offer free tuition for Americans, including Iceland, Greece and Germany, he said. And some schools offer classes in English.

3. Let the company pay

Scores of corporations have programs to defray employees' tuitions, including Chipotle, Bank of America, Walmart, Intel, Home Depot and Fidelity Investments. Starbucks, for example, offers a 42% scholarship each semester toward undergraduate tuition at Arizona State University's online program. Terms vary, with some companies limiting fields of study to those relevant to the business.

4. Get remote

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown colleges into turmoil, closing campuses and forcing in-person classes to go online. Though many campuses plan to reopen in the fall, a new breed of schools geared toward online learning solve the safety and financial issues by offering remote learning at discounted rates. One of the leaders in providing low-cost, accredited degree programs is Southern New Hampshire University, which charges $9,600 for 30 credits toward an online undergraduate degree.

5. Go for free

A handful of U.S. colleges charge zero tuition and, as it happens, two are on Long Island. Webb Institute in Glen Cove offers 100% tuition to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. The school awards a dual bachelor's degree in naval architecture and marine engineering and boasts 100% job placement. A few miles west is the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point. Midshipmen receive tuition, room and board, uniforms and textbooks courtesy of the U.S. government. Graduates get a bachelor's degree, a U.S. Coast Guard license and an officer's commission in the armed forces. The highly competitive service academies for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard also provide free education. Southern New Hampshire University also has announced plans to offer a 100% tuition scholarship to all incoming on-campus freshmen, but only through the 2020-2021 academic year. After that, the school plans to set on-campus tuition at $10,000 per year.

6. Be flexible

Certified financial planner Quigley grew up poor in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. Her mother had multiple sclerosis and at 16, Quigley was working three jobs. High school classes were an afterthought. But in 1981, at age 17, she got her high school equivalency certificate. She worked and took community college classes (financed partially with Pell Grants), and in 1990, she landed a job at Citicorp, which she knew had a generous college tuition program. There she enrolled in SUNY Empire State College, whose hallmarks are flexibility and low cost. SUNY Empire gave Quigley credit for earning professional certificates such as the certified financial planner designation. SUNY Empire, which charges tuition of $3,535 for 12 or more credits per term, lets its midcareer learners study with a mentor online or in-person at 35 locations around the state (including three on Long Island). "You're not going to get any rah-rah," said Quigley. "Start to finish, it was 17 years to finish college."

7. Join the military

Current, prospective, reserve and former members of the armed forces can get education benefits through a variety of programs, including the GI Bill and Reserve Officer Training Corps.

8. Finish in four

College students can save money simply by plotting their course load to finish in four years. Remember that 12 credits per semester, while considered full-time, may not be enough to earn a degree in four years.

9. Fill out the FAFSA

Not every student will qualify for financial aid, but if parents do not fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or the College Board’s College Scholarship Service, they will never know. "Rarely do people pay sticker price these days," Madenberg said. "More than half do not."

10. Take a tax deduction

Up to $4,000 in tuition and fees are eligible to be deducted from taxable income on your federal income taxes. (Consult with your tax professional for details.)

11. Consider SUNY

Every fall, Long Islanders scatter to schools like the University of Michigan, the University of Florida and Penn State and pay out-of-state tuition. The SUNY system — Albany, Buffalo, Binghamton, Stony Brook, etc. — may not have quite as much pomp on game day, but the in-state prices and quality education are hard to beat. College value is less about "the name on the gate," and more about the student's engagement, said Madenberg, a former high school guidance counselor who has visited more than 850 colleges. Tuition for in-state residents at SUNY four-year colleges averaged $7,070 in the 2019-2020 academic year, the latest year available, versus $16,980 for out-of-staters. The state's Excelsior Scholarship program for in-state students based on family income covered tuition up to $6,470 in 2019-2020.     

12. Start at community college

The economics of starting at a community college and moving to a four-year school can make financial sense as long as the credits transfer. "The negative to it is the social piece," Madenberg said. "Socially, it can be hard for some students because you have more transitions."

13. Scholarships

Merit scholarships are based on academic, athletic or artistic accomplishments and often require students to maintain a certain grade level. Madenberg said that contrary to popular expectations, athletic scholarships often average only a few thousand dollars per year. "It's not nearly as big as people think it is," she said. Students can find other scholarships through specialized search engines such as Fastweb.com

14. Loans

The best loan is no loan. "Borrow as little as you need, not as much as you can," Kantrowitz said. The overhang of a student loan, for instance, could make getting a mortgage more difficult down the road. But sometimes debt is unavoidable. In general, federal loans (forgivable if you die) are better than private ones, Quigley said. Once you have loans, pay down the ones with higher interest rates first, she said. In some cases, loans to public service workers can be forgiven after a specified period.

15. Live like a student

About half of college costs are living expenses, said Kantrowitz. For that reason, students should "live like a student when you're in school so you don't have to live like a student when you graduate." That means living with roommates, using used or rental textbooks and skipping the Mocha Cookie Crumble Frappuccino at the Starbucks kiosk.

16. Remember this number: 529

"You save money by literally saving money," said Kantrowitz. That's the beauty of a 529 plan. New York's 529 College Savings Program lets state residents reap tax-free withdrawals when the money is used for higher education expenses. In addition, as a New York State taxpayer, account holders can deduct contributions from their state income tax return. Twelve states (not New York) offer prepaid tuition plans that allow parents to lock in tuition rates as long as your child attends a state college or university in that state. Prepaid plans usually cover tuition and fees, but not room and board. Another variation is the Private College 529 plan. Like state prepaid plans, the Private College 529 locks in tuition rates at hundreds of participating private schools nationwide, including American University, the University of Miami, Notre Dame, Johns Hopkins University, Princeton University and MIT.

17. Establish residency

At a state school, the difference between in-state tuition and out-of state tuition can be substantial. For example, out-of-state tuition and fees at highly regarded University of North Carolina Chapel Hill is about $36,000, four times more than for in-state students. For a student who planned to work and take a gap year anyway, it could make sense to establish residency in North Carolina or another state with bargain in-state tuition. North Carolina requires prospective students to prove to the state's Residency Determination Service that they have maintained a state residence for 12 consecutive months, are employed, financially independent (not listed as a dependent on parents' taxes or benefiting from co-signed loans), and plan to remain in the state. Kantrowitz said that some states provide a shortcut to residency to members of the armed forces or those who marry a state resident.

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