How to Create a Plan to Make College More Affordable

Considering starting or heading back to school? It may be exciting to consider finishing a degree or learning a new skill, but is college always a good idea? If you've determined that it's something you want but are unsure if you can afford it, there are some ways to cut the cost without sacrificing a quality education. Here are some of the more effective ways to pay for school without taking on massive student loans or other debt.

6 smart ways to make college more affordable

1. File a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

Even if you aren't sure what school you'll be going to, it's smart to get a jump on filing for financial aid as soon as the application process opens each year. Not only will the FAFSA be necessary for grants and loans, but it can also tell the college if you're eligible for additional need-based aid. While good grades and high test scores are one way to get additional funding, many schools still devote a large part of their budget to those who can't afford school on their own. If you have an idea of a handful of schools you're interested in at the time you file, be sure to list them; it will expedite the financial aid process.

2. Make monthly payments

You don't always have to borrow money to get access to a payment plan. Most schools are happy to divide up your balance owed into monthly payments that you make while attending school. These payments may be significant since they are usually paid down in six to nine installments. However, if you can budget for it, paying your tuition costs each month will save you money over having to take out a loan with interest that's paid off over several years. Some schools won't charge for this option; some others may charge fees or interest.

3. Save on non-tuition costs

It's easy to look at a big tuition price tag and feel the pressure, but there are ways to offset the cost of college in other areas, too. Simple strategies for cutting hundreds or even thousands of dollars off your annual bill include:

•          Renting books from Amazon or Chegg instead of buying

•          Considering ebooks instead of more-expensive physical texts

•          Using student discounts for laptops, software services, and research tools

Many of the student discounts available to you may not be publicly advertised. Inquire about any savings opportunities before you choose to do business with a retailer or service provider.

4. Choose an accelerated degree path

If you already have some college credits or are going back to school after a long break, you may find an accelerated degree to be more affordable than a traditional degree. While these programs can be more expensive per semester, they take far less time to complete. Classes are generally offered with flexible scheduling in mind, so you may even be able to keep your job while you attend school — allowing you to pay for college as you go. These programs may not qualify for federal funds, so check with the school program or FAFSA for details.

5. Start cheaper, then transfer

You may have dreams of getting a degree from your parents' alma mater, but that doesn't mean you have to begin there on day one. Instead, look at more affordable transfer programs at community colleges or state schools with lower tuition prices. Many have already determined how to convert your learning into an eventual degree at the higher-priced school. These arrangements allow students to earn a year or two of credits at the community college before transferring and moving on to their final program.

6. Consider creative financing

Taking on debt is a big decision and one that shouldn't be made lightly. What other options do you have for paying for college as you go and avoiding the bulky college loans that can follow you for decades? Some students use work-study as an option, allowing them to work on campus, with the proceeds going directly to their college bill (or sometimes paid to them as a regular paycheck they can spend as they see fit). Others have had success with cheaper off-season summer courses or see if your employee provides tuition reimbursement or scholarship options.

If you can pay with cash, certainly do so; it's more affordable in the long run. However, if you find yourself eligible for low-cost private loans or an arrangement through your school or work, it should certainly be evaluated as an option. In the end, the goal is to advance your skills or knowledge. By making some sacrifices and being very careful with how you pay for school, you may be able to graduate without some of the burdensome debt your peers are already experiencing.