Strategies to minimize college tuition

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Here’s a roundup of some offbeat and overlooked strategies for pursuing and paying for a college degree.

Learn faster: Accelerated classes cram a semester’s worth of material into six- or eight-week sessions. The classes, while intense, can really help to move up your graduation date. You land the degree you want at a much lower price.

Tuition in an accelerated degree program at some schools runs about half of the cost of their traditional degree programs. And many schools offer bachelor’s degree programs in three years instead of four.

An accelerated degree program is a great option for a student with a clear career goal. If you’re ready to work hard, why not put your college education on the fast track?

The flip side of this, of course, is to make sure you earn enough credits to be graduated in four years. Failing to take a full load of credits can mean you get charged the full-time student tuition rate, but it will take you longer to graduate. The sad truth is that the average graduate takes more than four years to finish, driving up overall costs.

Start small, move up: In many cases, credits earned at a less-expensive college or university can be transferred and applied toward a degree from a pricey, elite school. You could earn a prestigious diploma at a fraction of the price.

So why not attend a community college for a couple of years and then transfer to your dream college? It’s not as if the fancy diploma you’ll hang on your wall will say “transfer student.” Besides, taking the transfer-student route will save you some serious cash.

Every credit earned at a low-cost community college could save you hundreds of dollars in tuition. Also, by bunking at your parent’s house, you could knock down your room-and-board charges to zero.

The first step is learning about articulation agreements at your dream university and nearby two-year colleges. An articulation agreement specifies which community college course credits will be accepted toward a bachelor’s degree at the four-year college or university. It also outlines scholarship requirements and specifies what kind of grades a student must achieve to transfer to the four-year school as a junior.

Go where you’re wanted: Somewhere out there is a college or university that’s dying to have you as a student. Find that school, fire off an application and watch the cost of your college education drop.

Every student can be a star at some college and star students get deep discounts for their education. A college that really wants you will find the aid and scholarships to keep you. The trick is finding the school that considers you a star.

Study college guides. Do your grades and SAT scores match or exceed the average marks of the current student body? Does the college offer the courses you want? If so, this could be the school that rolls out the red carpet for you.

Look for a college where you fit in the top 25 to 30 percent of a class — the higher you are the more the school wants you and the better position you’re in. Not sure where to start your college search? Begin by checking out smaller, regional colleges in your area. An excellent but less-known college may be searching for a student just like you.

Choose a tuition-free school: Overwhelmed by tuition prices and the prospect of paying massive student loans after you graduate? Why not attend a tuition-free school? You get the college education you want without the hefty price tag. The catch? You may have to work.

Some schools require students to work 10 to 15 hours a week on campus and in jobs related to their majors. Tuition-free colleges include The Cooper Union in New York; Webb Institute in Glen Cove, N.Y.; Berea College in Berea, Ky.; College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Mo.; and Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Ky.

Lock in tuition: Can’t stand the way college tuition keeps shooting up? Consider locking in a single-tuition rate for four years.

The tuition rate you pay as a wet-behind-the-ears freshman is guaranteed until you graduate. No more losing sleep over skyrocketing tuition costs.

Colleges with locked-in tuition programs include Anna Maria College in Paxton, Mass.; Baylor University in Waco, Texas; Centenary College of Louisiana in Shreveport, La.; Concordia University in River Forest, Ill.; Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas; Huntington College in Huntington, Ind.; Urbana University in Urbana, Ohio; the University of Charleston in Charleston, W.Va.; and New York’s Pace University.

Some schools offer guaranteed-tuition programs for free. Others charge fees. Be sure to check.

Get a little help from your friends: How’s this for a graduation gift idea? Ask family and friends for help with those dreaded student loans. In lieu of birthday and holiday gifts, why not ask for help with heavy student loan payments? If you can find a way to ask for cool, hard cash without ruffling any feathers, why not give it a go? That way your family and friends won’t have to pay a hefty fee to the middleman. And you’ll be able to write a monstrous check for your next student loan payment.