Stretch Your College Fund

Are you a parent interested in helping your child earn a college degree? Are you a student looking to save money on tuition? Having completed a B.A., M.A., and a Ph.D, I have perfected the art of stretching my college dollar. I was fortunate to have assistance from my parents, but I also saved them money by graduating from my undergraduate program in 3 years by following many of these tips.

Here are 10 ways to stretch your college fund:

1. Open a 529 savings account. Instead of putting your child’s college fund in a regular savings account, open a 529 account. A 529 plan is a state-run investment program that helps parents and children save for college. The value of your investment grows tax-free until withdrawn. In the years when withdrawals are made, the growth is taxed to the student not to the investor. This can be financially beneficial because a student’s tax bracket is usually lower. A 529 account can be used to pay for any accredited college and graduate school.

2. Take Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Incoming freshmen can literally shave off an entire term with the appropriate AP courses. Many high schools offer AP English, History, and Calculus. If your high school does not offer AP classes, check out your local community college (these courses are often offered at community college in the evening).

3. Start with community college. So you want a degree from the most prestigious university? Great, you can still start at your local community college! Community college is a great deal – lower tuition, smaller class sizes, and fewer impacted courses. And, students can transfer from community college to even the most prominent universities.

4. Attend a public university. Tax-payer dollars supplement public education for many reasons, among them so you can afford higher education. Public universities tend to be bigger than private institutions, but the education is not necessarily any different. In fact, large universities tend to hire big name faculty and have additional amenities.

5. Submit your FAFSA early. Although the FAFSA deadline is April 1, many people do not realize that the earlier you submit your application the greater your chances of being awarded financial aid. The FAFSA allows you access to loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study.

6. Apply for scholarships. Scholarship search engines such as,, and can direct you to thousands of internet based scholarships. However, the most fruitful scholarships searches are usually done in your local area or directly through your university. You should never have to pay for a scholarship application.

7. Supplement with online or community college courses. You may be attending an expensive liberal arts college, but you can take online and community college courses that count towards your degree. Check with your academic advisor to find out which courses are transferable towards your major. You can take these courses during the academic year or during the summer.

8. Utilize federal work study. If you submit your FAFSA and are not awarded a grant or loan, you may still qualify for federal work study. When you have a work study job your employer only pays a percentage of your full wage and the federal government picks up the rest. These jobs are typically offered on campus, which makes it easier to work while going to school. If you qualify for work study, you are obviously a more attractive candidate for the job.

9. Consider being a residential advisor. If you plan to attend a campus with on campus housing, you may be interested in becoming a residential advisor. These are students who live in the dorms and oversea the other students. Being a residential advisor also provides valuable life skills, such as mediation, time management, and communication. Typically, residential advisors receive room and board as compensation for their duties.

10. Know your limits. College is a transitional time and involves exploration of personal and educational interests. While you want to enjoy these exciting years, for every term you spend in school you will be paying for tuition, housing, food, textbooks, clothes, and extracurricular activities. Therefore, it’s important to maximize your chance of being successful – and this means knowing your limits. Enroll in as many units as you can realistically complete successfully, join as many clubs and organizations as you can reasonably attend, and enjoy as many social gatherings as you can without compromising your real purpose for being in college.

This guest post was submitted by Joy.  Joy is a new mom living in a small community in California. She blogs about simple living, budgeting, balancing home and work, and finding joy at She recently completed her PhD in Education and works as a Volunteer Coordinator at a state university. Check out Joy’s blog for more tips on Investing in Your Child’s Future.

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  1. Great post. I was an RA, and that, with my scholarship, helped immensely in the college cost department. Another interesting thought is that microfinancing can be found for those looking for help covering college costs. It’s still a loan, but it can be worth looking into after everything else is tapped out.

  2. One option you didn’t mention: International Baccalaureate. IB is an increasingly popular (albeit very demanding) high school program. In several states, an IB diploma provides a guaranteed number of credit hours at public universities. For example, in Texas, diploma holders are guaranteed a minimum of 24 credit hours. I believe the number in Florida is 30. In addition, AP exams can also be taken for additional credit.

  3. 1. Yes, if you can afford it do it. It will help the student go to college without having to depend so much on those grants/loans/scholarships to come through. It will help stretch your dollar if the student goes to public university though.

    2. From what I remember (unless it has changed in 12 years), AP courses only give 1/2 a credit toward the subject the AP test was for. It also costs upwards of $100 (maybe more now) to take the test and if you don’t pass it, then there’s the fee right down the drain. Also, the workload in those AP courses is downright insane — even by university standards.

    3. Make sure to check with an adviser as to whether the credits will transfer to the university you plan to attend. Also double-check the adviser’s answers with the dean of the college (major) you plan to attend to make sure the adviser has his/her facts straight. Many times, undergrad advisers are just upper-level students who may or may not have any good answers.

    4. Yes. Yes. Yes. For many of the hard sciences, the public universities actually have better staff than the private ones as they will have much more tenure money to throw around. Unless your degree or path in life requires a prestigious private college, just save a ton of money and go to a private one.

    5. I always pestered the hair off of the financial aid office people to get my paperwork early so that I could turn it in early. The money is typically first-come first-serve and even if it isn’t, you don’t want to wait until the week before classes start to figure out if your tuition money came through.

    6. Definitely apply for scholarships. Don’t rely on your high school counselors to tell you anything. The counselors at my high school were just there to collect a paycheck and “counsel” people who wanted to beat up other people. (They were probably trying to score drug connections now that I think about it.) They told me that there were no programs to help with tuition. I went to the university myself and found out quite a bit from them as well as from calling the state offices on scholarships and grants. If I hadn’t, I would never have gotten the Federal Pell Grant assistance which paid for a good bit of my university tuition.

    8. Yes, but only do so once you are comfortable with your work load. Also, they typically only pay minimum wage. Weigh this against the number of hours you’ll be working and determine if your time is better spent making small wages or studying.

    9. Again, another good idea with the same caveat as #8. Only do this if you know you can handle the workload. Residential advisers must have an “open door” time as well as attend countless meetings and stuff. It can be a time-drainer if you are not ready for it.

    10. Many people think they MUST complete the degree in 4 years. Don’t get sucked into this mentality. Take light to medium course loads (12-15 hours) to begin with and determine what is right for you. I suggest to many not to take your adviser’s “strong suggestion” that they take 18-20 hours their first couple of semesters before it gets hard. Go easy, take your time, and your degree will be worth the same if it took you 4 years or 5. Also, make sure to take time off to recuperate once or twice a week. Those who hit the grindstone too hard usually end up burning out or failing miserably.

    Nice article Joy. There’s a lot of helpful information for possible degree-seekers.

  4. AP Credits are worth every penny. I started school with 14 credits because of AP courses, I was able to pick all my classes ahead of my peers.

    I could have graduated a semester early, but decided to take a lighter credit load my senior year so I could volunteer on campus.

    Good tips!

    Stupidly Yours,


  5. Start with the Monetta Young Investor Fund(MYIFX) before a 529 Plan. Gets kids involved in the savings process in a fun and educational way.

  6. @ David K – Thanks for adding your perspective on these tips, especially #6. It does pay to be proactive!
    @ Matt – I was also successful using AP credit to skip a whole quarter in college. Great point about taking a lighter load and using extra time to volunteer!

  7. My own tips I often give people.

    1) I’ll second the community college statement.

    2) Look online for text books, check with peers, or in the library’s reference section. Personally, I never bought a “required” text until the professor actually assigned something out of the book. Even then, I would check to see if it was on reserve at the library where I could sit and do my work. Another option is to borrow from a peer or offer to go in half with them. Those books will destroy your budget.

    3) Don’t believe anyone when they say the class is full. Sure, sure, the computer says the class is full, but get an override form (to be signed by the professor), show up early to class, talk to the professor, and offer to attend unregistered until a seat opens up. Within the first two weeks there’s bound to be some drops, and you’ll be first in line. This is especially important if the class is a pre-requisite for your later courses. Bumping all your courses back an extra semester will cost a ton.

    4) Along the same vein … I share an antidote about the time I switched majors because my major required a pre-req for a course, but the other major did not. I switched for a semester, took the course I needed, and then switched back, completely by-passing the pre-req. The admin staff wasn’t thrilled when they realized what I had done, but I graduated a semester earlier than I would have otherwise.

  8. Excellent post! Thanks for the information. I’m going to send your blog address to some friends who are in college.

  9. All great thoughts! In my work with students, I’m always encouraging them with these ideas.

    Another simple thing I tell students (that they hate to hear) is live at home! For what you will pay in gas and car expenses, you will definitely make up for by not paying to live in an overpriced dorm or apartment.

  10. I took a lot of AP classes and came into college as a sophomore. Somehow it still took me 5 years to graduate though. . . : )

    Summer school at community college or your own college can be a fast and cheap way to knock out some credits too.

  11. @Grant Baldwin: Hear, hear! Where I grew up (not in the USA) it was customary for undergraduates to live at home and to go to the local school. During the summer, or on semester breaks, you worked to pay for the next term’s tuition. The only exceptions were if you didn’t live within reasonable commuting distance from the campus, or if your parents were completely abusive, or if the school in your city didn’t offer classes in the courses you wanted to take.

    The result of all this was that the average student with a part-time job, upon finishing an undergraduate degree, had no meaningful debt. Also, there was less trouble with drinking binges, the “party” scene, and romantic drama.

    At the graduate level, it was reasonable to travel and live in another city.

    I’m told that a couple generations ago this was the norm in the USA too, except for extremely wealthy families who sent their children to prestigious universities for undergraduate degrees as a show of conspicuous consumption. But, like big weddings and large houses, the “tradition” of sending a teenager away to school on Mommy and Daddy’s dime caught on with the middle class, to the point where people actually thought it was normal and necessary, and to the point where people are willing to go into debt to finance that kind of consumption.

  12. Great suggestions. I imagine with the rough economy that there is going to be a lot more competition for scholarships, even the small ones. Students should remember that it can’t hurt to apply for as many scholarships as they want! Even several $250 scholarships will really help.

  13. Besides going to a public university, keep in mind how much cheaper it can be to stay in-state instead of going to an out-of-state school.

    Besides the AP tests, credit is also awarded for CLEP tests by many colleges and universities. I went to my local library and bought a bag of used textbooks for $1.00 so the I could study psychology, sociology, economics, and sciences on my own (and didn’t really need to study for the English, math or humanities tests). I ended up being awarded 48 credits, and the exams were way cheaper than the classes would have been.


    The FAFSA “deadline” is NOT April 1. Nor is it May 1st or any other date. Technically, a student can file a FAFSA up until the last day of the school year, and still be eligible for federal grants.

    Having said that, each college might have a “priority” FAFSA date. These are usually much early than April 1st. One of the most important things that high school students and their parents can do is understand the myriad of dates and deadlines for each of the colleges the student is applying to.

    If you need help with a FAFSA, there is a nation-wide volunteer project called College Goal Sunday. Financial aid people volunteer their time to help guide students and families through the form. Although a few states have already held their events (including Oregon), check to see if there is an event in your area at

    One last important FAFSA note: the FAFSA is FREE. FAFSA stands for FREE Application for Federal Student Aid. Never pay anyone to help you complete a FAFSA.

    Confidential to Oregonians: we have a common scholarship application in our state. Over 400 scholarship providers agree to accept this common application to award their scholarship dollars. The process is run by our state financial aid agency. Check out the website at

  15. (This post is from my experience with FAFSA back in my college days. Which are quickly traversing the gap into becoming out-of-date. *sniff*)

    While the fact that FAFSA does not have a deadline is true, there is a date beyond which you are not guaranteed to have your funds in your hands before tuition is due. In the meantime, the university will only delay payment of tuition for at most two weeks into the semester. And that is with proof of your submitted FAFSA form from the financial aid office. If you don’t have the money, you don’t go to class. This works out differently if you do have the money to pay the tuition and simply deposit the financial aid money to pay yourself back.

    In my state (Louisiana) we have the TOPS scholarship program for those who meet certain scholastic requirements. This must be used to pay for tuition and books. The reason I bring this up is that the TOPS money (along with certain other types of state/federal aid monies) are only for those students who complete the semester. If you drop out, then you will be required to pay back the money you received prorated to the date of dropout. I’m sure this is not the same everywhere, but it doesn’t hurt to ask if the financial aid you are applying for comes with the same strings attached.

  16. On my site, I advocate finding money within your current budget to “pay yourself” If you made coffee at home rather than buying it at the local coffee shop, “pay yourself” that $4 straight in to your savings account. Read my article (linked here) to read the rest.

  17. Nice advice, elementaryfinance, except everyone drops that same wisdom bomb so I don’t think we need to read your linked article to know that we should stop buying Starbucks and start brownbagging our lunches. 🙂

  18. I wrote an almost identical post on my blog last week, too. I posted on how to keep your college costs low – not necessarily how to pay for college. But very similar!