Think Outside the Box to Reduce College Costs

Alyssa Ruffa was halfway through college when she realized she’d need money. Her parents were no longer able to contribute as much, and she wanted to continue on to vet school.

She considered borrowing and working, but then found an option that would pay for school, give her a career boost and satisfy her strong sense of patriotism: The Reserve Officers Training Corps.

In exchange for her commitment to serve one weekend a month for eight years in the Army Reserves, Ruffa, now a senior majoring in biological sciences at the University of Georgia, receives tuition plus books and a living stipend through ROTC, for a total of some $14,000 per semester.

According to two 2016 reports from the College Board, college tuition and fees are rising at a faster rate than financial aid and family income – by about 3 percent yearly, compared with virtually no inflation in the rest of the economy. Including room and board, the average total cost of a year of college at a public university is now some $20,000 for in-state students and $35,000 for out-of-staters, and more than $45,000 at a private school.

That means there’s a greater need than ever for ways to lessen the pain. Here are some ways to do it.

 Public honors colleges: One way to gain the small liberal arts college experience at a discount is to choose an honors college at a public university.

These schools within schools are a more formal and comprehensive version of the university honors program, often with extra resources such as dedicated counselors and scholarship coordinators, specially designated residences and activities aimed at fostering a scholarly community – meetings with distinguished alumni, say, and discounted or free trips to the theater.

According to the National Collegiate Honors Council, which has identified 12 basic characteristics of an honors college, the curriculum should account for at least 20 percent of a student’s degree program, and an honors thesis or project should be required. Many colleges offer funding opportunities for the thesis, and students present their work at national conferences.

Public honors colleges offer small classes – South Carolina Honors College at the University of South Carolina boasts an average class size of 16, for example – and research opportunities with faculty that otherwise might be tough to get at a university.

Admission to these colleges is highly selective and often comes with scholarship aid. For example, City University of New York’s Macaulay Honors College offers students a four-year tuition scholarship plus a laptop.

And there are other perks. At the University of Oregon’s Clark Honors College, among others, students are given priority registration so they get their pick of professors and time slots and don’t risk getting shut out of a class required for graduation. At the University of Nevada—Las Vegas, honors college students get prep for grad schooladmission – and pizza and bagels during exams.

• ROTC: The military’s ROTC scholarships are the country’s single largest source of scholarship money not based on need – about $1 billion each year. Unlike attending one of the service academies, where the education is free but cadets have highly regimented schedules, joining ROTC is a bit like having a part-time job or an extracurricular activity.

Cadets attend classes and pursue their major just like anyone else on campus does, but they also take one ROTC academic class per semester for which they earn elective credit. In these courses, they might learn about the principles of war and military operations and tactics, for example.

Cadets also may attend a basic training camp and typically have physical training during the semester, often three days a week at 6 a.m. There are also occasional weekend commitments, such as trips to a gun range or 12-mile hikes at a 15-minute-mile pace while carrying a 45-pound backpack.

“It doesn’t really impact my social life, because I’d be spending time at the gym anyway,” says Ruffa, who estimates her obligations consume 15 hours per week.

After graduation, the terms of service vary. The reserves are certainly a popular choice, though some cadets opt to fulfill their commitment with active service in their chosen branch of the military. Commitments are shorter with active service – often four years as opposed to an eight-year commitment in the reserves.

• Other options: Keep in mind that it pays to do your research; opportunities to save are always cropping up. Florida State University offers a “First Year Abroad” program through which out-of-staters study abroad freshman year and pay in-state tuition rates for the next three years.

New York lawmakers recently approved a free tuition program for state residents who qualify. The program, dubbed the Excelsior Scholarship, pays tuition costs for public institutions in New York State after other sources of financial aid have been applied.

It covers families with incomes of up to $100,000 – ultimately this will be $125,000. Recipients must live and work in New York for the same number of years they receive the award.

Finally, the College Board points out one money-saving no-brainer: Finish college in four years. About a third of students take longer.

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News “Best Colleges 2018” guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.