Can’t Afford College? The Cheapest Way to Get a Degree in 2016

guy holding graduation cap and degree, college tuition
Guy holding graduation cap and degree | Source: iStock

Think you can’t afford college? You’re not alone. More than 80% of people surveyed by investment firm Edward Jones in 2015 said they didn’t have the money to foot the college bill for themselves or a family member.

When you look at the average college tuition, you can see why so many people have sticker shock. According to the College Board, a year of in-state tuition at a public university cost an average of $9,410 for the 2015-2016 school year. Those who attended a private college shelled out more than $32,000 for classes alone. And neither number factors in room and board, which can cost another $10,000 to $11,000 per year. Is it any wonder that many people believe they can’t afford college these days?

Sky-high tuition costs and pricey room and board fees are certainly discouraging for anyone who’s looking to kick-start their education in the near future. If you’re fortunate, you have the money to pay the tuition bill upfront. If not, student loans can provide an avenue to higher education, but they come at a steep price. Graduating with lots of debt can make it more difficult to achieve other financial goals, like buying a house or saving for retirement. Plus, student debt can follow you around for decades, and it’s nearly impossible to discharge educational loans in bankruptcy. Nonetheless, half of full-time undergraduate students end up taking out loans to pay for their education, according to the College Board.

Yet racking up tons of debt isn’t the only way to pay for school. Before you write off your dreams of earning a B.A. because you can’t afford college, check out these five ways to earn a degree for cheap.

1. Let your employer pay for it

Smiling student holding a book in library
College student in library | Source: iStock

Companies that will pay for you to earn your MBA aren’t all that unusual, but an employer who will cover the cost of your undergraduate degree is a little harder to come by. Yet there are a handful of businesses willing to give their workers a helping hand with college.

Starbucks employees can earn free online degrees through Arizona State University. Chipotle will give employees who’ve worked for the company at least a year up to $5,250 annually for tuition, books, and fees. Verizon and UPS also have generous tuition reimbursement programs. If you can’t afford college, it might be time to put in an application with one of these companies.

2. Attend a work college

Some well-meaning but misinformed relative has probably lectured you about how he worked his way through college. These days, trying to work to pay for tuition is nearly impossible for most students, even if you’re logging full-time hours. That is, unless they’re attending one of a handful of work colleges in the United States. These unique, tuition-free schools, like Kentucky’s Berea College and Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, integrate learning, work, and service. Students are required to work a limited number of hours on campus while attending classes in exchange for a “free” degree.

U.S. service academies offer a different kind of work college experience. Attending West Point or the U.S. Naval, Air Force, or Coast Guard Academy is tuition-free, and students are paid while they attend school. Upon graduation, students must serve several years in the U.S. military.

3. Test out of courses

student taking a test
Student taking a test | FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images

Don’t want to waste time in Biology 101, freshman calculus, or college writing? Take a test to prove you’ve already mastered those subjects, and you may be able to receive college credit in exchange.

The College Level Examination Program (CLEP), Advanced Placement (AP) tests, and International Baccalaureate (IB) exams are a way to fast-track your degree, provided the school you attend gives credit for the tests. If it does, you can bypass foundational courses and head straight for the meatier stuff, perhaps graduating faster – and with less debt.

4. Try an “all-you-can-eat” program

You’ve heard of an all-you-can-eat buffet, but an all-you-can-eat college education? It’s a real thing, and for highly motivated students, these programs – for which you pay a flat fee per semester and are allowed to complete as many courses as you can during that time – could be a path to a cheaper degree.

With flex-based degrees like those offered through Western Governors University, you earn credit by demonstrating your competency. If you need to complete a course on the fundamentals of marketing for your business degree but are already an ace in the subject, you can complete assignments quickly, at your own pace, then move on to the next course. Capella University and the University of Wisconsin are among the schools offering competency-based learning.

5. Score a sweet scholarship

Scholarships of any size are a pretty great deal. After all, who would turn down free money for college? But some scholarships are more valuable than others. A handful of schools, such as the Curtis Institute of Music, Deep Springs College, and the Webb Institute, offer full-tuition scholarships to every student who meets their exacting admission requirements.

Elite schools like Princeton and Harvard promise full-ride scholarships to poorer students, though such programs might not relieve all the financial pressures on lower-income students. Some communities also offer “promise” programs, where eligible graduates of local high schools can attend certain colleges for free or nearly free. Graduates of Kalamazoo, Michigan public high schools, for example, can attend any Michigan public college (and even some private colleges) for free, provided they’ve been enrolled in the district for a certain number of years.

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