A version of this article originally appeared on Learnvest.com.
Dreading the thought of paying for college? Join the club.
According to figures from the College Board, the average total amount that students spent to attend an in-state public college (without receiving financial aid) last year topped out at $22,261. Going out of state? You’re looking at $35,312. Considering a private, four-year school? Don’t even ask.
But your wallet doesn’t have to take it on the chin. There are ways to manage college costs that don’t involve applying for a second mortgage. We spoke to some experts for creative suggestions on how to lower the giant price tag.
1. Pile on the A.P. Classes
Taking Advanced Placement classes in high school—and excelling on the official exams at the end of the course—can earn students actual credit hours at the school of their choice. Translation: The more A.P. classes that a high schooler can ace now, the fewer college courses you’ll have to pay for later. “Sometimes it won’t count toward your major, but maybe it’ll count for general requirements,” says Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert and the publisher of FinAid. “You could possibly cut a semester out of your academic career.”
2. Be Creative About Scholarships
This goes without saying, but leave no stone unturned. Free money is no small thing, and your child may be able to score extra cash because she knows how to knit. (True story: It’s called the Beans for Brains Scholarship.) “It could have to do with your heritage, your personal interests or what it is you’re going to study,” says LearnVest Planning Services certified financial planner™ Lorrie Minor. Research what’s out there at Fastweb.com—and don’t forget to look for scholarships even after freshman year.
3. Apply for Financial Aid
Even if you think that a school won’t offer you financial aid, it doesn’t hurt to ask. You may be surprised—and you definitely won’t get anything if you don’t apply. This means filing a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) ideally in January of the year that your child will enter school. Communities even have FAFSA meetings for parents to help them interpret the paperwork. “Some of my clients have [attended FAFSA meetings] just to understand what type of financing and student aid is possible,” Minor says. “That’s a good thing to do a year or two in advance because sometimes you have to move assets around.”
4. Compare Net Price, Not Net Cost
Net price is “what college will cost after you subtract just the gift aid,” Kantrowitz says, “whereas net cost subtracts the entire financial aid package.” Even if a school is offering you loans, you’ll have to pay those back. (For years, in most cases.) So that’s still a cost to you, despite the fact that it’s not immediate. You can find out what individual schools dole out, on average, at such sites as U.S. News and World Report and the College Board. Look at things like the average aid package and the ratios of grants to loans or work study.
5. Consider Graduation Rates
You may think that you’re choosing the more economical school … but that’s only the case if you can snag a diploma in four years. Some 45% of students who go to school full-time need another year (or more) to finish. So make sure that you’re comparing apples to apples among schools by finding out what percentage of the student body graduates in four years through a site like College Results.
From the start, have your child also map out how many courses he or she plans to take each semester to graduate on time. Then consider stacking the deck with summer classes, which can be cheaper than regular semester hours, or summer classes at a community college that will transfer.