Cutting College Costs Without Student Loans

July 11, 2022. By Ashley Agnew:

College tuition, next to a home purchase, continues to be the greatest expense many families incur in a lifetime. With tuition rates only increasing, it can seem like no amount of planning will ever surmount the incredible obligation. Applicants are ever hopeful for the receipt of scholarships and grants hoping to minimize the need to use loans and personal savings to cover the costs. Depending on the household income, however, federal loans may not be an option. We often field the question ‘what can be done to trim college costs without relying on loans?’. It is hard to negate costs completely without full scholarship, however every bit helps. Based on our research and conversations with fellow planners, as well as our own experiences, here are our two best pieces of advice for those looking to curb costs:


1) Begin at a State School or Community College:

As can be easily seen in the image below, public, in-state colleges are drastically cheaper than private schools, and community colleges average this figure down even further. Many families are aware that some savings can be realized by attending a state or community college however are unaware of exactly how extensive the savings can be. Starting at a more affordable school for one or two years then transferring to your desired institution can save upwards of $20,000 per academic year.

If using student loans to cover college costs, these figures will be even greater by the time the expense is actually paid. As of this writing, federal and private student loan interest rates are hovering around 7%. It remains to be seen how far this rate will go in a rising interest rate environment.

Taking advantage of a public or community college also makes great sense for those who are not yet sure of their major of study, their readiness to commit to higher education, or their desired location geographically. Jody Skiest, Esq., founder of Admissions Edge, helps guide high school students and prospective college attendees with counseling that considers more than just the numbers:

“Attending a community college for the first two years can be especially beneficial to ease recent high school graduates into college life, build successful learning strategies, and allow for personal growth and maturation. In addition to offering students flexible scheduling and the opportunity to attend college close to home, it can provide the springboard to further education while being more affordable than a four-year institution.”


2) Take Advantage of Credit By Exam Strategies:

Credit by Exam is a way for you to earn college credits and potentially save thousands of tuition dollars. Many high school students are aware of such exams administered by The College Board via Advanced Placement or “AP” courses. While AP testing is an excellent opportunity for high school students, we have recently become familiar with the College Level Examination Program from a fellow advisor which opens even more doors for various types of applicants; Mark Rizvi of TMD Wealth Management shares his experience:

“An often overlooked strategy is taking CLEP tests which allow you to test out of the basic college courses. Preparing for these tests can be challenging, but has free online courses to help you prepare to pass. I found this resource after I had taken most of the entry level courses, but I could have potentially tested out of 3 semesters worth of college coursework if I had found this resource sooner.”

CLEP exams are also a great resource for busy working professionals who are pursuing higher education since the courses can be taken at a pace that works for the individual. Additionally, exams are offered frequently at college campuses, military bases, and other testing sites. Each exam is $89, and prep courses are offered for free as noted above. In comparison, the average course for public postsecondary institutions is $2,355, and the average at a private institution is $5,696 as reported by the Education Data Initiative most recently updated in March 2022.

Whether a graduating high school student or a working professional planning on trimming costs with a Credit by Exam strategy, it is important to be sure that your college or university accepts the specific CLEP exam(s) you want to take, and that they will ultimately fulfill requirements for graduation. For example, some schools don’t allow you to use CLEP courses to earn credits in your major and only accept these for introductory courses, while others offer a wide range of accepted credit hours. Click here to find out how individual colleges and universities treat CLEP exams. We also recommend discussing the process with your admissions counselor to verify any information found on the College Board website to ensure accuracy.


In conclusion, the idea of a traditional college experience is changing for the better as testing options, online courses, and vocational training become more readily available to all types of learners. While the tips discussed are among our favorites (outside of planning early of course), you may also wish to click here to read a recent article from Forbes on the topic as well. No longer does an individual need to begin and end at the same 4-year institution to receive a quality education. Choosing a path that saves time will not negatively impact the experience of you or your child, and instead may lead to important lessons that cannot be taught, and only learned.  If you would like more information on how to start college planning discussions, reach out. We are here.