In this article, I’m going to give you a complete 17 step roadmap to cut your college costs big time. When I say “big time”, I mean it’s possible to save as much as one year or more on college costs. While this roadmap is designed for kids in high school who are preparing to go to college in the future, anyone can use the steps below if they choose.
With that let’s not waste any time and get right into what you need to do.
1. Pick a few colleges you might want to attend
Step one in the process is to pick a few colleges that you think you might want to attend. Even if you don’t know where you want to go yet, you’ll want to start researching colleges, their specific degree programs and other policies which I’ll get into below.
Picking colleges you might want to attend is important because it’s going to help you figure out the kinds of things you’ll want to look for and where to find them as you get closer to going to college.
At the time I am writing this, my son doesn’t know where he wants to go to college but he knows he wants to go. What I did for him was just pick a few colleges I might want him to go to. I started with six colleges I was familiar with just to begin my research.
At this point, it isn’t about choosing a final college destination although what you learn below should certainly carry considerable weight in making a final decision. Just make sure it’s a regionally accredited college.
2. Obtain the course catalog for each college
For each college, obtain the current year’s course catalog. This is usually available on the school’s website. The course catalog will tell you specific courses the college offers. The catalog will also tell you other information such as degree requirements and other school policies.
The course catalog is important to have on hand to refer to. Keep in mind that course catalog’s as well as university policies can always change by the time you enroll.
3. Find and review each college’s residency requirements, transfer credit, credit by exam policies and matriculation agreements the college has in place
The next step is to identify some of the most important information that you’ll need to know. Every university is a little different. So let’s walk through these items.
- Residency requirements Nearly every school has what’s called a “residency requirement”. A residency requirement is a total number of course hours you need to complete at the university in order to meet their degree requirements. Most of the time we think of residency requirements as whether you are an in state or out of state student. But here, what I am referring to is the number of hours you need to complete at that university to qualify for a degree. For example, a school may require that you complete the last 30 credit hours of course work at their school to earn your degree. This means you might be able to get the other 90 credits of a 120 hour degree program by other means and at lesser expense. Most universities will have at least a 30 hour credit residency requirement. There are a handful that will let you do less which we will talk about below.
- Transfer credit limits Transfer credit is university credit earned at another university that satisfies a course you need to take at your final university. You’ll want to know what the maximum number of credits you can transfer into the university is. Some colleges are stricter than others. One college near me allowed up to 90 credit hours be transferred in. The higher the number the better. This allows you to shop for lower cost per credit hour courses and transfer those credits in which in turn saves you money.
- Credit by exam limits Credit by exam is a way to earn credit just by passing an exam. Popular credit by exam programs are CLEP, DSST and ECE. This is one of the most important things you want to find out. The school I mentioned above that had a 90 transfer credit limit only allows 30 credit hours to be earned through credit by exam. But still – that’s 30 hours you can test out of and see significant savings.
- Matriculation agreements One other good thing to learn is what matriculation agreements the college you want to go to has with any other college. A matriculation agreement is a partnership between schools. Most commonly these are community colleges. These colleges have already identified which courses are equivalent to the courses the final university making it easier to identify the right course work to take.
4. Pick a starting major
Armed with the above information, it’s time to pick a major. Just like you might not know what school you want to go to yet, you might not know what you want to major in yet either.
Schools have lots of majors so they can appeal to many different kinds of students. Most of the lower level classes you’ll need to take might be the same no matter what degree you eventually earn. It’s the upper level courses that differentiate a degree.
Since the lower level classes will most likely be the same from degree to degree, that’s where your main focus is and also where you can find the most savings.
For my son, he doesn’t know what he wants to major in yet so I just picked finance as his major to start with. I did this since I earned a finance degree and also just a starting point in figuring out the best plan to get his lower level undergraduate work done in the cheapest way possible.
5. Obtain a map of the courses required for your specific major
Once you pick a major, then what you want to do is obtain a map of the courses required to complete the major you picked.
In most cases, you can pick these up off the college’s website but again if you can’t find it, contact the school to see if you can track one down.
This is important for your next step.
6. Map out your degree
Once you know what the college specific course requirements are for a degree, it’s time to map out your own path to the degree you want using their map as a guide.
You will have to dig into the requirements they give you to identify courses you want to take. On their map, they may say you have to take 120 hours to get your degree and 60 hours of lower level classes. You might need12 hours in Arts and Humanities. Or, 6 hours of electives. Or, a certain number of hours in your major have to be upper level classes. Along with that will be required courses you’ll have to take for that major.
Whatever those requirements are, sit down and make a preliminary plan by plugging in specific classes from the course catalog that fit those requirements.
The first reason you want to do this is so you don’t take more credit hours than you need to by taking unnecessary classes. I know when I went to school, I only needed 120 hours but somehow I took 126. This means that I might have spent $3,000 or $4,000 dollars more than I needed to which was a waste of money.
More importantly though, you can also begin to identify courses that you can test out of or transfer in to get a lower per credit hour cost.
7. If still in high school, obtain a list of Advanced Placement (AP) classes and other ways to earn college credits at your high school
Many high schools have AP classes that are available to students these days. They also have other options such as dual credit or dual enrollment.
You’ll want to get a complete list of what’s available from the high school if that’s still an option for you.
8. Obtain a list of AP, CLEP, DSST & ECE course equivalents from the college
Most colleges will have a list of what course an AP class you take in high school matches up to at the college. They also will likely have a list of CLEP tests and their college course equivalents. For the DSST and ECE test, it might be a little less likely to obtain.
At each school, these will all probably be different. So what may count at one school won’t at another which is crazy but that’s just the way it works.
Same goes for scores required. The list you get should have a required score you must receive for it to count. That can vary by school as well.
9. Identify courses in your degree plan that have AP, CLEP, DSST and ECE test equivalents
Once you get the course equivalents, you’ll want to look at them carefully to figure out which courses you can test out of either by AP if still in high school, CLEP or one of the other tests. When you review your initial degree map, see if you can plug in the classes that you can test out of instead.
In fact, the AP classes at my son’s high school are what got me looking at this carefully. Once I obtained a list of AP equivalents, I noticed that while he could take AP Biology, AP Chemistry and AP Environmental Science in high school, he would only need one of them for a degree at the school I was looking at. It didn’t make any sense for him to take all three AP science classes for a science requirement if only one was going to count.
You want to do the same for the other credit by exam programs an in particular CLEP. Match up courses you can test out of that will work in your degree map.
In my son’s case, we discovered that while he needed a history requirement he could satisfy by an AP course, he could satisfy it by CLEP as well. In those cases, he’s going to take the CLEP tests instead and still graduate with honors in high school.
10. Study, take and pass for as many classes as you can test out of
Once you’ve identified which classes you can potentially pass to get credit by exam, it’s time to start preparing for those tests. Credit by exam is the cheapest way to obtain credit.
When I write this, CLEP exams are $85 and the college charges a $25 sitting fee. This is a fraction of the cost of one of the schools my son might go to. A credit hour at that school costs nearly $300. That’s just tuition. It doesn’t factor in text books, lab fees, parking fees and other fees the college charges. It also doesn’t factor in the time to go, room and board if you are on campus or gas if you are commuting.
If you do the math, a CLEP exam that earns 3 credits might cost $110 (or $150 after you add study materials). Actually taking the same course in college might cost at least nearly a $1000 (plus all the other college costs). Further, if you multiply that out by even 30 hours of credit by exam and it’s a small fortune.
I’ve already mapped out what courses my son can take by CLEP and even though he’s only just turned 16, he’s already earned 9 credit hours via CLEP.
I also have used the same materials including some materials from Free CLEP Prep and easily passed CLEP’s myself for my own degree. I can tell you that with a little study and a little preparation, you can EASILY save a lot of money not to mention time.
When we went to my son’s high school information session about AP classes, they made it clear that AP classes are hard work and the students have a lot more responsibility. I explained to my son that translated that means you basically teach yourself. I shared with him some of my experiences in college. One of which was an upper level macroeconomics where I paid good money to have the professor teach me high level macroeconomics but the only thing he did was read the book to us in class. Since I read the book as well, this basically meant I taught myself that class.
Now I’m not saying instructor’s don’t add value. In most cases they do. But in the lower level classes, if you are already an excellent student, passing these exams instead of taking these classes is a lot easier than you think and something you should definitely do.
Honestly, it’s my opinion that these four year colleges have been slowly pushing this lower level course work into high school and to community college anyway because they want to focus on the stuff in your major anyway.
11. Identify which lower level classes you can transfer in from less expensive community colleges or other colleges with lower tuition rates
If you have taken as much as you can transfer in through credit by exam, you’ll then want to identify courses you can take at other colleges for transfer purposes.
Community colleges might be the third of the cost of a state school and the instructor probably just as good.
This might be difficult to figure out how to map courses and it’s probably going to be more important to speak with an advisor at the college you want to attend to help you sort out which classes satisfy which requirements.
12. If you are working, take advantage of any tuition reimbursement plans available to you
One huge benefit if you can score it is tuition reimbursement from your employer. If you can find an employer who will reimburse you for exams and tuition, you’ll want to do that. If you aren’t locked in where you are working, seek out employers who will have tuition reimbursement plans as part of the benefits and find out how they work.
There are companies today that still provide tuition assistance if your degree is related to your work. Seek out those companies and start working there if you can.
This will help lower the costs of the upper level classes you’ll need to take to satisfy the “residency requirement” of the school you want to earn your degree from. That’s that 30 credit hour degree requirement I talked about above.
13. Petition the school if you need an exception to policy
When I was in college, I was able to substitute some courses and transfer some courses in on an exception basis. I was able to do this by petitioning the school to allow me to do certain things I needed to graduate.
If you are a good student, and your request is reasonable, your school will most likely work with you.
To petition the school, you look up the procedures on the college website. They will usually have a form. Basically, you are writing up a letter and laying out your requests and the reason it should be approved.
I petitioned the school twice to earn my degree requirements. In both cases my petitions were approved.
This will be important if you have taken classes you thought would map up but for some reason didn’t.
Also keep in mind that only the school determines what meets their degree requirements so you do need to work with them to. It is possible that you might complete a requirement you didn’t need to. It happens to all of us.
14. Decide the best time to enroll in the school of your choice
There’s no right answer here, but it might make sense to test out of as much as you can before you enroll in the college of your choice.
If you been working with an advisor before you enroll who has worked with you on potential transfer credit, it also might sense to enroll after you completed what you can at a less expensive school.
You’ll just have to evaluate your situation and what you think is the best approach.
15. Consider shopping your accumulated credits to several schools before you select your final school
Some schools may be a little more willing to work with you than others. You might consider college shopping to see if there are any advantages to you in how they apply your transfer credit to the degree you are interested in.
And what school wouldn’t want a motivated student who took a proactive approach to their degree attending their school.
16. Consider one of the few regional accredited colleges that don’t have a residency requirement
Most schools have a residency requirement but a small handful don’t. This means they have a more liberal transfer policy. Some schools like the regionally accredited Excelsior College allow you to transfer in 114 of the 120 credits you need to earn a degree there.
Don’t be afraid of choosing one of these colleges to complete your degree. As long as they are regionally accredited, they are good to go.
17. Start now
I’ve already started my son on his degree plan even though he hasn’t even started his sophomore year in high school yet. This summer he passed three CLEP tests which are potentially 9 hours of college credit. He’s already preparing for the next one.
At the very least, he can be done with 30 to 60 hours of undergraduate work or if he is really ambitious could actually finish near the time he graduates from high school. Only time will tell.
You need a college degree today, Unless you are going to an Ivy League school, what matters most is that you get your degree not how much you paid for it.
It’s a new world out there today and it’s expensive. If you follow this roadmap, you can cut your college costs substantially.
Let me know in the comments if you have any questions and the process you took to earn your degree.
And, if you followed any of the steps in my 17 step roadmap to cut your own college costs, I definitely want to hear about it.