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A Possible Strategy to Help Minimize the Cost of College

When I was in my first semester of college in the late ‘90s, the first book I read was the course guide book (and yes, it was a physical book then). I used it to figure out which classes would help me graduate quickly with the least expense. With proper planning, I was able to graduate in three years with a double major. Speaking from experience, it is achievable without wearing yourself out and easier to accomplish with today’s resources.

Though some programs will require more, let us start with the assumption that a student will need 120 credits to graduate with a standard bachelor’s degree. How we get to this number and how much we spend to get to this number is more in our control than a lot of us realize.

The first 60 credits are largely made up of general education classes and electives. It is crucial that you achieve these credits as inexpensively as possible, and a good amount of them should be achieved before that laundry basket full of random dorm room stuff comes out of the trunk at college.

What steps do you take to accomplish this?

Dual Enrollment

Let’s start in high school. A lot of high schools now offer what are called “Dual Enrollment” courses. These are college-level courses that a student can take in high school for college credit. The high school is usually partnered with a local university or community college that blesses the classes. These should be highly considered because they are usually a fraction of the cost compared to the same class at college a year later. The cost of these classes at Loudoun County Schools in Virginia is $10 per credit hour.[1] Yes, you read that correctly.

It also may “matriculate” you into the local community college which can be very advantageous if it allows you to take additional classes at the community college the summer between senior year of high school and freshmen year of college. More on that in a minute.

CLEP Tests

When I sit with clients to talk about college funding, it amazes me how many people don’t even know these tests exist. They can save you thousands of dollars and a whole lot of hours of your life. The College Level Examination Program offered through The College Board allows students to “test out” and receive college credits. Unlike the AP Exams, CLEP tests are offered year-round and ask about material the student may already know.

Families will, however, need to do some investigative work. Not all schools accept these credits and the schools that do may only accept certain subjects. The good news is that over 2,900 schools DO accept CLEP credits.

You might want to figure out which schools you are interested in ahead of time, then search their website for which CLEP tests they accept. You can do a preliminary search here. You will likely see a lot of common ones between schools, like Western Civilization or American Literature.

Summer Productivity

Summer mornings could be spent at the local community college or another local college gaining credits at less cost than your typical college/university. It is important to make sure these credits will transfer to the four-year university/college you are attending. Some colleges may have stipulations on summer classes, so finding out beforehand should be part of the college “hunt” before you even apply.

During the summer you can also explore online professional license courses for college credit. They are not prevalent, but there are courses online for people seeking state licenses, such as Real Estate and Property and Casualty Insurance, that can count for college credit (and possibly fill an elective course requirement). This can be done very quickly. I had an intern complete one of these courses in less than two weeks.

The Road Not Taken

Let’s examine a hypothetical path to 120 credits in only three years of college. In this plan, you would take a standard course load during the school year, making burnout less likely and giving you ample time for social activities, extracurriculars, a part-time job, etc. This means that you would need to take advantage of your high school years and your summers in between school years, as shown in the chart below.

A Hypothetical Path to 120 Credits in Three Years


How Much Money Can You Save?

The average student loan debt coming out of college is 30k. This strategy can make up a good portion of that average shortfall. Let’s do the math based off Loudoun County Virginia Public Schools ($10 per credit hour), Northern Virginia Community College rates ($180 per credit hour) and Virginia Tech tuition rates ($476 per credit). Granted these numbers will be rough, but you will get the point. Below, I have calculated how much money you might save if you followed the path I just laid out. Note that these numbers are estimates based on 2018 college costs and do not represent exact savings.



Not only would you save an estimated $20,000 in this scenario, but you would also have a bonus year to get started in the workforce or pursue a graduate degree.

Of course, scenarios like this one do not play out so perfectly in real life, so be prepared to make adjustments along the way.

Ultimately, the idea is to change the mindset of both parents and students. Just ‘following the crowd’ may not be what is best for the family. Having a game plan and making some small sacrifices coupled with a good college funding strategy can pay off greatly in the long run and combat the growing cost of college.


Freddie Rappina

Search colleges that accept CLEP credit:

Related Reading:

Educating Yourself When It Comes to Paying for College

Want to Minimize Student Debt? Don’t Go to College for Six Years

The Art of Budgeting in College

What Every College Financial Aid Officer Wants You to Ask

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