Back to School: 5 Tips to Reduce the Cost of College

The sticker price of college keeps rising – fast.

As state budgets shrunk between 2007 and 2010, some public schools hiked tuition between 40 and 50 percent. A study released in February says student loans have outpaced credit card debt, with unpaid balances passing $1 trillion in 2011.

A recent College Board report says average tuition and fees for four-year public universities is now $8,244 for in-state students, $631 higher than last year. For out-of-state students, $20,770, an increase of $1,122. And tuition and fees for private schools is $28,500, an increase of $1,235.

These are the numbers you see in the headlines, and they're scary. But don't succumb to sticker shock. Because what the news stories leave out is most people don't pay sticker price.

College sticker prices these days can match the price tag on a Ferrari. But there's a big difference between college and cars: While no dealer will cut the cost of a car in half based on need, there are resources available to students that can radically reduce the cost of college.

While it's true that those from high-income and high-net-worth families may find it more difficult to find help, nearly every student willing to look can find some relief. Here's how to go about it… 1. Start with a net price calculator

The Department of Education website has a new tool to help you find a ballpark estimate for the specific schools you're interested in. Put in some information and get the estimated net price: the estimated cost of attendance (tuition, fees, books and supplies, room and board and other related expenses) minus estimated grant and scholarship aid.

Every college has been required to offer this info since October 2011. The DoE's College Affordability and Transparency Center can also lead you to information about how fast tuition has risen at the school, what majors are offered, and records for campus safety and graduation rates. 2. Apply for FAFSA

FAFSA stands for "Free Application for Federal Student Aid." Students should fill it out in the spring before graduating high school and every year they're enrolled – even if they don't think they'll qualify for aid.

This standardized form is crucial because it tells the school's financial aid office you're interested in whatever opportunities are available. Nearly every scholarship, work-study, and other type of student aid available starts with the FAFSA form. And because some need-based aid is handed out automatically on a first-come, first-served basis, you want yours filed before everyone else's. Fill it out online at 3. Hunt for scholarships

Filling out the FAFSA can make you eligible for tons of aid, and many university financial aid departments do a good job of pointing students toward opportunities. But don't rely on them alone.

Find and apply to everything you can, because there's more financial aid out there than you might think. The College Board's scholarship search alone claims to check "scholarships, other financial aid and internships from more than 2,200 programs, totaling nearly $6 billion."

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