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

And you don't have to have great grades or test scores to find help. There are scholarships based on everything from your height to the community you live in to a passion for the science behind wine. Learn how to master the search in one of our most-shared stories ever, 5 Ways to Score Scholarship Money. Then, don't stop looking – you may become eligible for more later, and new opportunities keep popping up all the time. 4. Look at alternative ways to get or fast-track your education

The traditional four-year route is expensive – especially at a private school. But there are ways to cut corners without cutting down on your education.

For instance, look into accelerated programs that push you harder but take three years instead of four. If you're going for a higher degree, check out programs that combine bachelor's and master's tracks, or master's and doctoral work.

Consider starting at a state community college and getting general education requirements out of the way at a cheaper price, then transferring to a university. Just make sure the credits will transfer with you: The College Board's MatchMaker can help you find schools that have agreements to do so.

There are also ways to get credit without taking college classes. High school Advanced Placement (AP) courses can give you a head start, and while you have to pass an $87 exam for credit, that's far cheaper and quicker than retaking the class in college. Some high schools also partner with nearby colleges to offer dual-enrollment programs – these meet both high school and college requirements at the same time.

Then there are college-level examination program (CLEP) exams. If you can prove mastery of a subject on a $77 exam (some schools also add a fee to administer it), you get the credit while saving time and money. Of course, only take the test if you're confident you understand the material – look at a sample of the test online before registering and brush up if you have to. You might even take a free course on iTunes to prep for CLEP.

There's also online learning that costs next to nothing compared to most universities.

Finally, there are colleges that don't charge at all. According to U.S. News and World Report, there are at least a dozen of these. Be warned you may still end up spending quite a bit if you don't live close to them – most charge for room and board, but not tuition. 5. Take loans as a last resort

If you can't cover the costs after aid, there's another option: student loans. As the name implies, you have to pay these back, and starting life with a huge debt burden is no fun. So keep them to a minimum – one rule of thumb says no more than twice the salary an entry-level worker makes for your field of study.

Seek government-backed loans that subsidize the interest charged and offer more flexible repayment terms before turning to private loans. Learn more about the different types of loans at FinAid.org's student loan page.

Then learn about options for loan deferments and forgiveness. Some professions, especially in public service, can get you off the hook – temporarily or permanently. For instance, Peace Corps volunteers can receive up to a 70 percent Perkins loan cancellation over four years. Read about other loan-forgiveness programs here.

Bottom line? Don't let the headlines about spiraling college costs convince you a higher education is unattainable. If you're willing to do the legwork, the options are out there.

RELATED: Student loans and college finance: Take the quiz!

Brandon Ballenger is a writer for Money Talks News, a consumer/personal finance TV news feature that airs in about 80 cities as well as around the Web. This column first appeared in Money Talks News.

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