Over the High School and Through the Home ... It's Off to College We Go!

Paying for College
Financing higher education is the home stretch of your journey from high school to college. Knowing the course in this area can help you finish strong and save dollars. One of the most common ways to cut costs is to attend a local community college. Some community colleges offer concurrent enrollment programs whereby students can receive both high school and college credit for the same course. As much as two years of undergraduate work can be completed at a community college, saving money on tuition, room, and board.

If you choose this route, beware of a few potential pitfalls. First, not all credits earned through a community college will transfer to your chosen four-year university. Second, too many credit hours earned though a community college may disqualify your pupil from scholarships, grants, and other money offered only to incoming freshmen. Ignorance of these potential snares may ultimately cost you more than you save.

You can bypass thousands of college dollars by taking the right tests in high school. The PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test) is used as a college scholarship indicator as well as a qualifier for the National Merit Scholarship Program. The PSAT is taken in the fall of the student's junior year. A National Merit Scholar may receive a tuition waiver from his prospective college. Many universities offer handsome scholarships to those who score high enough to be named a commendable scholar, semi-finalist, or finalist.

Even if your high schooler's score does not qualify him for these awards, it can be used to identify weak areas before taking the SAT. Most colleges require scores from the ACT or SAT as part of the admission process. However, sufficiently high scores on these tests can also qualify your student for merit-based scholarships. The best time to take the ACT or SAT is the end of the high school junior year, although taking prior practice tests at home is recommended. Scores from tests taken in the fall of the senior year will still be received in time for college admission applications.

Two other tests can help you save money by testing out of college classes while still in high school. If your high schooler takes the Advanced Placement (AP) exams and scores high enough, he can apply these course credits toward freshman year at college. Approximately 23 subject exams are offered, costing $70 to $80 each and scored on a 1–5 scale. The CLEP (College Level Examination Program) may also give advanced standing or college credit. These exams cost $50 each and cover various subjects. Scores range from 20 to 80, and many colleges require students to score a 50 to 60 for advanced standing.

You can save time and money by understanding how the AP and CLEP exams differ. The greatest variance is in content. The CLEP is designed for any student with a proper understanding of the subject. AP exams are fashioned from the AP course outline, and achieving the desired score may be challenging without first taking an AP course. This can be overcome by using the AP outline along with your high school course or by obtaining an AP subject prep book from your local bookstore. A second difference is that while both tests have multiple-choice questions, most AP exams also include essay questions. Many colleges will award advanced standing through AP, but fewer will do so through CLEP. Finally, AP exams are offered only in May and only through local high schools. CLEP exams are offered on more than 2,900 college campuses and can be taken at any time. My son took three AP exams his senior year and achieved the desired score on only one. Although we spent $240 on three AP tests, by passing one test he saved $5,000 in college tuition. It is possible to test out of an entire year of courses through AP and CLEP tests.

Financial assistance in the form of merit scholarships, need-based scholarships, grants, work-study, and loans can be obtained through federal, state, and local programs, as well as from your prospective college. The U.S. Department of Education will award approximately 70 billion dollars in federal aid this year to help families afford the towering cost of higher education. Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the first step in receiving federal financial aid. The initial FAFSA is submitted after January 1 and before June 30 during your student's high school senior year. Federal Pell Grants and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) are both calculated from the information provided on the FAFSA.