There is no way around it -- college is expensive -- and the student loan debt in the United States is a staggering $1.7 trillion.
As a new crop of high school seniors is deciding on where they’ll spend the next four years, there are some ways to keep costs down.
“The college’s first offer is not necessarily their final offer,” said Shannon Vasconcelos, senior director of college finance at Bright Horizons College Coach. “I always recommend that families go back, ask the college to reconsider a financial aid or scholarship offer.”
You can negotiate your college offers, under certain circumstances. Contact the financial aid office if anything has changed since you filled out your application or if there is something you think they should know.
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“You can go back to the financial aid office and ask them to reconsider your aid package based on these special circumstances that you have,” said Vasoncelos. “It may be high medical expenses, you're paying for private high school for a younger sibling or another child that has some special needs. Or maybe as a parent, you're still paying back your own student loans."
And you can sometimes negotiate with the admissions office if you received a better offer from a similar school.
“You can go back to them and say, I would really love to attend your school. You're my first choice school for such and such reasons, but the finances are holding me back,” said Vasconcelos. “ I got this other great offer from this other school that's kind of hard to turn down. Is there anything else you can do? And you might be surprised at how often colleges are willing to negotiate if they think that a modest amount of give on their end will be enough to get you to enroll, You might see them increasing an offer.”
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"I've seen families get an additional $5,000 per year in grant money with a simple phone call to the school asking them for more money,” said Donald Kerr, director of student lending and college services for AAA Northeast. "I have relatives here where the student themselves….did the negotiating with the school and each time the school came back with additional money, there's a sincerity when the student is doing it, that they really want to attend that school by trying to negotiate themselves."
Another way to save – devote some time and effort to finding and applying for outside scholarships.
Start with a brainstorming session. Write down your accomplishments, unique qualities, hobbies, interests and enter that into an online scholarship search engine. There are thousands of them out there and they aren’t all merit-based.
“I'm a big Walking Dead fan, but there's a Zombie Apocalypse scholarship," said Kerr. “It's not going to be based on your academics, your athletics, or any of your achievements. It's going to be based on writing an essay on how you're going to survive a zombie apocalypse. And you can win up to $2,000 to go to college.
“One of my favorites is the there's a scholarship sponsored by Duct Tape,” said Vasoncelos. "You have to design your own prom outfit, dress or tuxedo or whatever other kind of outfit you want to design and make it out of duct tape.”
Some tips: Search locally. A smaller pool of applicants can up your chances to win.
Find out if your employer or your parent’s employer offers scholarships.
Continue looking and applying for them every year you’re in college.
And these experts say to think very carefully about how much debt you take on for college.
“This past year, I would say the average out-of-pocket costs for the families I dealt with was around $30,000 a year,” said Kerr. "If you have to borrow all that, that can very quickly add up to be a debt load, especially if you have multiple children."
“Prior to going to college, that's the best time to realize what an impact that debt can have on you down the road.”
“There's a rule of thumb sort of out there in the industry,” said Vasoncelos, “that that makes sense in my mind to not borrow any more total over your four years of college, than you expect to make right out of school in your first year salary.”
There are some resources like the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook where you can get a sense of your future earnings potential.
Need help? AAA offers free college planning and student loan advice for its members.