By Steve Rogers on April 7, 2016 @Stephen_Rogers_

tuition-picThis is the second blog post in our Limiting College Debt blog series. Read Part I here.

Tuition and fees are generally the biggest college cost for students (and parents). Unfortunately, these items never seem to go on sale. The best way to combat the costs of college tuition and fees is to combine knowledge of how tuition rates work with careful planning.

Each year the Utah State Board of Regents sets new tuition rates for all the state colleges for the upcoming year. This change takes effect in the summer. This is important because in-state tuition paying students taking summer classes will need to plan on an increase to summer tuition bills. For out-of-state tuition paying students who attend Utah colleges OR for Utah residents planning to attend an out-of-state college during the summer, starting in the summer can be an excellent way of saving a few dollars. Non-resident student tuition in the summer is generally a lot less for that semester.

This spring the Utah State Board of Regents approved an average system-wide tuition increase of 3.7% for the 2016-17 academic year—the second-lowest average increase since 1999. So with tuition rates set at each of Utah’s colleges what are some things you can do to reduce your cost?

Here are a few ways to help save some money on tuition:

Free Classes. Find out if your college offers “plateaued tuition” – where you can pay the same amount for anything between 12 and 18 credit hours. This is basically getting free classes! If you sign up for at least 15 credit hours but only pay a 12 credit hour tuition bill, you’re saving a lot. It’s also a great idea because it gets you through college a lot faster. Registering for at least 15 credits per semester can add up to an entire year of free education. That still leaves you with a regular tuition bill, though, so keep reading for ways to save on that.

529 College Savings Plan. The first type of financial resource every student (and parent) should consider is a college savings account. A 529 tax-advantaged college savings account allows you to enjoy tax-free growth as long as the money is used for qualified higher education expenses. Utah has one of the best 529 plans around, with low fees and usually pretty great returns on the money you invest. Find out more about what UESP has to offer at www.uesp.org. There are other savings match programs that can be helpful; check out www.uidan.org for another program that may help maximize your dollars saved.

File your FAFSA. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is the only way to determine if you qualify for federal financial aid for college (learn about the different types of federal financial aid). One type of financial aid is federal work-study, which allows you to work part-time at jobs that are usually on campus and flexible with changing schedules. Work-study jobs are also great because even though your earnings are taxed and must be reported on the FAFSA, it doesn’t count against you in the calculation of your income. Remember that the process of being awarded federal and state offerings always starts at www.FAFSA.gov.

Apply for scholarships. Scholarships are an important resource, but there are so many kinds. How do you find the scholarships that you have the best chance of winning? My recommendation is you ask yourself three simple questions:

  1. Where do you want to go?
  2. What do you want to study?
  3. What makes me unique?

Identifying the college AND the major that interests you gives you a focus for scholarship searching. Identifying what makes you unique is what will separate you from the others that are seeking the same scholarships. Financial aid offices and college departments are great places to begin your scholarship search. There are scholarship search websites such as UtahFutures.org, Fastweb.com, Collegeboard.org, and others that are helpful. Make sure you are creative and think outside of the box when it comes to scholarships. Use our Scholarship Toolkit to help you successfully apply for scholarships.

Steve Rogers is the Outreach Manager for Utah Higher Education Assistance Authority (UHEAA). Connect with him on Twitter.