How to Make Your College Degree More Affordable


How many times have you been told that college is an investment in your future? It’s a cliché, but it’s also true. Research from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) illustrates that employees with a bachelor’s degree will earn around 66% more per paycheck than those with a high school diploma. That adds up to a difference of around $1 million over the course of a lifetime, but it’s not just about the money. Experts from the Georgetown Public Policy Institute predict that two-thirds of jobs will require more than a high school diploma by 2020. This phenomenon is called degree inflation, and it has the potential to cost society (and you) a fortune.


At the turn of the millennium, 15.31 million students went off to college. In 2010, just a decade later, that number had grown to upwards of 21 million – an increase of more than 27%. With so many resumes to sift through, many organizations took the lazy way out by ignoring prospects without a degree. In some cases, this inefficient practice meant removing candidates with relevant work experience in favor of those with no work history at all.

In a report from Harvard Business School titled “Dismissed By Degrees,” the authors write that “Postings for many jobs traditionally viewed as middle-skills jobs (those that require employees with more than a high school diploma but less than a college degree) in the United States now stipulate a college degree as a minimum education requirement, while only a third of the population possesses this credential.”

What does that look like in the real world? Consider that a 2015 analysis of production supervisor job descriptions found that 67% required a college degree. Meanwhile, only 16% of employed production supervisors actually had one. “Degree inflation – the rising demand for a four-year college degree for jobs that previously did not require one – is a substantive and widespread phenomenon that is making the U.S. labor market more inefficient.” As a result, a college degree is now the price of admission for many jobs – and it’s a price that’s continued to skyrocket over the last few decades.


In 1989, the NCES reports that a four-year degree cost $26,902. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $52,892. By 2015, the average cost to attend a four-year institution had doubled to a total of $104,480. During the same period, median wages only increased by about $5,000, meaning the cost of college is growing almost eight times faster than the return on the investment.

There are two ways to bring this equation back into balance. You can either make more money once you graduate from college, or you can spend less to get your degree. Ideally, you’ll do both, but this post will focus on option two. With that in mind, here are three strategies that can help you earn a degree without spending the rest of your life in a quagmire of student debt.

1. Apply for financial aid and scholarships

Whether you’re a high school senior or a senior in college, there are tons of scholarships out there – so many. There’s a scholarship for aspiring drone pilots, a National Table Tennis Scholarship Program, and even an essay contest where you describe what ice cream flavor you would be that pays $1,500! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You have nothing to lose by applying to any scholarship that seems relevant to your situation (looking at you, collegiate ping-pong athletes!) and you could reduce the cost of your degree by thousands. The U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid Office has lots of information on how to find and apply for scholarships.

2. Graduate in less time

Many schools charge by the semester or year. Taking more courses can allow you to graduate early and thus pay less overall. Make sure that your school will allow you to increase your course load, as many will have a maximum number of credits you can take to ensure you don’t take on more than you can handle. In addition, you need to be honest with yourself about your commitments. There are only so many hours in the day and lowering your tuition by 25% probably isn’t worth it if it reduces your GPA by the same amount. In addition, some schools will charge per credit-hour, meaning this tactic doesn’t always apply.

3. Take prerequisites at a community college

Not everyone can handle the extra workload required to graduate in three (or fewer) years with a four-year degree – especially if you’re working while attending school. Instead, start out by taking a few semesters of classes at a community college, where education is significantly cheaper. After getting graduation requirements out of the way, you can transfer to a state school or private university and take your credits with you. That way, you get the benefit of a more prestigious diploma and more renowned professors without paying a university thousands of dollars to teach you basic 100 or 200 level material. Before going this route, do your research and make sure the school(s) you hope to transfer to will accept your credits.

You can’t see the future, but we guarantee that the financial decisions you make now will have a big impact on the rest of your life. Most students graduate from high school and head to college when they’re 18. With an 8% annual rate of return, investing $10,000 at the age of 18 would yield an incredible $372,321 by the time you retire at 65 – even if you don’t contribute another penny over those 47 years. If you find that hard to believe, play around with this compound interest calculator from NerdWallet.

The point is, college doesn’t just cost you now. It will cost you later, especially if you have to take out student loans to pay for it. It’s still a good investment, but that doesn’t mean it’s a guaranteed one. At the SCLA, we’re all about helping you get the best return possible. Start by minimizing the cost of your diploma with the above three strategies.