Smart Ways to Pay for College

You don't have to break the bank to get a quality education. Here are five ways to keep costs under control.

With the media focusing on high levels of student debt and potential conflicts of interest between universities and student-loan companies, figuring out how to pay the college bills may be more stressful than usual this year.

So today I'm starting a series of columns in which I'll tell you how to steer clear of the controversy and keep your debt under control.

Don't break the bank. First, make an honest appraisal of how much your family can afford to pay. Let's face it: It probably doesn't make financial sense to take on $100,000 worth of debt for a pricey private school when you can go to a good public university for less than half the cost (see Kiplinger's list of the 100 best values in public colleges).

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Start at a community college. Starting off at a community college and then transferring is a classic strategy for cutting costs. Now innovative programs are making this route even more attractive.

For instance, at the Universities at Shady Grove, in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., students can earn a degree from any of eight Maryland public universities that teach classes at the site. Students pay the tuition charged by the school in which they're enrolled, with reduced fees.

Scope out scholarships. Don't count on your child to bail you out with a full ride. But many private schools are willing to cut their sticker price to attract the right students (see Kiplinger's 100 best values in private colleges). The trick is to apply to schools where your child's grades, SAT scores or outside activities make him attractive.

My family is proof that this really works. Each of my three children was awarded a merit-based scholarship, ranging from half to full tuition.

And not every scholarship is based solely on grades. One of my colleagues has a son attending Vanderbilt on a Navy ROTC scholarship. When I recently searched to see if my high-school-senior son was eligible for last-minute awards, I found several essay contests with prizes ranging up to $2,500 -- enough to cover books or a computer.

Get a head start. By taking advantage of high-school AP courses, a student can enter college as a sophomore -- an instant savings of 25%.

Skip the four-year degree. "Some of the best job opportunities right now are for those with an associate degree or some kind of vocational training," says John Challenger, of Challenger, Gray and Christmas, an outplacement firm. Among the jobs on Challenger's list: interpreter/translator, sales personnel, support staff in the legal sector, personal trainers and transportation workers in the trucking and rail industries. Salaries in some occupations can top $100,000.

See Janet's college-financing series:

Janet Bodnar

Janet Bodnar is editor-at-large of Kiplinger's Personal Finance, a position she assumed after retiring as editor of the magazine after eight years at the helm. She is a nationally recognized expert on the subjects of women and money, children's and family finances, and financial literacy. She is the author of two books, Money Smart Women and Raising Money Smart Kids. As editor-at-large, she writes two popular columns for Kiplinger, "Money Smart Women" and "Living in Retirement." Bodnar is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University and is a member of its Board of Trustees. She received her master's degree from Columbia University, where she was also a Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Business and Economics Journalism.