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Trimming the bite off of college costs
Tuition Chart

Liza Jeswald took awhile finding her stride in college.

From a money standpoint, it was definitely worth the wait.

Jeswald, 32, of Conway, Mass., bounced around after high school. Moving from New Mexico to Oregon to California, she dipped her toe in both four-year and community colleges, only to quit after accumulating a modest amount of credits. “Honestly, I wasn’t sure why I was in school,” she said.

Back East, she began to study at Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts in 2012. There, her world shifted. As it happened, Greenfield is one of several community colleges with a collaborative agreement with Smith College, serving as potential feeders for students hoping to transfer into the prestigious liberal arts school.

After a year at Greenfield, Jeswald was accepted as a Smith transfer. Between bargain credits accrued elsewhere and Smith’s Ada Comstock Scholars program -- which helps women from unconventional backgrounds obtain a degree -- Jeswald will graduate next year from $57,000-a-year Smith virtually free of charge.

“When I told my parents a few years back that I wanted to go back to school,” says Jeswald, “the first words out of my mother’s mouth were, ‘How are you going to pay for it?’ “

It’s a discouraging, all too common question. The College Board reports the average yearly cost for tuition, fees and room and board at four-year private schools was $40,917 in 2013-2014, up 14 percent over the past five years alone. The average price tag at a public four-year school was $18,391, a 20 percent five-year jump.

Even more disheartening, those harsh numbers can be misleading. First, they downplay the fact that one-year prices at many prestigious schools routinely push toward $60,000 and beyond. The National Center for Education Statistics also projects that, by 2029, four-year costs at private colleges will top $355,000, with a public university sheepskin a relative “bargain” at $102,900 (room and board, books and other expenses extra.)

Happily, there are ways to trim the bite of college costs without resorting to jimmying open parking meters or begging for an audience with the scholarship fairy. It can pay to peek under the radar to pinpoint lesser known or commonly overlooked but lucrative financial resources.

Start here, finish there: Attending community college and transferring bargain credits to a more expensive school isn’t necessarily new or revolutionary. But there are programs that can make the process more controllable, and even more cost-effective.

Like Smith, other four-year programs have working agreements with community colleges for prospective students. Colorado has an “articulation agreement” that specifies courses public community college students must complete to finish up at any public four-year college or university in the state. In other words: begin at a school such as Front Range Community College, graduate from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and pocket the difference.

Another option is a program like American Honors, a Washington, D.C.-based community college honors program that blends online programs with on-site work at seven two-year community colleges. Begun in January 2012 and now enrolling some 700 students, American Honors emphasizes academic performance as well as focused preparation toward moving into a four-year program. American Honors students, who pay between $4,500 and $6,000 a year (which includes the cost of community college tuition), have been accepted at Stanford, Amherst, Penn and other top-tier schools. And while the program can save students tens of thousands of dollars, co-founder Chris Romer says it’s also designed to help them better manage an intimidating dual challenge: “Planning your coursework and transfer at the same time can be daunting.”

There are also a number of strategies that allow students to stay put at a particular school while trimming the expense of a degree. Here are a few other tips to save money:

Private college, public price: California Lutheran University’s Guarantee Scholarship charges incoming students who are also admitted to one of California’s state schools -- including UCLA and U-Cal, Santa Barbara -- the same cost as any of those less expensive colleges. On average, that saves students roughly $22,000 a year.

Stay on track: A common college budget buster is failing to complete a degree in four years. Cal Lutheran’s 4 To Finish Graduation Guarantee Program ensures that students who follow the school’s graduation guarantee guidelines but still can’t graduate in four years can attend any necessary additional classes free of charge. Similar programs are available elsewhere, including Randolph-Macon College and the University of the Pacific.

Brush off your passport: Herds of American students study overseas every year. Staying more than a semester or two can slash the overall cost of a degree. Lynnette Khalfani Cox, author of “College Secrets: How To Save Money, Cut College Costs and Graduate Debt Free,” says some 46,000 American students attend college full-time outside the U.S. -- with good reason. German colleges are tuition-free, as are public schools in Brazil and other countries. If there is some cost, overseas American students are still eligible for federal aid via FAFSA. One caveat: many overseas schools’ classes are conducted in the native language, so prepare accordingly.

Let’s get regional: Call it next door state envy -- living in one state, yearning to attend school in a nearby state but unable to pay hefty nonresident tuition. To counter that, a number of states have formed consortiums to cut nonresident student costs. For instance, the Midwest Student Exchange Program (MSEP) includes nine states whose public schools charge out-of-state students no more than 150 percent of in-state resident tuition rates for specific programs (for instance, a major not offered in your home state). Private institutions offer a 10 percent tuition cut.

Look homeward: Homesick for Grandma’s alma mater? Pine no more. “Return to Wisconsin” targets out-of-state students who have a parent, grandparent or legal guardian who graduated from one of nine University of Wisconsin schools. The payoff -- a 25 percent discount off nonresident tuition at the school their relative attended. At the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, “returning” students pay $11,864 a year in tuition and fees versus the nonresident $15,331, a four-year savings of more than $10,000.

Ask, and you (may) receive: Can you ask a school for additional financial assistance? A qualified yes, bearing in mind some parameters that can make your pitch as enticing as possible:

• Never use the term “negotiate” when asking for more money. That suggests dickering for the sake of dickering: “We never use the ‘B’ (bargain) or ‘N’ (negotiate) words,” says Kal Chany, author of “Paying for College Without Going Broke.” Instead, ask that the school “revisit” or “reconsider” its offer.

• Show the school better offers from other schools. Make sure the schools are comparable to the school with whom you’re talking. A killer offer from a subpar school isn’t likely to sway anyone.

• But not too soon. Don’t grab the phone the day choice No. 1’s offer arrives. That can show over-eagerness. At least wait to see what every school offers. “You’ve got to have a poker face,” says Chany.

• Have a reason. Just demanding “We want more” will only send aid officers diving for cover beneath their spreadsheets. Solid reasons include improved SAT scores, mistakes on financial aid documents or changing circumstances, such as a job loss. “Without a real reason to revisit the offer, you’re saying you don’t respect the process they used to determine the offer,” says Sarah Pingel, a researcher at the Education Commission of the States and a former college aid officer. “This is a high quality product they’re offering — they’re not selling used cars.”

(Jeff Wuorio is a personal finance journalist and the author of 16 books. His website is www.jeffwuorio.com.)