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4 Tips to Make Your Dream School a Financial Reality

Being able to afford your dream school is an important goal if you have your heart set on a certain college. Here’s how you can make this dream a reality.

Attending your dream school can sometimes feel out of reach—especially as you’re facing the application process and the cost of college continues to rise. However, with some careful planning and hard work, you may be able to make your dream school a reality. Here’s how to make it happen.

Before applying: Make sure the school lives up to your expectations

Usually when you step foot on campus, you can tell if a school is the right fit for you or not. Maybe you thought you wanted a school with a sprawling urban campus but find yourself intimidated at the thought of a daily 30-minute commute from one building to another. Or perhaps you find yourself craving the energy of a big city instead of a cozy college town. Going on a campus visit can help you decide whether a school is the right fit before you apply. Schedule a campus tour and ask questions. If possible, try to visit the department offices of your preferred major. Some items to consider when evaluating a college on a visit include:

  • What extracurricular activities are available?
  • Do they have the academic program(s) you’re interested in?
  • What is campus life like?
  • How much does on-campus housing cost?
  • Are there internship opportunities available?
  • What does the alumni network look like?
  • Does the surrounding area have activities you enjoy?

Related: How to Tell If a College Is Right for You

4 financial tips to attend your dream school

After you visit campus and learn more about it, you’re completely convinced that this is 100% the school for you—but you’re still not sure you and your family can afford it financially. Here are four options to help make it happen.

1. Transfer from a community college

When looking at your dream school, it might feel too expensive to start out there—especially if you attend for four years. According to the College Board, the average tuition costs for four-year colleges during the 2021–­2022 academic year were:

  • $10,740 for an in-state public college
  • $27,560 for an out-of-state public college
  • $38,070 for a private nonprofit college

On the other hand, in-district community colleges average just $3,800 per academic year and only offer programs for up to two years. Instead of immediately applying to your dream school, you can complete your general education requirements and start some of your basic program credits at a community college for much less money. You can transfer to your dream school later—you just need to make sure all your credits will carry over. This may give you an admission boost as well since most schools try to recruit transfers. Additionally, if you perform well in community college, you may be eligible for scholarships especially for transfer students.

2. Find financing for out-of-state students

Once you confirm where you want to attend school, you need a plan to pay for it. One way to start is finding out if your dream school participates in a tuition exchange program. There are several Midwestern states and schools that are part of the Midwest Student Exchange Program. If you’re from one of the recognized states and your college of interest participates, you could qualify for savings of up to $7,000 per year in tuition costs. Similarly, the Western Undergraduate Exchange program claims you can save more than $10,000 per year by attending a participating school.

These types of programs reduce how much you pay in out-of-state tuition and can make your dream school more affordable, especially when combined with other strategies like applying for scholarships. Look for scholarship and aid programs aimed at out-of-state students to help you cover your costs. If it’s a private school, check into their institutional financial aid program, especially if you demonstrate financial need; some private schools offer generous financial aid packages.

Related: All About Tuition Reciprocity at Out–of–State Universities

3. Consider future job options nearby

While researching your dream school, don’t forget to look into nearby job options for while you’re in school like federal work-study or part-time jobs. Your financial aid package might include work-study, which allows you to get paid a set amount for working approved jobs often offered through your school. If there are other job options on campus nearby, you may be able to work part-time while earning your degree.

Additionally, you can find out if there are nearby employers that offer tuition reimbursement programs. These programs provide financial help while you attend school, resulting in less overall student debt. Finally, if you’re thinking about living in the area where your dream school is located, research postgrad job prospects nearby. Are there good-paying jobs in industries related to your program of study? Will you be able to make a high-enough salary to repay any student loans you have?

4. Plan for student loan forgiveness and grants

Depending on your program of study and future career, you may be eligible for student loan forgiveness or take advantage of different grants designed to help you repay your loans. Some of these programs include:

  • Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF): This program is designed to help those who take public service or nonprofit jobs. If you plan to work in a qualifying job for the government or in a public school, you can have your remaining balance forgiven after making 120 qualifying monthly payments.
  • Teacher Loan Forgiveness: For those who want to teach, it’s possible to get up to $17,500 in loan forgiveness after five years of teaching in an area of need.
  • National Health Service Corps: Depending on the health care profession you choose, whether you work full-time or part-time, and how long you dedicate to service in an area of need, you could get up to $100,000 in loan forgiveness.
  • John R. Justice Loan Repayment Program: As a public defender or prosecutor for the state, you may be able to receive up to $10,000 a year for six years. This is one way those who attend their dream law school can pay off student loan debt.

Related: 8 Ways to Pay Off Student Loans Faster and Save Money

By planning ahead, you can figure out a strategy (or combination of strategies) that will allow you to attend your dream school financially with the goal of not being overwhelmed by student loan debt. Finances can feel like the most stressful part of the college process, but remember that at the end of the road is an incredible academic experience and bright future.

To really make your dreams a reality, we have all the financial tips and tricks you could possibly need with Our Best Advice to Help You Pay for a College Education.

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About Maxime Croll

Maxime Croll is a Senior Director and Insurance Product Manager at Previously, she was the Director of Product Marketing at CoverWallet—a commercial insurance start-up—and also helped launch NerdWallet's personal insurance business. Maxime has contributed insurance insights and analysis to Forbes, USA Today, The Hill, and many other publications.


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