Reducing costs can help pay for college

Personal Finance

September 10, 2006|By Eileen Ambrose | Eileen Ambrose,Sun Columnist

Many high school students and their parents are bracing for steep college bills ahead. But there are steps that high school juniors and seniors can take to potentially lop off thousands of dollars in future tuition.

And they don't involve financial aid formulas.

Not all strategies will work for every student. And they might not reduce costs at all colleges, since each school plays by its own rules. Still, with tuition only going up, it can't hurt to start trying to trim college bills before high school graduation.

One potentially big money saver is earning college credits while still in high school.

Most families know that Advanced Placement classes at high schools allow juniors and seniors to earn college credits. But many community colleges and four-year schools also woo these high school students by allowing them to take introductory courses for college credit. And some sweeten the offer by giving deep tuition discounts.

High school students who pursue college credits typically do so for the challenge and to gain an edge when applying to colleges later, admissions officers said. But for budget-conscious high school students, getting a few college courses under their belt now can mean graduating from college a semester or so early.

Atul Roy, a math professor at Montgomery College, encouraged his son, Siddarth, to start taking classes at the community college in the summer after his junior year in high school. His son already had earned 20 credit hours from Advanced Placement classes. Last year, Siddarth received an associate's degree from Montgomery College before finishing high school.

"In the morning he went to graduation to get his diploma. In the evening, he went to his high school prom," Roy said.

Roy's goal wasn't to save money. And his 19-year-old son is putting his extra credits toward a double major at the University of Maryland, College Park. Still, Roy says earning college credits in high school can be a boon for families with tight finances.

Families should check local community colleges and four-year universities for programs where high school juniors and seniors can take introductory courses.

Tuition is typically much lower at community colleges, and their credits often can be transferred later to higher-priced, four-year schools. On top of that, some community colleges slash tuition for these younger students.

For instance, Baltimore City Community College offers free tuition and assistance with textbook costs for high school juniors and seniors living in the city. The Community College of Baltimore County cuts tuition in half for county high school students.

And it's not just at community colleges.

Hood College's Hood Start program allows high school juniors and seniors to take about five or six lower-level classes for $100 per credit hour. A typical freshman at the four-year private college in Frederick pays $788 a credit hour.

"It gets their feet wet and many enroll here and stay," said Ron Shunk, director of financial aid at Hood.

Before enrolling in courses, though, high school students should check out how their prospective colleges will weigh these classes.

Some schools limit the number of college credits they will accept from incoming freshmen. Others might not give credit depending on the course or the student's grade, experts said.

Of course, students can also earn college credit by taking Advanced Placement classes in high school. Families don't pay for the classes, but they are charged $83 for each exam, according to College Board, which administers the test.

Be aware: "Not all AP classes are accepted for credit. It's not even an institution decision. It's the actual department," said Bill Shilling, financial aid director at the University of Pennsylvania. For instance, the chemistry department might give credit only if a student receives a top score on the Advanced Placement test.

To check online how colleges weigh these classes, go to and search for advanced placement.

Another way to earn college credit while in high school is through the International Baccalaureate Diploma program. It was created in the 1960s to provide diplomats' children with a curriculum that universities worldwide would accept.

Now, more than 520 U.S. high schools, including Baltimore City College, offer the two-year program that's free to students, said Sandra Coyle, a spokeswoman with the International Baccalaureate Organization in New York.

For juniors and seniors up for this rigorous curriculum, the payoff can be high. For example, students with an IB diploma can earn up to 30 hours of credit at Hood and Towson University.

Again, colleges weigh an IB diploma differently. Go online to to find out how various colleges treat the diploma.

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