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Creative Ways to Pay for College

With the high cost of college in our children’s future, “college prep” means more than just taking challenging classes in high school. Paying for school may be the biggest challenge of all. Even if your family hasn’t saved since your child was in diapers, there are smart ways parents and students can still save some cash while working toward their goals.

Ellyana Norton of Arvada just turned 18, but when she enters college at Metropolitan State University of Denver in the fall, she’ll have enough credits to start college as a junior. Her goal is to get a degree in linguistics, move to Japan, and start a career as either a translator or a corporate trainer who helps companies understand employees from different cultures.

“It feels a little daunting, but also exciting,” Ellyana says. Daunting, because she’ll be ahead of many of her classmates her own age, but exciting because she won’t have to take any of her college prerequisite courses, thanks to the concurrent enrollment program offered by her high school. “This actually allows me to focus on what classes I want to take to achieve my goals.”

An added benefit of Ellyana’s concurrent enrollment is the thousands of dollars she will save on college. With four teenagers in the Norton family, reducing college costs is important, says Bethany Norton, Ellyana’s mom.

According to a report from The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), the average amount of debt for 2017 graduates with loans in Colorado was $26,530, and costs for higher education will only continue to rise. But there are many ways parents and students with higher education in the near future can prepare for what’s ahead.

Compare Costs and Find Financial Aid

“College costs vary widely based on the type of school, so it can be misleading to provide an average,” says Alfredo Burciaga, director of outreach for College in Colorado, a resource that helps families plan, apply, and pay for college. Families can start by comparing costs of different schools located on College in Colorado’s website.

After you’ve compared costs and have an idea of what’s feasible, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). With the FAFSA, you can qualify for three different types of aid, based on financial need and other factors: the Federal Pell Grant, which doesn’t need to be paid back; work-study, in which students are assigned to part-time jobs while in school full time; and Federal Direct Student Loans, which must be paid back. Colleges can award other types of funding based on the FAFSA, too.

If you’re considering certain Ivy League or private colleges across the country, certified financial planner Kristi Sullivan of Sullivan Financial Planning suggests filling out the College Scholarship Service Profile (CSS) as well. The website contains a list of the nearly 400 colleges and universities across the country that consider the CSS Profile when awarding nonfederal financial aid such as scholarships and grants.

“There are lots of grants from private schools,” says Sullivan. “In-state funding has dropped significantly, so private schools with grants and loans might be cheaper.”

Save and Invest

Even if you intend to apply for financial aid, saving is important, even in small increments, and “the sooner the better,” says Sullivan. A CollegeInvest 529 college savings plan, allows families to invest money that will grow by the time a child reaches college age. Families may receive a tax benefit for starting one, notes Burciaga.

Some 529 plans allow you to open an account with as little as $25, and make contributions in increments as low as $15, at any time. The funds must be used for education, and there are fees if you use them for other reasons. But don’t let that stop you,

Sullivan advises. In the event that you start a 529 and your child does not go to college, there are ways to get around the fees. “You can move the money to a younger child, use it to go to grad school or even let the money sit and use it for a second generation,” says Sullivan.

Live Simply

Sullivan believes that parents should be honest with their children about what they can pay for. “Don’t say, ‘you worry about getting in [to college], and we’ll worry about how to pay.’ Parents have said that, and now they are trying to retire, and it’s really hard.” She believes some students have such a large amount of debt because of their own lifestyle choices. “You don’t have to go to California, and sometimes you have to live in a crappy apartment for a while,” she says.

Burciaga, too, says that when it comes to student loans, “just remember to only borrow what you need and be aware of the possible monthly loan payment in the context of an entry-level salary in your career field.” Many experts recommend that your student loan payment should not exceed 8 percent of your first-year income. Consult the SLOPE Calculator on the College in Colorado website to determine the amount of student-loan-to-income suggested, based on your child’s chosen field.

Take All the Credit

Many high schools offer programs in which students receive college credit or advanced placement for classes taken before they even enter college, potentially reducing the amount of time and money spent on higher education. Here are a few options; more can be found on the Colorado Department of Education’s website.

• AP Courses

Taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses, which offer a more rigorous approach than the standard high school curriculum, is one way for high school students to earn college credit or advanced placement. At the end of an AP class, students take an exam, and the score may be applied toward college requirements. Be aware, though, that each university decides which AP courses and scores they will accept, or if they will accept them at all. Check out the AP Credit Policy Search for a list of schools and requirements.

It’s important to note that the AP test score a student receives after taking the class can determine whether or not a college will grant credit. To help ensure high scores, Barb Redford, a mom of four from Arvada, makes a habit of going in to talk to all her children’s high school teachers. “[Teachers] can answer questions about the AP test, and if they know you are interested in helping [your kids] with their education, they will keep you in the loop and offer tips,” says Redford, who currently has a daughter enrolled in three AP classes.


The College Board’s College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) allows students to take an exam to earn college credit for certain introductory courses. “It’s a good option if you feel your child has mastered the content [for a certain subject],” Redford says. “It works especially well for foreign languages.” While not all colleges accept CLEP scores, the exams are accepted by 2,900 schools and administered at more than 1,800 test centers.

• Concurrent Enrollment

Students who choose concurrent enrollment, like Ellyana, physically go to a local community college campus for a portion of their high school day. They receive college credit that transfers to in-state schools. Bethany Norton liked the independence the program helped Ellyana learn, as well as the money savings. “No one is there telling you when things are due,” Bethany says. And, “her credits transfer seamlessly to Metro.” Related to concurrent enrollment is the ASCENT program, to which students can apply, and earn more credits during a “fifth year” of high school.

• Start in the Community

If your child doesn’t rack up college credits during high school, “consider community college for the first two years to complete general education requirements, then transfer to a four-year school of choice,” suggests Burciaga. On average, community college tuition can be about half that of a university. Make sure you understand which credits will transfer to your four-year school by working with an academic advisor. Learn more about transfer options at

Maximize Scholarships

At the University of Colorado Boulder, “incoming freshman will be automatically considered for our top merit scholarships,” says Ofelia Morales, director of financial aid at CU Boulder. About 30 percent of the scholarships awarded to students come from the university, so Morales encourages students to also fill out the CU Boulder Scholarship application to find additional scholarships. Like many universities, different departments within CU offer even more scholarships that students can apply for, and the university encourages students to seek out private scholarships.

Sullivan suggests that students think about any scholarship connections they might have. “There are scholarships for people of different ethnicities…welders…professional organizations that you might belong to… churches,” she says. “There is money out there, you just have to do the research.”

To help students do the research, the College in Colorado website offers a searchable database of more than 20,000 scholarships. Students can create a profile and receive scholarship information that pertains to them.

Burciaga recommends that students apply for at least 50 scholarships per year. “Although this may be time consuming, it is manageable once the student has written a strong essay and created a resume. Each application can then use tailored versions of these documents,” he explains.

Work the System, Literally

While Meghan Logue of Denver was in college, her parents paid for tuition, and she paid for living expenses. She worked off and on during the school year and summers, and graduated with just $5,000 in debt. “If money got low, I found a part-time gig, [which] is one of the main reasons I was able to keep my debt relatively low,” says Logue, now a graphic designer.

She advises that teens get a job in high school to prepare for what’s ahead. “Having a job since I was 16 helped me budget and prepare for expenses a lot better in college,” she says.

Depending on where you choose to work, many employers offer help with education expenses. Employees of Starbucks, for example, can receive 100 percent tuition coverage for a first-time bachelor’s degree through Arizona State University’s online program. McDonald’s employees who work at least 15 hours a week, after only 90 days of employment, can receive upfront tuition assistance and even education benefits for family members.

Lisa Lane Filholm, a mom of two from Denver, took another route to help her son George pay for college at University of Denver—she got a job there herself. “All full-time exempt employees, from maintenance to faculty, get a dependent tuition benefit. One to five years of service, it’s a 70 percent discount; after five years, it’s 90 percent,” she says. Check the university of your child’s choice if it’s near your home—discounts like this are common.

The only drawback, Filholm says, is that children of DU employees have to turn down some other forms of financial aid. There’s not a discount on room and board, but they came up with a solution for that, too: “George commuted for the first year and then earned himself an RA gig [resident advisor], so room and board is free this year. Smart boy!”

In the Norton family, the older teens are expected to work at least one day per week, even during the school year, to consistently be contributing to the costs of college ahead. Bethany isn’t sure if her other teens will be motivated to earn college credit early like Ellyana was, but she is committed to helping her kids find the school path, as well as the financial path, that works for them: “I have to be the parent that digs in and sees what each school has to offer.”

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