5 Tips to Make a Degree from a Small College Affordable

Earning a degree from a small college has many advantages, but it can be an expensive undertaking too. Of course, cost alone shouldn't deter you from the college of your dreams. As you weigh your options, keep these five tips to make your small-school experience affordable in mind.

1. Study Up on Institutional Scholarships

No doubt you'll spend a great deal of time researching scholarships in your community, social or religious group, or intended field of study. Remember that almost every private college and small school offers institutional scholarships as well. These scholarships are generally awarded to students who meet certain academic or community-related criteria. Ask the financial aid office at schools you're interested in what institutional scholarships are available. If you played a sport in high school but weren't recruited by a big college, ask if any athletic scholarships are available. Even a small scholarship can help offset costs.

2. Complete the FAFSA Early

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) provides schools with information about the aid for which you're eligible. You can fill out the FAFSA online. Once you've completed the FAFSA, you'll receive information about your eligibility for aid. The types of aid you might be eligible for include grants, work study awards, and both subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford Loans. Even if you think you won't qualify for grants, you should fill out the form to determine eligibility for federal loans. Remember that you must fill out the FAFSA every year in order to be eligible for aid.

3. Earn Credits Before You Get to College

Earning credits before you enroll in the institution where you'll study for your degree can be a smart way to cut costs. If possible, take a few college courses while you're still in high school. You may also be able to earn college credits by enrolling in advanced placement (AP) courses and successfully passing AP tests. Another way to cut down on the cost of a degree from a small college is to go to a community college for two years and then transfer to your target college. Be sure to clarify institution transfer policies before you take this route.

4. Maintain a Job

It can be hard to excel in college while you're holding down a job, but putting in the hours now will help out in the long run. If you've got the costs of your education covered with grants and scholarships, you'll have spending money and can save for the future. If you've taken out loans to pay for school, you can pay off interest while you're in college so that your costs are lower in the long run. Remember that you don't have to get a full-time, off-campus job. Even a part-time work study position on campus can help you pay bills and stay out of debt.

5. Take Advantage of Education Tax Benefits

The IRS offers an array of tax breaks to students and their families. Two tax credits, the American Opportunity Tax Credit and Lifetime Learning Credit, can be utilized by the majority of students. Money that you spend on tuition, books, rooming and other necessities can often be used as a tax deduction too. If you pay interest on your student loans while you're in college, you may also be able to deduct some of that interest. Remember that the rules for credits and deductions can change from year to year.

Resource: 50 Best Deals on Competitive Small Colleges

Decreasing the costs of your degree is a great way to get the education you need without going into serious debt. Be proactive about college financial planning now so that you can relax and study when it counts.