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Student loan debt has reached a record high of $1.3 million for Americans, and it’s rippling through the economy. Analysts say student loan debts are effecting everything from retail spending to mortgage loans because people have less spare cash.

But that doesn’t mean you should toss away the idea of going to college: College degrees still give you an edge in the job market. The average difference in lifetime wages of college grads versus high school grads is $1 million, according to a 2015 study by Georgetown University, and there is definitely a pay bump if you choose certain majors over others (the difference between the highest STEM field majors and lowest paying majors is $3.4 million).

Regardless of the salary you end up making, college tuition can be costly, and it’s possible to fall into debt if you don’t manage your finances and repayments carefully. But there are ways to bring down the cost of your degree to less than $10,000. Here are some of those ways.

1. Cut Costs by Cutting Classes

The first two years of college usually cover general knowledge. But if you already know something well enough, you may be able to get college credit for this knowledge and shave thousands off your tuition bills. Here are three ways to do that.

  1. College Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams are $80 and are offered for 33 different topics ranging from history to college composition. They’re widely accepted at more than 2,900 colleges and universities, according to Adrian Ridner, chief executive and co-founder of the online education website Study.com. You just need to register and take the standardized test at a testing center to demonstrate mastery of a subject and earn college credit, Ridner said.
  2. Also consider taking advanced placement (AP) courses while still in high school. If you earn an AP exam score of three or higher, chances are you can receive credit, advanced placement or both from your college, according to the College Board website. Keep in mind though, that each college or university makes its own decisions about awarding credit and placement. Most have a written policy spelling out things like the minimum required score to earn credit for a given AP exam, the amount of credit awarded and how credits are applied. You can review this information by using the AP credit policy search tool but make sure to confirm it with a college representative because policies can change.
  3. If you’ve been in the military, some of your training may also align with your degree and can be transferable, Ridner said. “Prior learning assessments (PLAs) vary by school, sometimes requiring an exam, other times an extensive interview or portfolio depending on the nature of the competency being demonstrated,” Ridner said. It’s worth it to ask, as it could save you in the long run.  

2. Dual Enrollment

You can actually start college while still in high school through dual-enrollment programs that offer transcripted college credits. They’re usually less expensive than a traditional college enrollment and some students are able to graduate high school with associate degrees, which, of course, saves even more time and money. Another cost saving option is to attend a community college for your first two years of college studies. You won’t have to pay hefty room and board fees, and can transfer to a four-year school later on.

3. Scholarships

While internships are still very important to lining up golden job opportunities after graduation, that summer job at Wal-Mart or McDonalds might just pay itself off in scholarships. Companies such as Google, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Dell and Microsoft all have scholarship programs for employees, and sometimes, for dependents of employees, according to collegescholarships.org.

You can also look into government grants, which are basically financial aid that does not need to be paid back. Make sure you complete a free application for federal student aid (FAFSA) to see if you qualify. You can get up to $5,815 for the 2016-2017 academic year.

You can also try the Scholly app to help you search, as more than $100 million in scholarships go unclaimed each year.

4. Tuition Reimbursement

See if your company (or your parents’) offers a tuition reimbursement plan. “Plan amounts may vary by company, the maximum benefit is $5,250 per year,” Ridner said. “If utilized for lower cost online courses, you can cover more of your education and reduce or eliminate your out of pocket expenses.” 

5. Investigate Employer Volume Pricing

This follows the philosophy that there is strength in numbers.

“Many employers are recognizing the value of helping their employees earn a college degree, and are partnering with schools and course providers,” Ridner said. “Given the volume of students expected to participate in the programs, the companies can often negotiate discounted course fees. Companies including Starbucks, Chipotle, JetBlue and more have established college programs for employees.”

6. Online Courses

If they are accepted by your college’s degree program, online courses present you with several advantages. For starters, they’re significantly less expensive – on average, students can save $1,000 to $3,000 per course (depending on your school and whether it is private or public), Ridner said. Many often don’t require expensive textbooks because their study materials are online. And they’re typically self paced, so students can earn credits faster and graduate sooner, or take them while working a full-time job.

“Supplementing the traditional college experience with low-cost online courses, puts a college degree within reach of millions of American workers struggling to find a place in today’s information economy,” Ridner said.

For example: For Thomas Edison State University (TESU), students can use Study.com’s College Accelerator courses for up to 75% of their required courses, and then transfer the credits to TESU where they complete their degree online, Ridner said. “A motivated student passing an exam a month, could complete their entire degree for under $10k,” Ridner said.

Remember, no matter how much student loan debt you might graduate with, it’s important to make timely repayments. Not doing so can affect your credit scores and your ability to get loans and mortgages in the future. (For a good barometer of where your credit stands, you can get a free credit report summary, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.)

Image: SIphotography

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