Spending Better, Spending Less, and Spending Not at All: Alternative Strategies for Making College Affordable

Key Takeaways

  • To avoid spending too much on college tuition, students can seek better information and advice in making decisions about what to study and where to enroll.
  • Another way for students to keep tuition costs down is to have prior learning evaluated for college credit, whether that learning is from earlier coursework, extensive corporate training, self-study, or life experience.
  • Many employers provide employee tuition assistance, which can be up to $5,250 tax free, so some adult students need not spend anything to continue their education.

A college education has never been as important — or as expensive — as it is today. Whether the problem is one of escalating costs or of dwindling public educational investments, the result is still the same: tuition is too high, putting college out of reach or making it a debt-incurring proposition. Most strategies to solve this problem focus on what postsecondary institutions or governments can do to make college more affordable, and these strategies are essential, yet there are things that individual learners can do to reduce their out-of-pocket costs when going to college. Learners can spend better, spend less, and even spend not at all. IT can support students following any of these alternative strategies for making college more affordable.

Spend Better: Get Advice to Make Good Decisions about Pathways and Programs

One way to avoid spending too much on college tuition is for more students to make informed decisions about what to study and where to enroll. With some professional guidance and good information about career options and educational programs, students can avoid situations where they enroll in a program, discover along the way that it is the wrong fit, and then change programs.

This hit-or-miss approach to education is common — but costly. One research study found that, on average, community college students earn 140 credits while pursuing a bachelor's degree even though typically only 120 credits are needed. Some of this wasted credit is the result of students changing course and losing the ability to apply alreadyearned credits to a new program of study.

A solution is for students to get better information and guidance before they enroll in a program. They need this help because they are being asked to navigate not just one, but two very complicated systems: the labor market and higher education. In the labor market, career opportunities and pathways are changing rapidly, and students need good information about what pathways are the most promising for their long-term employability and career satisfaction. Students also need help understanding the world of higher education, which today offers a huge array of delivery options, degree and certificate programs, and ways to pay. Students who make the effort to consider all of the options, understand what programs are the best fit for their goals and learning styles, and how to avoid programs that will lead to high student debt, are very likely to save money because they are removing the guesswork that can result in bad outcomes.

The challenge is that right now few students even know that they should be asking these kinds of questions about what to study and where to study. And whether they know or not, there are no systems in place that are providing this service prior to enrollment.The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) has been providing this kind of advising service as part of employer tuition assistance programs precisely because it is so needed yet not available through existing systems. Career and education advising is a service that has clear potential for helping students make the most of their educational dollar, and we need to be doing more to make that available to them. Along these lines, higher education institutions can implement online portals that provide these services to students, connecting them with professional career and academic advisors who can answer their questions and guide them to relevant career options and the appropriate educational programs.

Spend Less: Reduce Tuition by Getting Credit for Prior Learning

Any student can opt to spend less on education by choosing lower-cost educational providers, looking for used textbooks, and so on. Some students, however, can reduce overall tuition costs at a wide range of educational institutions simply by getting college credit for what they already know. This is particularly true for adults who have attended one or more colleges previously, who have received significant in-house corporate training, or who have extensive life experience from which they have learned.

If a student has taken courses at other colleges or universities, it can be financially worthwhile to shop around to find a college program that will accept the credits from those other institutions in transfer. Each institution sets its own policies around transfer credit, making it worthwhile to examine multiple options to see what will result in the biggest overall tuition savings. One institution may limit the number of transfer credits to a certain number, and another may not count transfer credits for major requirements. This can make a big difference in how many courses a student will need to take. The more transfer credits count, the lower the overall tuition bill. Colleges and universities can make this information available online for easier "comparison shopping" by potential students. Providing online connections with counselors trained in credit transfers would also benefit potential students. Some states are already providing websites that explain credit transfer policies at publicly funded institutions.

Students might also have extensive college-level learning that they received not from taking courses for credit but from learning in the "real world." Some people have spent years in the workplace andfrom that experiencehave gained considerable skills and knowledge, learning from their supervisors and colleagues, learning by doing, learning independently in order to get a job done, learning through formal training sessions, and so on. Some people may have taken on volunteer responsibilities in their day-to-day lives that required them to learn new skills or gain subject-matter expertise. Today, many people are taking advantage of open educational resources, including free online courses that allow them to acquire college-equivalent learning on their own. These are all examples of college-level learning that, if formally evaluated, could earn them college credit at some institutions. This is what is sometimes called prior learning assessment, or PLA.

PLA is carried out within institutions through a variety of methods, including standardized exams (well-known examples are the AP and CLEP exams), challenge exams developed by faculty at a given institution, and individual student portfolios. In addition, there are independent evaluations of prior learning available, such as CAEL's LearningCounts.org, which provides an online service for student portfolio evaluation for credit.

LearningCounts.org alumna Jill Powell explains her experience (1:55 minutes):

Some corporations who offer a lot of training in-house have their programs evaluated to see if they are comparable to college-level learning. These evaluations are another form of PLA and can be carried out by postsecondary institutions and by the American Council on Education (ACE). If the result of the evaluation is a determination that the training is equivalent to college courses, this means that whoever successfully completes that corporate training is awarded college credit.

Students with a lot of college-level learning gained outside of the classroom can sometimes have enough learning recognized through PLA that they end up with a semester's worth of credit or more. According to one CAEL study, the average number of credits awarded through PLA is around 17. The same study explored what kind of tuition savings that would provide to students. Depending on the fees charged for the PLA assessments and the amount of tuition otherwise charged for courses at an institution, the tuition savings for someone with a semester's worth of PLA credit would range from $1,605 at a large public university to a high of around $6,000 at other institutions. (Cost savings analysis summarized here.)

Not every institution offers the same range of PLA options to students, so students with a great deal of learning from experience may want to shop around to find institutions that meet their particular needs. Colleges and universities can simplify this process by providing the range of PLA options offered to students via their portals or other online services.

CAEL knows from several decades of work supporting PLA and from our own LearningCounts.org portfolio evaluation service that students value having the option of PLA. (See students' video and print testimonialson the LearningCounts.org website.) Students benefit from the tuition savings, and CAEL research also has found that students with PLA have higher graduation rates and a shorter time to degree. This means that a student can get into a new job or career more quickly and earn more money earlier. Over the long run, this means higher lifetime career earnings.

It must also be noted that many service members and veterans have other options for having their learning recognized. They typically come to higher education with transcripts of their military training, but because this training takes place outside of academia, it is sometimes not recognized. However, it is not difficult to find schools that do recognize the learning on a military transcript. Schools wanting to be seen as "military friendly" award credit by reviewing military transcripts and accepting the credit recommendations from the American Council on Education (ACE), which rigorously evaluates military training and other training offered outside of colleges to determine course credit equivalencies. Again, higher education institutions can make this information and how to connect with academic counselors more easily available online through their institutional portals, perhaps through a special section on military and nonacademic training for potential students.

Spend Not at All: Take Advantage of Employer Tuition Assistance

Truly the most affordable college education is the one that students do not spend any money on. Lower-income students can apply for Pell Grants that cover costs, and veterans have the GI bill. Are the rest of us out of luck? Not necessarily. Students should explore whether their employers provide employee tuition assistance, which can cover as much as $5,250 in tuition dollars that are exempt from income taxes. In school year 2007–2008, almost one million workers received these benefits from their employers, thus reducing or removing their out-of-pocket cost for education (Section 127 of the Internal Revenue Code). The limit of $5,250 may not cover tuition costs for full-time study, or even for part-time study at higher-cost institutions, but the cost savings is nevertheless substantial.


The costs of postsecondary education have increased tremendously over the years. Clearly, solutions that lower the price tag of education for everyone are needed. But until that happens, students may need to find ways to reduce the cost by making better-informed decisions, getting credit for what they have learned outside the classroom, and tapping third-party sources of support such as employer tuition assistance.

Technology is already helping students with these solutions and can do even more. The Internet provides many sources of information for students researching promising career pathways and related educational options, but more personalized assistance would be helpful to link those options to an individual's existing skills, aptitudes, work preferences, learning styles, and so on. Additional work is needed to make connections between free online learning opportunities and methods to award credit for that learning. Higher education institutions can do their part by providing relevant information and resources on their portals and making it easier for students to have their questions answered quickly online.

There are many ways to tackle college affordability, and given the size of the challenge, we need to be doing all of them.