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Why is College So Expensive? College’s Sneakiest Expenses and How to Avoid Them

Abigail Endsley
Abigail Endsley

November 18, 2017

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Did you know you can gain weight by eating just 1 Pop-Tart a day?

While a single Pop-Tart doesn’t seem like a big deal at the time, within a year, if you don’t account for those added calories, your small vice will eventually grow… well, a bigger you. (24 lb. bigger, to be exact.)

While I don’t know anyone who eats a Pop-Tart every day, I know plenty of students who are accidentally fattening their college bills due to similarly overlooked indulgences.

It’s hard to understand in the moment how one perfectly normal decision (that doesn’t even seem “that bad”) can send your college costs soaring thousands of dollars higher than you expected.

So what are these indulgences? How can you avoid them? And how much money will avoiding them really save you?

I’m so very glad you asked…

Colleges 4 Sneakiest Expenses

1. Switching majors

If you’ve ever been told, “Don’t worry about your major. You can always change later!”

… no. This is very bad advice.

You see, college majors each require a specific set of courses for graduation. This means the bachelor’s degree you choose is structured a particular way in order to help you graduate as efficiently as possible.

By the time you get to your junior or senior year, you’ve probably already completed a substantial amount of credit that is major specific. So, by switching from a history to a business degree, you are both adding new business-related coursework (required to complete your new major) and disqualifying history coursework you’ve already completed. Your new business degree has no use for history classes.

Now every business class you take will essentially cost you twice as much money (the price of the new course plus the price of the old course you disqualified).

Just don’t do it.

Instead, take your time and do your research. By making a solid college plan before enrolling, you’ll save an average of $642 for every course you don’t have to replace.

2. Getting an associate’s degree

Starting with community college isn’t a bad choice on it’s own. But it can cause a lot of problems.

Usually community colleges advise you to earn an associate’s degree before transferring to a new school and finishing up with your bachelor’s. The idea is for you to earn your first 60 credits at a small, inexpensive school before finishing up at your more expensive choice. Seems like a good deal, right?

Wrong.

Associate’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees have very different requirements for graduation. So unless you’re attending a community college with a very good matriculation agreement, you’re wasting time and money earning credits that won’t transfer.

Just like in the last point, every credit you can’t transfer is credit that needs replacing—costing you hundreds of dollars per course.

2. Taking less than 15 credits per semester

Did you know that spending just one extra year in college can increase your total college cost by $22,826?

If inexpensive college is your goal, earning a 4-year degree in 4 years is extremely important. According to Complete College America, this is the #1 way to reduce the cost of college.

What does that look like practically? Well, most college degrees require 120 credits for graduation. That means in order to graduate in 4 years, you need to average 15 credits a semester (roughly 5 classes).

Most students today are taking an abysmal 9-12.

The less credit you take in a semester, the longer you’ll be in school. The longer you’re in school, the more money you’ll spend.

Now, I will admit there are some good reasons for not taking a full 15-credit semester. Perhaps you’re working full time, raising a family, or maybe the classes you need just fill up too quickly.

What then? That’s where the next point comes into play…

4. Not taking advantage of alternative credit

The internet has changed the way we engage with information. Nowadays you don’t have to rely on a classroom for all your educational needs. You can build a college degree the way you’d build a playlist, using a variety of course styles from a variety of schools.

And the beautiful thing is, most of these alternative credit options are far cheaper than the traditional classroom experience.

You could pay $642 per class for the luxury of being taught in-person by a professor. Or you could take a $150 competency-based exam. If you don’t like those options, you could perhaps try an online, professional studies, or self-paced course.

Turns out, there are at least 6 ways to earn this credit. And most of them are less expensive and more flexible than taking a traditional classroom-style course. (Increased flexibility = the ability to fit school around your job or life, so you can keep up a 4-year pace without sacrificing what’s important to you.)

Depending on how much transfer credit your college accepts, this method can help reduce the cost of your bachelor’s degree by thousands of dollars.

(To learn more about using alternative credit to reduce your college costs, check out our free ebook, How to Cash Flow college and Graduate Debt Free.)

A quick note on credit transfer:

“Woah, woah woah,” you say. “You just told me transferring credit makes college more expensive, not less.”

Transferring credit isn’t the culprit here. Not understanding transfer policies is. Transfer credit only increases college expenses when it’s lost. As long as you have already verified that the school you want to graduate from accepts the credit you’re taking, you can breathe easy.


Small changes stack up over time. The Pop-Tart analogy I used earlier also works in the reverse. By cutting just one Pop-Tart’s-worth of calories from your diet every day, you will lose a lot of weight.

Similarly, by thinking outside the box and making a few adjustments to the way you approach college, you can dramatically reduce your college costs.

Liked this post? You might also like Why Won’t My Credits Transfer?

Abigail Endsley
Abigail Endsley

A former student counselor and Unbound student, Abigail is passionate about empowering others to achieve their goals. When she’s not dreaming with her friends, you can find her reading or singing Broadway songs. Loudly.

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