How to find cheap colleges


College is just like anything else: You usually get what you pay for.

Some low-cost colleges, for example, have low-quality instructors and high dropout rates. And since dropping out of college is one of the most expensive mistakes you can make in life, it makes a lot more sense to attend the best college you can afford -- not the cheapest.

The good news is that even some of the most expensive colleges are making tuition more affordable for some students. Harvard, for example, charges a maximum of 10% of family income for students from families earning up to $150,000. The University of Connecticut offers some half-tuition scholarships to a few top students every year.

Because colleges are increasingly charging each student a more customized price, no general list can tell you which college will be cheap for you. (You can try to estimate your net cost at any particular school using our tool). But here's some general advice on how to find low-cost colleges of $5,000 or less and courses.

Public community colleges: These schools generally have the lowest sticker and net prices, especially if you live at home while studying.

The average community college charged tuition and fees of about $3,000 a year in the 2011-12 academic year.

Traditionally, community colleges only offered the first two years' worth of classes, requiring students to transfer to other colleges and universities in order to earn their bachelor's. Now, a growing number are starting to offer full four-year bachelor's degrees.

But beware: Some community colleges have very low graduation rates, meaning a lot of students drop out. Colleges are required to tell you their graduation rate. So if you can shop around, call the colleges you are considering to ask about their graduation rates.

How to get cheap college courses or credits

Study on your own and test out. For those who are disciplined enough, you can study topics like American History, Psychology and Marketing, then pay less than $100 (typically) to take a test that many community colleges consider the equivalent of a college final exam. If you pass, many colleges will give you credit or at least allow you to place into higher-level courses.

CLEP: The College Board offers 33 college credit tests starting as low as $77 (though extra fees typically bring that up to about $85 or $90, and study guides typically cost another $10 to $25).

DSST: A company called Prometric offers 38 course tests for a fee of at least $80 (though local fees and study materials add another $10 to $25 on top of that cost).

UExcel: Pearson, a textbook company, has teamed up with a for-profit college to offer 8 different computerized course tests at $95 apiece (though if you buy a textbook or some practice tests, your costs will be higher).

If you are interested in learning material and don't need a bachelor's degree, but would like some certification, MIT is offering "MITx," free online courses with small fees for tests and certificates documenting what you've learned.

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