Although tuition costs continue to rise and student loan debt remains at sky-high levels, a college education still offers higher earning potential and greater financial opportunity in the long run. Yet without ways to help mitigate the extravagant costs, fewer families can afford to enroll their children in college. According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees at a private, nonprofit, four-year university was $31,231 in 2015. For public four-year schools, tuition and fees accumulated to about $9,139 this year.1 American families and students still realize the long-term benefits of a college degree, which leaves many students and families forced to borrow funds to meet the steep costs. The total cost of borrowed funds from loan programs averages $100 billion a year, and the outstanding total student debt stands at more than $1.2 trillion. Forty million borrowers incur an average balance of $29,000, and with the average entry level position paying $42,963,2 and a high unemployment rate of 11.9 percent for recent college graduates ages 20-24,3 they are left holding debt with limited means to repay.4

High schools can continue to advocate the value of higher education by encouraging families to explore scholarship, grants, crowdfunding and financial aid opportunities as well as other strategies for effective cost reduction. Guidance counselors can coach students through the following four ways to help make college more affordable.

Get Ahead, Graduate Early

Students who can graduate ahead of schedule or gain college credits (even for life experiences) during high school can help lower the total cost of their college education.

  • Dual enrollment: Dual enrollment offers students the opportunity to enroll in college-level classes that fulfill both college and high school requirements. A dual enrollment program typically offers classes at no cost or for lower rates.5
  • AP courses: Students can get ahead on their college credits by taking advanced classes or studying college-level courses to earn Advanced Placement credits. AP exams also offer college credits to students who earn a passing score.
  • College Level Examination Program tests: CLEP tests given by the College Board provide high school students with the opportunity to earn college credit in 33 subjects.
  • Accelerated program: Provide students with a list of colleges that offer an accelerated "fast-track" program to help students maximize their college experience by graduating in fewer years. Online and summer classes can also serve as supplementary courses for earning credits in advance.

Take Advantage of a Tax Credit or Deduction

Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the American Opportunity Tax Credit (formerly the Hope Credit) serves as a tax credit for college tuition and fees, offering eligible and qualifying individuals up to a maximum annual credit of $2,500 per student. The AOTC has been extended to December 2017.6 Taxpayers can also deduct up to $4,000 in educational expenses per student; however, taxpayers can only chose between the tax credit or deduction. Keep in mind, credits offer a higher value than deductions.

Save on Learning Materials

Purchasing required textbooks for a semester of school can add up to nearly $1,000. Print textbook prices have risen by 82 percent in the past decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Educate your students about more affordable alternatives to buying textbooks off the shelf at the campus bookstore. Although some textbooks are only available to be purchased as new hard-copies,, many learning materials are available to rent, as an electronic version or used. Ensure students are aware of the following resources:7

  • The University Network serves as a textbook search engine that locates the lowest price on textbooks online, from rentals to electronic versions.
  • Slugbooks serves as an online marketplace for buying, renting and selling textbooks. The site also provides a list of options from top booksellers.
  • Open-source books, created under an open license, are available to download or print for free or at a low cost. The nonprofit OpenStax College, one of the largest providers of open-source books, helped 260,000 students save an estimated $25 million this year.

Work for an Employer With Tuition Reimbursement

Companies like Starbucks and Chipotle Mexican Grill have made headlines recently for offering tuition reimbursement to all hourly workers. Starbucks offers a free tuition plan in a partnership with Arizona State University's online degree program that covers full tuition for a four-year bachelor's degree. Chipotle reimburses 90 percent of tuition, books and fees with a maximum limit set by the IRS of $5,250 per year.8

The following companies also offer generous tuition reimbursement plans for students who work for them during their college career (remind your students that working while enrolled in college can also help offset additional  expenses):

  • Apple: Tuition reimbursement up to $5,000
  • Best Buy: Tuition reimbursement up to $3,500 per year for undergraduate studies
  • Disney: Tuition assistance program providing up to $700 per credit unit, 100 percent textbook reimbursement and up to $100 for materials expenses per course

Business Insider also highlights Gap, Home Depot, UPS, Wells Fargo and more companies for excellent employer tuition reimbursement initiatives.9

For more information, visit Federal Student Aid for tips and suggestions on how to lower the cost of college.

Recommended for You: A Closer Look at How the Guidance Counselor Crisis Affects Students

Resources: Photo Credit. (1) Why does a college degree cost so much? (2) Entry Level Salaries (3) Employment Rates and Unemployment Rates By Educational Attainment (4) The high economic and social costs of student loan debt (5) Five Ways to Cut the Cost of College (6) American Opportunity Tax Credit (7) How college students can save money on pricey textbooks (8) Chipotle to offer part-time workers tuition reimbursement, paid leave (9) 15 Companies That Will Help Pay Your College Tuition