The cost of college is top of mind for Sahaar Khoja.
The 18-year-old, who is a senior at Dulles High School in Sugar Land, Texas, is going to the University of Texas at Austin this fall. Affordability was a big factor in her decision, as was the curriculum. Khoja, the daughter of immigrants from India, wants to become a doctor.
"If it weren't for the scholarships, and the grants and the aid that I applied for, and was lucky enough to get for UT, I'm not sure if I would be going," said Khoja, who is the first person in her family to go to college.
The average price tag for undergraduate education, including tuition, fees, room, and board, increased by a whopping 169% from 1980 to 2019, an analysis from Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found.
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For the 2021-22 school year, tuition and fees for a public four-year in-state college came to an average $10,740, according to the College Board. Public four-year out-of-state institutions cost $27,560 and a private nonprofit four-year cost $38,070, the College Board found.
These days, prospective students are more aware of the financial impact of attending an institution of higher education. Some 69% of teens said rising costs affected their plans for additional schooling after high school, according to a survey from Junior Achievement USA and Citizens.
Some 28% of teens are now only considering in-state schools, 22% plan to live at home and commute to college and 10% are weighing getting a two-year degree versus a four-year degree, according to the survey. It was conducted by Wakefield Research among 1,000 nationally representative U.S. teens ages 13-18 between Feb. 18 and 24, 2022.
"Gen Z is really stepping back and saying, 'Why am I doing this and what is going to be the return on investment?'" said Ed Grocholski, chief marketing officer of Junior Achievement USA.
With college decision day — May 1 — just around the corner, here's what know about getting the best bang for your buck.
Ask for more financial aid
Financial aid is based upon income information that is not necessarily up to date. For instance, those applying for the fall of 2022 are reporting 2020 income.
If there has been a negative change in your family's circumstances, bring it to the financial aid office's attention and appeal for more aid, said Shannon Vasconcelos, director of college finance at Bright Horizons College Coach and former assistant director of financial aid at Tufts University.
Some common reasons to ask for additional help include a job loss, a hit to your savings since you completed the application, high out-of-pocket medical expenses, extra medical or care expense for a special needs child, capital gains on stocks in 2020 that was not repeated or the discontinuation of child support that was received in 2020, she said.
Negotiating more merit money
In addition to any financial aid, merit-based scholarships can help cover costs. Check with the college, or ask your high school counselor about opportunities. You can also search websites like Scholarships.com and the College Board.
Even if you receive a scholarship, always try to negotiate more money, Vasconcelos advises.
"You probably wouldn't think about buying a car or house or another big purchase without negotiating," she said. "You should think about college the same way."
Send a personalized email to the school's admission office that conveys your desire to attend the school but that finances may hold you back. Ideally, if you have an offer from another school, use it as leverage but be sure to send the admissions office supporting documentation.
"The worse they'll do is say no," Vasconcelos said. "Families are surprised how often they say yes."
Other ways to save
Consider attending a community college to save money. The average price of a public two-year in-district school averaged $3,800 for the 2021-22 school year. If you choose, you can then transfer to a four-year college for your remaining two years.
Just make sure you are working with an advisor that ensures you are taking the right courses that will transfer.
Also, don't automatically cross private schools off your list simply based on sticker price, even though they are typically more expensive than public schools, Vasconcelos said.
"Private colleges can actually be more generous with financial aid and scholarships," she noted. That could ultimately make it the more affordable option.
A so-called safety school, where your test scores may make you stand out from the crowd, could also be the best bet for merit-based scholarships.
"Those are the colleges that likely want to recruit you the most because you look really good there," Vasconcelos said.
While finances were a huge factor for Khoja, her parents told her it was also important to pursue what she was passionate about.
"I have a really big dream of becoming a doctor," she said. "I hope to sort of establish myself as a person and be able to support my family in the future."
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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.