In Back to the Future II, Marty McFly travels from 1985 to 2015 and is shocked to learn that a bottle of Pepsi costs $50. With Pepsi bottles sitting firmly in the $1.50 range as we approach 2015 in real life, this estimate of inflation may have been as fantastical as the hoverboard or the Cubs winning the 2015 World Series.

Sadly, college tuition costs have just about gone the way of a Back to the Future soft drink in the last 30 years, rising 538% since 1985, greatly exceeding the rate of inflation. Making college affordable in the present landscape requires being a strong student and a savvy consumer. Our top tips include:

1. Become acquainted with schools offering generous merit awards

Visit our dataverse and click on “Merit Aid (by Institution)” to see over 350 schools’ merit aid data in one easy to view spreadsheet. This will allow you to instantly compare the percentage of students receiving merit aid as well as the average dollar amount of the award.

elonHere’s an example: At Denison University, a small liberal arts school in Ohio, 93% of students receive merit aid with an average award of $18,609. Elon University, a school in a similar academic class, offers only 40% of their students merit with an average award of just $6,029. If an applicant were considering these two schools, they would have to weigh Denison’s significantly higher sticker price tuition versus the potentially more generous helping of merit aid. Our dataverse is a quick-and-easy way to compare all of these factors instantaneously.

2. Prioritize affordability especially if considering graduate school

We encourage our students to think “big picture” about undergraduate admissions. Part of this comprehensive approach involves understanding that in the year 2014, entry into the majority of lucrative and/or rewarding career fields requires obtaining a graduate degree.  Students need to consider the massive looming cost of their post bachelor’s education. Med school and law school are among the priciest grad school experiences, but any full-time Master’s, JD, or MD program is going to not only cost big tuition dollars, but also the absence of a salary you would otherwise be earning.

As you plan out an educational pathway into your dream career, consider that admission into an elite grad school is less dependent on the prestige level of your undergraduate institution than you may think. Looking for value and fit over pure prestige can set you up for a smoother postsecondary ride in the long term.

3. Pursuing opportunities to earn early college credit

Advanced Placement tests cost $89 and can earn you between three and eight college credits a piece. At the aforementioned Denison, one credit costs $1,395 which means doing well on one AP test could save you between $4,000 and $11,000. Earn 4s and 5s (and sometimes even 3s) and you could conceivably knock off a full year of tuition.

CLEP exams are a lesser known option for earning college credits, and you can do so by paying a relatively small fee ($80) and demonstrating sufficient knowledge in one of 33 different areas. Not every school awards credit for CLEP, but many strong academic institutions do, including our old friends Elon and Denison.

4. Earn good grades and test scores

The best advice for attracting merit aid was once whispered by a supernatural corn field – “If you build it they will come.” Build a strong grade point average in challenging high school courses and produce excellent SAT/ACT scores and you will be able to attend an excellent college or university at a fraction of the cost. It’s definitely a better fiscal decision than building a baseball diamond for a team of ghosts while your farm’s financial viability goes down the drain.

Andrew Belasco

A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew’s experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans more than one decade. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.