WUE and 11 Surprising Tips to Optimize College

As a teacher and award-winning college recruiter for 10 years, I’ll be the first to say college isn’t for everyone. Skilled trades in cosmetology and the automotive industry aren’t about to disappear tomorrow. With that said, if your son or daughter is interested in a college career path familiarize yourself with the landscape. The Western Undergrad Exchange and other college saving tips can reduce or even eliminate (yes please!) your son or daughter’s student debt after graduation:

1. Learn about the Western Undergrad Exchange (WUE)

Do you reside in Wyoming or Colorado and your daughter has the itch to live in Hawaii or Alaska? Basically, the WUE program involves over 160+ western colleges and universities and offers this incentive:

“Through WUE, eligible students can choose from hundreds of undergraduate programs outside their home state, and pay no more than 150 percent of that institution’s resident tuition rate. 

Since full nonresident college-tuition rates may exceed 300 percent of resident rates, WUE increases affordable higher-education choices for students, and minimizes the adverse impacts of student loan debt.”

-Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (Website Homepage)

WUE can scratch that travel bug your son or daughter has if long-term out of state-rates stretch beyond the college budget. With strategic planning, WUE students can enjoy degree resources and partnerships their home institutions do not offer, expand their cultural experiences and strengthen interpersonal skills by living in a different area of the United States.

2. Explore award options for college credit in high school

Compared to 25 years ago, there are wonderful ways to cover general education credits before college. Many high schools offer Advanced Placement (AP) or Dual-Enrollment College Classes for lost-cost college credit. Additionally, charter high schools exist that provide FREE college credit opportunities. Here’s a quick overview of these three options.

Tactic 1: AP classes

Advanced Placement (AP) classes follow rigorous reading and essay writing schedules to prepare students for cumulative testing sessions proctored each year in May. Students who earn a “3” or greater on a 5 point scale can be awarded class credit at designated colleges. The caveat is the college. More prestigious schools may only award credit for perfect scores on AP courses. Best plan of action? Check out each institution’s credit award policy ahead of time. During my high school career this was the most trusted route for pre-empting college gen eds: I earned more than a semester worth of college credits! Today there many more credit-earning options . . .

Tactic 2: Dual-Enrollment College Credit: a little safer.

Teachers with the right credentials can become satellite instructors for partner universities courses enabling students to attend college classes without leaving their high school campus. For example: Sam attends Evergreen HS. His Math teacher, Mr. Smith, teaches CSU Dual Credit Pre-Calculus during 5th period.  Students enrolled in the class pay a minimal fee to the partner university for automatic Dual Credit. This means Sam can earn credit toward HS graduation requirements AND simultaneously build a college transcript. Forget taking an AP test in April or May to determine whether Sam will be “worthy” of college credit. If he passes the class, it’s now college transcript material.

Tactic 3: Colorado Early Colleges (CEC)

CEC is an amazing opportunity for Colorado residents. Thanks to the Bill Gates Foundation, students can begin taking classes at Community Colleges around Colorado without paying a dime themselves. CEC are located throughout the state. Students who enroll understand the game plan is to prove their ability to begin dual enrollment classes as early as 9th grade. Often students enroll because would like to earn an Associates Degree or even Bachelors degree for FREE! Other students may not have their sights set on earning a full degree, but can still earn a number of college credits.

Tactic 4: Consider Charter Schools and/or ask about Higher Ed Partnerships with your local High School

Many schools today provide a mix of AP Classes, College Credit Dual-Enrollment and who knows what else? Be an advocate for your child! Ask administration staff and teachers about partnerships with local businesses for scholarships, internships or even sponsorships. Your son or or daughter can also attend specialized camps or conferences that may count for college credit for high school students.

3. Apply for FASFA (Federal Application for Student Financial Aid)

Some families hesitate taking this step in the college application process. Don’t! Even if you don’t “qualify” for free money it’s often a requirement for scholarships or resume-building campus jobs (aka “work study” positions). Financial aid usually offers “Work Study-no need” campus jobs to all FASFA applicants.

What is a work study job? An entry level position offered in all university departments. Widely diverse, work study positions range from event hospitality support to career center administration work, writing/math center tutors, front desk greeters, library and computer lab aides.

REMEMBER: Work study jobs are major budget savers for colleges they want to use. Why? Needed tasks are completed by student staff, but the higher ed institution isn’t “paying” the student timecard from department budget: the federal government pays the hourly wage.

The Early Bird catches the Cash!

Each department within a college only has limited number of work study positions they can offer. Once these spots are filled, departments may not have a budget to hire other students.

While work study positions usually don’t pay super well they provide opportunities to test out career fields and earn the reputation for promotion. With the right attitude and work ethic, these jobs are gateways for bumping elbows with departmental leadership, scholarship recommendation letters and local business leaders. Who doesn’t want post-graduate connections for career placement?!

Essential FASFA College Saving terminology

GrantsGifted money awarded by the gov’t or private entities for college: $$$ you don’t have to pay back. SOME grant money can run out, so submit FASFA early. Also contact your son or daughter’s financial aid office ASAP for any required paperwork needed to finalize your grant award. Missed paperwork can = missed grant funding.
LoansMoney awarded by the gov’t or private entity you must pay back
Subsidized Loans–the Interest Rate is paid on the balance by the government while a student is in school, once s/he graduates the interests and principal becomes the student’s responsibility
Unsubsidized Loans–Loans where the interest rate applies immediately to the balance borrowed and begins compounding
ScholarshipsGifted money awarded by private businesses, organizations, individuals or higher education institutions that does not require repayment for chosen recipients.
A submitted FASFA is often a required step in scholarship applications. FASFA alone does NOT award scholarships but it can award grant opportunities.
FASFA DeadlineThe date by which you should submit your FASFA application to receive priority consideration for Grant and Student Loan Money. Deadlines vary state by state.

4. Use ’em or loose ’em: Student Services

Mandatory student fees fund resources such as the Writing Center, Math Tutor Lab, Student Recreation Center, Confidential Counseling etc. Having trouble with College Algebra? No need to hire a private tutor! Grab unlimited FREE tutoring at the Math Center. Utilize ALL student support programs on campus to pass classes the FIRST time and optimize emotional and physical health.

My husband went back to school 20 years after high school. He visited the Writing Center as he brushed off his writing skills rather than having me edit his papers. It kept our relationship happy! In the end, he had to pay the student fees whether or not he utilized them. USE the resources YOU fund!

5. Start the college journey at Community College

Community Colleges (CC) have many benefits including:

  1. Smaller class sizes than university general education (gen ed) courses. Imagine BIO 111 with 30 students at a CC vs. 100-200 students in a lecture hall at a university. Often these lecture hall courses are NOT taught by a professor but rather by a graduate teacher assistant (TA).
  2. The tuition price tag is significantly better than a university’s invoice. **New trend: Some community colleges are changing names to help elevate their value. Ex. Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs is now Pikes Peak State University.
  3. Instructors at CC *may* also be more student focused than university professors because they’re not dealing with the pressure of working on research projects on a regular basis or dissertation work.

6. Explore CLEP Testing Options

Visiting a college or university’s testing center is well worth the trip before your daughter registers for her first semester’s classes. If she is a gifted writer, math whiz or public speaker she may test out of required general ed subject material she has already mastered. A passed test means she can register for sophomore level classes instead. Ask for subject specific options with CLEP Testing, DSST Exams or the Excelsior College Exam. Imagine this: Pay around $47-100 for your daughter to “CLEP out” of English 101, rather than repeat material she already knows for $1500+ per course/semester. Free study guides abound for most of these subject areas. Encourage your soon-to-be college student to consult her academic advisor and websites like mydegreeguide.com for more extensive exam descriptions and benefits.

7. Apply for scholarships!

Your teen doesn’t have to be valedictorian to earn scholarship gifts. “I wasn’t an ‘A’ student or an All-Star Athlete. There’s nothing there for me.” NOT true. Why do companies/schools offer scholarships? They want tax write offs! There are plenty of scholarships out there not based on perfect GPAs. Often times the applicant pools for local businesses are super small. Sure, there’s the duct-tape prom dress challenge sponsored by national brands but don’t overlook mom and pop shops.

PROTIP: Are you more scholarship motivated than your teen? Require your junior or senior to create a basic scholarship template about who he is, his ambitions or role models he’s admired before rewarding her with senior photos or whatever carrot-waving treat that is appealing. Then when different scholarships surface, she’s not starting from scratch.

Utilize scholarship search engines and databases like Fastweb, Scholarship.com, or College Board’s Scholarship Search. These platforms allow you to filter scholarships based on criteria such as GPA, making it easier to find opportunities that match your students profile. Heck! Many scholarships don’t even require essays, just an entry form.

Once your teen has landed on her school of choice, find out if the institution has a master data-base where she can apply for multiple scholarships with a single form. Not only a time saver, perusing such databases provide intel for scholarship opportunities beyond her freshmen year.

8. Save on living expenses as a Resident Assistant.

Resident life = campus dorms. It’s the “politically correct” word for living on campus. 🥳 After freshmen year, students can apply for a Resident Assistant (RA) position. ➡️ Typically, RAs are compensated for their work with 100% free room and board (their own private room with no roommate) and loads of professional development training. Cha-ching!

RAs are responsible for room check-in/out during the school terms and creating/managing activities for their floor including academic seminars, community service projects, diversity awareness-building, and social events. Additionally, they are the first touchpoint in roommate mediation needs and help enforce safety guidelines for residents. Skills built here for time management, conflict resolution, event planning and team building are universally applicable, transferring value into all career paths.

Resident life can also grow with your student—Graduate students who take on supervisory roles (Hall Directors) are awarded a full 1-2 bedroom apartments with kitchen while still having the option to eat on campus for free.

9. Connect with professors to gain insider info on scholarships and private grants.

Encourage your son or daughter to professionally connect with professors! While it may feel like brown nosing, networking with instructors is priceless. During my undergrad, two professors guided me through the nitty-gritty details for grant applications I won. They provided coaching during office hours not during class lecture discussions. I took time to seek their input on classroom assignments and asked questions about career goals I had. Those conversations created further discussions about means to make these college goals reality:

  • Studying abroad: One grant paid all my room and board expenses during a year-long student exchange program in Germany
  • Graduating debt free: Another grant awarded me 4 semesters of tuition while I pursued an TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) certificate.

10. Join campus student groups and get active!

Networking, networking, networking! These groups provide exclusive scholarships to members and discounted/fully-funded group travel to national conferences. Additionally, resume building opportunities abound for members: event organizing, managing volunteers, overseeing budgets, creating marketing materials etc.

11. Professional Organization Membership

Usually around junior or senior year at university do this. A semester before I started student teaching, I joined American Association of Teachers of German (AATG). I gained a jump start on hearing what school districts had competitive teaching positions posting soon as well as seasoned wisdom from veteran teachers and savvy tips for job interviews. Moreover the volunteer hours I gave created trust with senior members who wrote recommendation letters when I started my job search.  

Parent/Adult Child Relationship Saving Protip: Rather than asking your budding college student “yes” or “no” questions like, “Are you part of a professional organization in your major?” ask “What kind of professional organization are there for your discipline area?” LISTEN. If they don’t have an answer, ask them if they’d like to help looking for one or if they want to find it one on their own and share with you about it at a later date. Offer to pay for a membership if your budget allows.

12. Put a ring on it!

Encourage your son or daughter to get hitched! Gasp. I know. I wouldn’t rush anyone down the aisle buuuuut . . . for the right pair of love birds marriage is helpful and saves big on college expenses. Why do I say this?

For one, married students are considered emancipated from their parents’ finances on the FASFA. Young newlyweds most likely qualify for grant money your son or daughter would not have been awarded while living the single life under age 24. Incentivize the couple with GPA rewards while they’re still enjoying their wedded bliss?? Sure. If you’d like. Besides, consider how marriage provides quite the “adulting” steroid to life . . .

There’s more weight to your son’s study habits: his academic performance can affect future dreams he shares with his spouse. Furthermore, healthily married couples have a built-in cheerleading team as they walk through college. Imagine: your son finds that special girl. She cheers him on in his studies, helps him find campus resources if he ever struggles academically or figures out some extra college saving tips for scholarship applications. Some people need someone who will loyally walk the academic journey with them day in and day out. My husband went back to school 6 years ago after not stepping in a classroom for 20 years. He says countless times that having my support made all the difference. He knows he would have quit otherwise. But again—”I’m a death ‘till us part” girl—so PUUULSE don’t rush anyone down the aisle just to get more FASFA money. 🤦‍♀️

The Western Undergraduate Exchange has a cousin in the East?!

Okay, I was about to finish up this WUE and other College Savings Tips article when I thought, “Hmmmm, does WUE have an Eastern-State cousin with the same reduced out-of-state-tuition partnership?!” Guess whaaaat? There are options out there dear mama! Check out the National Association of Student Financial Administrators. They have a great page outlining Student Exchange Programs through out the US. In other words, if your son or daughter is attending college in a different region of America there are similar university money-saving partnerships, like the Western Undergraduate Exchange, for your neck of the woods!

College Savings Tips abound . . . just do your homework!

High school and post-graduation planning is never fool-proof. Yet a little research and question digging about possible college transfer credits, financial aid, the scholarship application process, professional development opportunities and community partnerships can go a long way in saving you and your teen money. Remember: not asking that burning question means the answer is already “no”.

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