College can be pretty expensive, but we’re guessing you already knew that. According to U.S. News & World Report, even in the midst of a pandemic, widespread school closings, and a dramatic slowdown in application rates, tuition rose by 1% entering into the 2021-2022 school year. USNWR notes that this brings the cost of college tuition to an average of $10,388 per year for public in-state students, $22,698 per year for public out-of-state students, and $38,185 for students attending private, non-profit colleges and universities. And these figures don’t even account for all of the costs associated with fees, housing, living expenses and more. These figures also don’t begin to tell the full story of what a higher education could cost you, considering that a year at most of the top-ranked colleges in the U.S. will be priced somewhere beyond $60,000.
So obviously, in addition to determining where to attend college, many students and families are grappling with the question of how they’ll pay for this enormous expense. Whether you’re a parent with a young child and you’re looking ahead to the not-too-distant future, or you’re a high-school student staring down the barrel of an application deadline, you could use some sound advice on how to finance this important stage in the educational process.
So how can you pay for college? What resources are available to help you afford a college degree? And how do you get started?
If you are beginning the application process, we also advise learning everything you can about how colleges are ranked. Many of the top-ranked schools are also the most expensive. But that doesn’t always mean these are the best schools for you. To learn more, check out our feature–Can You Trust U.S. News & World Report’s College Rankings?
Otherwise, read on and find out how you can pay your way to and through a great college education…
1. College Savings Plan
A college savings plan should be the first step, particularly because it’s something you’ll need to do years before the day that you’re actually applying for colleges. More than likely, this is a subject that will interest parents of future college applicants. Start saving today, because if you think college is expensive now, just wait. Barring some dramatic changes in the higher education landscape, you can consider tuition inflation an inevitability of life, like traffic, taxes, and fruit flies. Regardless of what else is happening in the economy, the price of college will probably keep going up.
To prepare for this reality, Citizens Bank advises opening a 529 college savings account. This savings account ultimately provides a tax-protected and flexible source of funding for future college ambitions. According to Citizens Bank, “You can make tax-free disbursements from your 529 — a state-sponsored savings plan for education costs — in order to cover qualified educational expenses. Those include tuition and fees, room and board, books, and other expenses. Remember that you don’t have to make a 529 disbursement every year; some years you may have all costs covered through aid and other means. In that case, keep your savings in the 529 so it can earn a return until it’s time to start withdrawing.”
2. Fill Out Your FAFSA
Sign up to receive financial aid by filling out this form. This is the probably single most important step as you prepare to pay for your college education. This means your first stop should be to the studentaid.gov website, where you’ll find your Free Application for Federals Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Every prospective college student should fill this form, even if you don’t think you’ll need a student loan or be eligible for any kind needs-based grant. Why? Because in addition to determining your eligibility for government-backed loans, need-based grants, and work-study programs, the FAFSA may reveal your eligibility for certain school- or state-based scholarships.
And you should also be aware that you’ll be completing a FAFSA form every single year that you plan to attend college or graduate school. As opposed to the one-time-only nature of applying for college, applying for financial aid is actually an annual process. Make sure you complete your FAFSA every year to determine your eligibility for any number of financial support options.
And remember, you’ve got nothing to lose. After all, this “Free Application” is, of course, completely free. If you’ve arrived at a website that asks you for money in exchange for FAFSA submission, you’re being scammed. Create your FSA account directly through the office of Federal Student Aid to get started. Here, you’ll also find helpful information on how to prepare your FAFSA, what financial documents you’ll need, and how long you can expect to wait for your financial determination, which indicates the type of financial aid to which you may be entitled. If you prefer the mobile experience, you can get the app here: (Apple IOS/Google Play).
3. Get Federal Loans
Shortly after you’ve submitted your FAFSA, you’ll receive your financial determination. This determination will indicate whether or not you are entitled to federal studnet loans and, if so, what kind. There are primarily two types of Federal student loans. According to Citizens Bank, “These loans are either subsidized or unsubsidized. With a subsidized loan, the federal government pays the interest accrued on the loan while your child is in school and during deferment (the six months after graduation). Subsidized loans are awarded based on financial need as outlined in your FAFSA. On the other hand, an unsubsidized loan means your child will have to pay all accrued interest.”
Eligibility for unsubsidized loans is generally not based on your financial outlook, which means that most students will be eligible for this type of student loan. By contrast, the subsidized loan is typically reserved for students with some demonstrated level of financial need relative to the high cost of college.
4. Find Out About Need-Based Grants
Your FAFSA financial determination will also indicate whether or not you’re eligible for need-based Pell Grants. The Pell Grant is reserved for students and families with clearly demonstrated financial need. Students who receive the Pell Grant—which can come in several different packages—are not required to pay this back. Your grant status will be determined based on your “Expected Family Contribution”—which is an equation based on your family’s income and assets; the cost to attend your college; your full-time or part-time enrollment status; and the intended length of your school attendance for the given academic calendar year.
According to studentaid.org, “Amounts can change yearly. The maximum Federal Pell Grant award is $6,895 for the 2022–23 award year (July 1, 2022, to June 30, 2023).” There may be other conditions which can qualify you for additional grant funding. For instance, if you have lost a parent due to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 or to military service in Iraq or Afghanistan, you may be eligible for additional grant funding.
5. Apply For Scholarships
Scholarships, in the simplest terms, are free monetary awards designed to help you pay for college. You never have to pay a scholarship back. You just have to get one, which is obviously the tricky part. It’s important to leave no stone unturned when it comes to possible scholarship opportunities. Scholarships come in all shapes and sizes, and are awarded by an extremely wide range of potential benefactors including private organizations, non-profit groups, religious institutions, professional associations, and much much more.
Make sure you take full advantage of every single opportunity for which you might be eligible. Some scholarships are geared toward specific groups like students of color, LGBTQ+ students, students with disabilities or hearing impairment, and much more. If you think you might fall into a unique demographic group, look for scholarship opportunities for those who share your background.
There’s a ton of free money out there if you’re willing to look for it. Start with scholarship repositories like fastweb.com or CollegeScholarships.org. But also be sure to reach out to your college or university to find out if there are any scholarships offered directly through your school. These opportunities may include need-based grants as well as merit-based scholarships.
6. Community Based Organizations
One sometimes overlooked source of college financing is the Community Based Organization (CBO). There are countless CBOs dedicated to the mission of helping underprivileged and low-income students find ways to access college. Some CBOs are nationally syndicated, while others may be specific to your region and community. Most of these CBOs are dedicated to helping you find and access resources that can advance your goal of a college education.
The Coalition for College provides a directory of nonprofit CBOs dedicated to this cause. The CCID Registry is actually a resource geared toward high school administrators and advisors. According to the Coalition, “Through the CCID Registry, Coalition member schools can easily learn about, reach out to, and potentially recruit from organizations that help prepare students for college — and those organizations can share their profiles and programs with Coalition schools.”
To learn more, speak to your high-school advisor. They may be able to access the registry and point you toward CBOs that can, in addition to helping you prepare for the college application process, direct you toward financial aid resources or even provide these resources directly through need- or merit-based grants.
7. Employer Tuition Support
A growing number of employers are willing to help their employees pay for college tuition. This is certainly true of a number of bigger firms. For instance, Amazon has recently taken on a policy of paying up to 95% of college tuition for its full-time employees. Other noteworthy employers that will help you pay for college include Home Depot, UPS, FedEx and Starbucks. The same is true of numerous federal government agencies.
Every employee tuition program comes with its own terms. In some cases, you may be required to pursue a specific type of degree. In other cases, you might be expected to make a medium-term commitment to this employer. And if you are working for an employer to whom you do wish to make a commitment, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask about a tuition assistance program. The current demand for labor is high. According to CNBC, “In today’s job market, tuition assistance is one of the many incentives companies are using to attract and keep workers. It may also be the most valuable. Not only does free or discounted higher education improve recruitment and retention, it cuts down on student debt while advancing the long-term wellbeing of employees, experts say.”
This means that many employers may be willing to provide this support in order to retain your commitment, even in the absence of a formal tuition assistance program. As long as you’re piecing together the finances for a college education, be sure to speak with your employer.
8. Focus on Affordability
It’s no secret that college can be expensive. But it doesn’t always have to be, at least not on the relative scale. Obviously, if you’re planning to attend an elite school like Harvard or Columbia, affordability simply won’t be a top priority for you. If you get into an Ivy League school, you’ll probably want to find a way to finance this opportunity. Of course, only a select few will go to these top institutions.
The truth is, you have a lot of excellent options outside of this group of elite schools, and many of these options are comparatively affordable. The key is to find schools with a strong reputation for both excellence and affordability. One good way to do this is to look for schools with a strong record of excellent academic stewardship—that is, a track record of reinvesting tuition and other sources of revenue into resources that directly improve educational experiences and outcomes.
9. Do Work Study
In addition to receiving student loans or need-based grants, many students can qualify for what is called a work-study program. With work-study, you can be placed in an on-campus job where you’ll work a designated set of hours in exchange for a predetermined sum of federally-granted compensation.
According to NerdWallet, “the federal work-study program funds part-time jobs for college students with financial need. To apply for work-study, submit the FAFSA. If you qualify, you’ll see “work-study” listed on your financial aid award. However, just because you’re eligible for work-study doesn’t mean you automatically get that money. You have to find an eligible work-study job on your campus and work enough hours to earn all of the aid you qualify for.”
Be warned that the pay for work-study is never very high. On the other hand, work-study programs are uniquely designed to coordinate with your educational schedule, which means you’ll likely enjoy greater flexibility when it comes to course scheduling, studying and exams. To learn more about work-study programs and how you can qualify, talk to your high school counselor.
10. Borrow From a Private Lender
NerdWallet suggests that going with a private lender should only be done as a last resort. This is because repayment terms and interest rates on private loans are typically less favorable than on federal student loans. If you require additional lending to supplement your federal student loans, you might consider a private lender.
But be sure to do your due diligence first. According to NerdWallet, “If you do need to use private student loans, compare your options before you choose a lender. Shop around to find the lender that offers you the lowest interest rate and the most generous borrower protections, such as flexible repayment plans or the option to put your loans in forbearance if you’re struggling to make payments.”
Paying your first tuition installment is just one step on the way to paying for college. For many students, the next four to six years will be a test of personal and financial independence. In fact, financial pressure is one of the leading reasons that students fail to complete college. But there are a few savvy ways to help save money, stretch dollars, and live wisely as a college student. If you’re looking for a few tips on how to improve your own money management skills as you embark on your higher education, check out these 20 Financial Tips Every College Student Should Learn.