How Do I Pay For College?
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The spring semester is well underway, and many students are starting to look into colleges and college decisions around this time. Among the many decisions you will have to make, figuring out how you will pay for college is one of the most important. You may have heard that the average person has about $30,000 in student loan debt after graduating from college, but that figure only scratches the surface of the issue. All debt is not created equal, and there are many different ways to avoid some or all of that debt altogether. Below are some of the many options students and families have to manage college expenses.
Fill out the FAFSA
Filling out the FAFSA is often an important part of the process for any student applying to college. The reason is that to be eligible for federal student loans, work-study, or grants, you need to complete the FAFSA forms. For many people, ruling out those options means leaving a lot of money on the table, so it’s usually in your best interest for the family to fill it out.
As mentioned above, filling out the FAFSA opens up various avenues for funding your college education. When applying for grants, it’s best to fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible once it’s available on October 1 because schools may only receive a certain amount of funds for each program, so it’s first come, first serve. Grants are like scholarships because they usually don’t have to be repaid. Just like scholarships, you can get grants for a variety of reasons such as financial need or academic excellence. The greatest difference between a grant and a scholarship, though, is that grants typically have some sort of need-based component. A quick google search like “Federal Grants For Undergraduate Students” can be a good place to start. You can also try replacing the word “undergraduate” with some other subject or field that applies to you. Below, we’ve also included a short list of some common programs.
- Pell Grants are awarded to students with financial need.
- TEACH Grants are awarded to students who agree to teach at an elementary school, secondary school, or educational service agency that serves students from low-income families for four years.
- Academics Competitiveness Grants are offered to students who are eligible for the Pell Grant and have completed a rigorous high school program.
- Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) help low-income college undergrads that need a lot of financial aid to pay for college.
- Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants are available for students whose parent or guardian died as a result of military service after September 11, 2001, in Iraq or Afghanistan.
- National SMART Grants are awarded to students who are eligible for the Pell Grant and are pursuing a major in one of the following areas:
- Computer Sciences
- Physical Sciences
- Life Sciences
- Non-Major Single Liberal Arts Program
- Foreign Language (Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Russian, other ‘critical’ language)
This is one of the main sources students rely on for funding their college education. An estimated $46 billion is awarded in scholarship money to students in the U.S. each year, so there’s lots of money to go around. Scholarships are great because you don’t have to pay them back, and they come in all kinds. Scholarships range from the more typical merit- and need-based awards to lottery-style awards. What many students don’t know (or forget) is that there is a scholarship out there for virtually every niche. There are athletic scholarships, scholarship competitions in various areas, scholarships for hobbies, scholarships for career interests, scholarships for various ethnic groups, scholarships for religious affiliation, and much more. While you don’t have to have a high GPA to qualify for scholarships, improving your grades will mean more opportunities for scholarships are available.
When you’re applying for scholarships, think carefully about all the different niches and groups you and your family are in. Consider the above and anything else that makes you special. Then, you can start with a simple Google search: “scholarships for (niche).” While big scholarships are enticing, keep in mind that there will be a lot of competition for them. You’ll have more luck if you apply for smaller and local scholarships. You can find some real gems in your local scholarships too. I won a full-ride (about $200,000) to Emory from a local scholarship. You can start at any age as there are even college scholarships and competitions available to students in elementary and middle school. If you do this regularly, you can pay off a lot of your college expenses and tuition. Below are more resources to get you started on your search.
- The Ultimate Scholarship Book
- Strive Academics Scholarships
Take AP Classes or Dual Enroll
Many students gravitate towards AP classes or Dual-Enrollment because they’re challenging classes that may look good on a college application. Don’t forget that one of the benefits of these programs is that you’re learning college-level material, and therefore can earn college credits if you do well. The avenues through which you get these credits is a bit different for each of these programs. With AP classes, your credit status depends on your AP test score, not your actual grade in the class. If you score well (usually a 3 or above, depending on the test and your school), you may earn credits as a result. Many schools will award credits for 3s, while some of the most competitive colleges may only award credits if you score a 4 or above. The number of credits you get from a given test will vary from school to school. Sometimes, a higher score will mean more credits from your institution. Usually, more competitive schools will award fewer credits for the same score. For example, I took the AP Latin Exam while in high school and earned a 5. At my alma mater, Emory University, I gained enough credits to exempt two courses, meaning I could skip the intro classes and start at the 200 level courses. Another school I was considering at that time, The University Of Georgia, currently states that my score would have given me credits up to their Latin 2002 class, essentially allowing me to skip the first two years of Latin and go straight into 3000 level courses (different schools will have different ways of numbering their classes – essentially, I would have skipped the beginner and intermediate courses).
Dual Enrollment is a little bit different in that you actually enroll in a local college while attending high school as well. The way this works is similar to attending a community college during your first years of college. When you dual enroll, you are actually enrolled in the college you are attending. As a result, you are directly getting college credits from that institution. These credits can be transferable as long as the college you plan to attend will accept those credits. Make sure to check with your college’s admissions department to see which courses will carry over and if you will need to retake any classes.
Consider Top Programs Instead of Top Colleges
If you’re able to get into a top school, that’s great, but just because a school isn’t in the top 10 doesn’t mean it doesn’t offer a lot of value. Top schools offer a lot of benefits besides the academics, such as access to its alumni network and connections with competitive employers, but solely in terms of academics, a school in the top x doesn’t guarantee that it’s the best for you.
Instead, you should think carefully about what major(s) interests you most and look for the schools that are best in that regard. For example, according to niche.com, the University of Georgia ranks #68 nationally, but if you want to study Criminal Justice, it ranks #6. 68th place is very good when you consider that the total number of colleges in the US is over 5000. You can still get a quality education from a state school if you change your mind, and it will cost you much less.
Another option for students is to start at a community college and transfer to another university later on. Think about it – when was the last time you heard someone talk about where they started college? Ultimately, you can still get an amazing education and the prestige of a larger university while saving money by taking your core courses at a 2-year college. Just make sure that your credits are transferable to the university of your choice and that you have a good understanding of the transfer requirements if you pursue this route.
Private loans should be a last-resort when it comes to funding your college education. Private loans may have higher interest rates than federal loans and your options for repayment are usually less flexible. If you work hard to exhaust all your other options – especially in finding and applying for multiple scholarships – you won’t have to rely on this option. When pursuing private loans, keep these things in mind.
Ask For More
Yes, it’s okay to ask for more. Colleges may be willing to increase your financial aid package depending on your situation. Especially in cases where a family has a change in income or there is a special circumstance, your college might be willing to reevaluate your need-based aid. In some circumstances, schools might even be willing to increase merit-based aid to get top students to enroll.
Explore The School’s Fee Structure
Some schools will have a flat-rate that allows you to take a certain number of credits without paying more. If your school has a fee structure like this, it means that you can save money by taking as many classes as possible during each semester. The downside is that taking on more courses means a heavier workload, and that can be stressful, especially for newer college students, but it can be a great way to get ahead and graduate early if you’re so inclined. Sometimes schools may put a cap on how many credit hours you may take per semester, but you can sometimes get permission to go over this limit depending on the situation.
You Can Get Scholarships While In College Too
Many people seem to forget this fact. While it is true that most of the scholarships out there are geared towards juniors and seniors in high school, you can get scholarships at any age. Whether you’re in elementary school or currently attending college, there are scholarships out there for you. You can use the same resources mentioned above to find scholarships, grants, and more.
Buy Used Books or Share/Don’t buy from the campus store
Compared to tuition and room/board, the amount you spend on books isn’t that great, but it can be a great area of opportunity for saving money. The average college student spends roughly $1000 per year on textbooks. Depending on your area of study, it may not be unusual to find textbooks in the $500-1000 range. Once you register for classes (sometimes before), you’ll have access to information on what books you need for the semester. Sometimes you can get this information beforehand by asking students who have taken the class or by talking to someone in the school bookstore. Your campus store usually won’t have the cheapest option.
Once you have that information, use a tool like Slugbooks to compare the price for that book across a variety of platforms. If you can, buy the book used. If there isn’t much of a difference in price, consider doing more research about the various editions of the book. Sometimes publishers will put out new editions of a book that don’t change much, so you can get by with an older version. If that doesn’t work, you might even consider sharing a book with a friend (especially if they have the class on different days) or seeing if the school library keeps a copy of the book. Doing this can lead to problems, though, as you may not have access to the book when you really need it. Keep in mind you can often find books fairly cheap for rent too. You don’t have to buy a book for every course you take, especially if you don’t plan on majoring in the subject.
Live Off Campus
Living off-campus can be a great way to save money. Room and board at colleges can run as much as (example), so living at home can help you shave a lot off of your student debt. You have a lot of options when going this route, so you need to decide what is worth it for you. Ideally, your school is nearby if you plan to commute, but you can still save a lot if you plan to need to drive a fair distance to get to the school. For example, let’s assume that your car gets an average of 24 mpg with a 12-gallon tank, and your commute is 45 miles Monday through Friday. The average college semester is about 15 weeks, meaning that you would be commuting roughly 30 weeks out of the year. With those numbers, you would be driving roughly 450 miles per week (Five 90-mile round trips), totaling 1,800 miles per month. That comes up to 13,500 miles over the college year. If your car gets 24 mpg, your 12-gallon tank would carry you 288 miles before you need to fill up. You would use roughly 565.5 gallons of gas over the course of the school year. Assuming gas averages $3.00/gallon throughout the school year, your total expense comes to $1,687.50. Considering that room and board for many schools hovers around $10,000+ for the year, you can save a lot of money. Even if you don’t commute and choose to rent an apartment near your campus, the cost can still be cheaper (especially if you have roommates).
Study Abroad programs are often pitched to American students as a fun part of the overall college experience that may help you gain perspective, but there are many other benefits to studying abroad. Among these benefits, students can get a quality education for less if they’re willing to study outside of the US. For example, Canada’s University of Toronto ranks as one of the top colleges in the world and it’s tuition ranges from $25,000-50,000 for international students, depending on your area of study. For reference, the tuition at the top US schools is nearing $60,000. Countries like Germany, France, Norway, Austria, and more also have very competitive schools where you can study for free (or almost free). Germany, in particular, is becoming a popular destination for American students because of its tuition-free policy.
The Federal Work Study Program offers college undergrads and graduate students to earn money to pay for education expenses. A wide variety of jobs may be available depending on your school and community. The program emphasizes employment in civic education and work related to your course of study whenever possible. You will usually end up working at your school, a private non-profit organization, or a public agency as a result. Jobs can be part-time or full-time. There are a lot of variables that are considered when determining work study availability and eligibility like when you apply, how much need you have, and how much funding your school has received for this purpose.
Internships and Co-op Programs
Internships and cooperative learning programs can be fairly similar, but the primary difference is that internships are typically supplemental to your education while co-op programs are treated as an integral part of your education. You can find internships of all types, both paid and unpaid and of varying durations, and they typically must be scheduled around your school schedule. A co-op program, if your school/major has one, is typically paid, lasts 3-12 months, and replaces your classes with full-time work. During a co-op, students will invest a lot of time, so they’re more likely to make a significant contribution to an organization, which can look good on a resume later on. Internships, on the other hand, can be much more flexible and manageable depending on your situation, but finding paid internships can be difficult. Either of these options, though, can be a great way to get experience relevant to the field of your interest while making money for school.
American Opportunity Tax Credit and other tax credits
The US government offers various incentives and tax breaks for students. Some of these include the American Opportunity Tax Credit, the Lifetime Learning Credit, and the Tuition and Fees Deduction. All of these work in different ways, and you should take a look at the IRS’s website and/or consult with your tax advisor for specifics on how these may apply to your situation. Some will reduce your taxable income while others will apply directly to your tax owed. If you are curious about whether you are eligible for any of these, the IRS has put together a handy tool to help you check your status.
Some programs may give you college money in exchange for a service commitment. A short list of programs that do this: AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, National Health Services Corps, and ROTC. There are many more out there if you look. Some of these programs will directly give you money after your service is complete, while others may offer benefits such as reducing your tuition or loans. Some, like the ROTC, may give you a living stipend. Each program has its own set of requirements, ranging from taking extra classes to performing service in the community. You can read more about each program and their requirements in the links provided.
Refinancing Loans and Pay Attention To The Interest
Sometimes, refinancing your student loans may be a smart option when trying to manage your payments. In general, it’s very important to pay attention to your interest rates and make sure that the payments you are making are applying to the principle of your loan instead of just servicing the interest. If you’re not paying attention to paying down the principle, you might end up in a nightmare situation like still owing more than your original loan after years. If you do decide that refinancing is the correct route for you, make sure to pay close attention to the repayment terms. For example, you may have federal loans and see that you can get a lower interest rate with a private loan. What you should consider, though, is that federal loans have much more flexible repayment terms. If you’re not sure about the stability of your career, you might find more value in the more flexible options than simply having lower interest.
More and more, employers are offering some sort of program where employees can get help with college tuition and expenses or help in paying off student loans. As with many benefits, this is more common among the larger employers, but your employer may have a program like this (or might be willing to start one). Examples include Starbucks’ College Plan, a partnership with Arizona State University that allows Starbucks employees to apply to ASU for free and get reimbursed through their paycheck once enrolled. Employees can qualify for this benefit after working for 3 months of 20+ hour shifts. Walmart also recently announced a new program where their employees can attend college for $1 per day. A short list of other employers that also offer educational benefits include:
- Ann Taylor
- Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield
- Bank of America
- Barnes and Noble
- Best Buy
- Capital One
- Discover Card
- Fiat Chrysler Automobiles
- Home Depot
- J.M. Smucker Co.
- John Deere
- Johnson & Johnson
- Lane Bryant
- Lockheed Martin
- Proctor and Gamble
- Southwest Airlines
- Wells Fargo
Government Student Loan Forgiveness
There are a few circumstances in which federal loans can be forgiven. Through the FFEL program, loans can be forgiven if your eligibility to receive the loan was falsely certified, outstanding circumstances led you to not meet state requirements for employment in the occupation in which you were being trained, or your school signed your name or discharged payment without your authorization.
You may have also heard of student loan forgiveness in exchange for public service. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) Program forgives the remaining balance on your Direct Loans after you have made 120 qualifying monthly payments under a qualifying repayment plan while working full-time for a qualifying employer. Qualifying employers include government organizations at any level and not-for-profit organizations. There are also many other programs available.
Found this helpful? Have more tips on how students can save money? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!