Ideally we would all be able to pay for college from designated savings we or our families set aside for us or from money we were able to save while working. However, with the cost of university in the United States as high as it is, most people need some alternate forms to help pay for it.
When considering how to pay for college, make sure you factor in books, housing, transportation, food, and other living costs, like a daily afternoon coffee at the school’s coffee shop or a movie with friends over the weekend, on top of the tuition listed. Below are some of the common ways to help make college happen financially. At the outset of the process, it is advisable to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is necessary for obtaining any financial aid for school, and the earlier the better as some forms of aid are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, like Work-Study.
Work-Study & Part-Time Jobs
Work-Study provides part-time jobs for students through the Federal Work-Study Program. It is available for part-time, full-time, undergraduate, and graduate students and the jobs typically are community service-oriented or applicable to a student’s field of study. You are awarded a set amount, and your number of worked hours cannot exceed that amount.
Of course, if you are not awarded Work-Study funds, you can always pick up a part-time job, on or off-campus. If your job pertains to your area of study, great! But if not, even a little extra each month can help defray your cost of living, if not help with tuition itself.
Scholarships and Grants
There is a plethora of scholarships out there, some awarded by your college of choice, others from companies, foundations, organizations, or communities. It’s hard to know which ones are worth investing your time in applying for. When you are doing your research, make sure to consider who is awarding the scholarship and what is required to be awarded, such as demonstrable financial need, GPA, familial heritage, parent’s work history, or your intended major. Scholarships are generally merit-based, needs-based, or some combination of the two.
A 529 plan, of which there are pre-paid tuition and college saving plans, are investment accounts where you choose a diverse set of funds to invest in. Most states have at least one 529 college plan and there are federal tax benefits if you choose to invest in one. The longer you invest, the better your return, so it is best to open these accounts when children are young.
Pre-paid plans put your money into an interest-bearing account and allow you to invest in future tuition at a school’s current tuition rate. This is the only type of 529 that can be sponsored by an educational institution and are generally only valid for students planning to stay in-state.
The college saving plan allows you invest your money into a fund but that money can be used for any school, regardless of whether it is in-state or not, but you are not able to lock in the tuition rate, like with the pre-paid plan.
With both plans, you are not taxed upon withdrawal of the funds.
Financial Aid from Schools
You can get financial aid from most schools these days, though private schools tend to offer far more than public universities. There are even a few schools that claim to meet 100 percent of financial need. These schools are essentially covering the gap between the full cost of attendance and what a family is able to afford, but providing through a combination of loans, scholarships, grants, and work-study funds.
If you are awarded financial aid from your school, make sure you call your financial aid counselor and ask if there is more aid available. Most schools will award aid for students who decide not to enroll. That money can then go to students like you, but you need to make the call. Even if the answer is no, it never hurts to ask.
If you have to take out loans, exhaust federal loan options first. These are Stafford and Perkins loans, and they are cheaper and more flexible with repayment than private loans. Take only as much as you need. It may be tempting to take more to help cover unexpected expenses that can come up, but remember, you’ll have to pay it all back, plus interest, later. Make sure you understand when you will need to start repaying your loans and how much those payments are so you are prepared when repayment kicks in. Most loans have a six-month deferment post-graduation.