How to pay for college is a question on many parents' and students' minds. With costs rising at well above the national rate of inflation, many are looking for solutions.
Suppose you're a student about to enter college (or a parent of a soon-to-be college student). In that case, you already know that post-secondary education is pricey and have likely asked yourself this question many times. A study by Education Data found that the average cost of college in the United States in 2021 was $35,720 per student per year. That's a lot of money!
Sometimes it can be overwhelming thinking about college just because the costs are so high. “How in the world am I ever going to afford this? Will I need to go into debt? Is there any way for me to pay for college?” This post will try to answer some of these questions for you and alleviate some of your worries.
We'll run through 7 different tips that could help make college costs easier for you to handle. Ready to learn how to pay for college? Let's dive right in.
Table of Contents
How To Pay for College
Each of these tips/methods alone is a powerful way for you to handle some of your college costs. When implemented together, though, you'll likely find that paying for college is easier than you expected!
Grants From the Government
Many states offer grants (that you don't need to pay back) that you can take advantage of today. These grants can go a long way towards helping you with your college costs. If you DON'T complete an application for a grant, you're likely to leave behind thousands of dollars on the table (according to a study done by Sallie Mae).
The first step to applying for a grant is filling out a FAFSA form. As soon as you do this, various state and institutional scholarships and the federal Pell Grant (a type of financial aid from the government that you don't need to repay) will become available to you.
Then, if you're still struggling with costs, consider applying to state-level grants. Each state is different, but there are usually many programs benefitting many groups of people. You can learn about the grants in your region by heading over to the Department of Education website and taking a look.
Financial Aid From the School
Many schools across the US offer need-based financial aid, meaning they will help you cover the portion of your tuition and college costs that you can't afford.
Financial aid differs from a scholarship in that a scholarship is typically merit-based. This means that you need to “earn” your scholarship by being excellent in your academics, extracurriculars, or some combination of the two. With need-based financial aid, you don't need to worry about this.
Before accepting any offer to a college, always check with their financial office whether or not you're eligible for financial aid. Be sure to research the terms in detail and take advantage of “free” money!
No “how to pay for college” post is complete without mention of scholarships! A scholarship is a grant or payment made to a student to support their education, awarded based on academic or extracurricular achievement, and (if used right) can go a long way towards helping you pay for college.
Now, you might be wincing right now, thinking, “I'm not an athlete or super successful musician, and I don't have too many other talents… I don't want to have to do a bunch of extra work and extracurriculars just for the chance that I can get some extra money!” A lot of scholarships do indeed go towards athletes and other “accomplished” individuals. Still, you might be surprised to learn that you can get scholarships doing pretty simple tasks.
For example, the Evans Scholars Foundation provides full-ride scholarships to plenty of students across the nation every year. How can you be eligible? Become a golf caddie for two years! That's something that almost anyone can do.
Don't know where to start looking for scholarships? Not to worry, as the College Board itself has a great scholarship search tool offering over 2,200 programs that you can take advantage of. You're sure to find something that can benefit you!
If you aren't eligible for any financial aid and can't access any grants, you can still get help paying for college through student loans. When considering student loans, always prioritize federal loans over private ones. This is because with federal student loans, you don't need to worry about getting your credit score checked or getting a cosigner, plus the government will usually offer reasonable repayment options that won't break your bank.
Of course, if you can't get any federal student loans and still have a gap in your college funding, private loans are not a bad option at all. Most student loans come with such low-interest rates that when you factor in inflation and the time value of money, you're actually “making” money off your loan. The one thing with private loans is that you'll need to meet the creditor's requirements, and you might also need to get a cosigner.
Cut Costs in College
When it comes to paying for college, people often focus on how much more money you can MAKE to cover your costs and fail to remember that the other side of the equation is equally important. If you look hard enough, there are usually plenty of opportunities to save money during college. Some of these might include:
- Living off-campus – A considerable part of the costs of college often comes from room and board. If you can find a way to live off-campus (or perhaps live at home), you'll likely save over $10,000 per year.
- Making food in your dorm/at home – Another significant expense in college is food. Eating out just twice a week could cost you over $1000 throughout the school year. Instead, opt to meal prep and make your food at home (or in your dorm), and you could save tons of money.
- Choosing to bike or take public transportation instead of driving – Gas and car payments are huge expenses not just in the lives of college students but in the lives of working people. If you can, try to replace driving with bussing or biking to classes. This will almost eliminate the costs of transportation in college.
- Renting textbooks or getting them for free online instead of buying them – Instead of purchasing the hard copies of textbooks every semester (and then never using them again after the course finishes), visit some free textbook websites and get them at no cost or rent textbooks at a much lower cost.
By using these tips and cutting costs in college, you are making paying for it that much easier.
Choose An Affordable School
Sometimes, the right move (financially and learning-wise) is to choose a public university and skip the private, more expensive option. Nowadays, many private universities don't provide that much greater advantage to you than public universities.
Make sure to consider fully all your options before deciding on what you want to do for college. Community colleges, which are typically two years, give you flexible classes and plenty of transfer agreements. There are trade schools, which teach you a skill that you'll be able to bring into the workforce immediately. And there are four-year state schools where you'll likely get just as good of an education as a four-year private school.
Work During College
Maybe you've tried all of the above and realize that there's still a portion of your college costs that you can't cover. If so, it's time to consider working during college.
Contrary to popular belief, as a student, there are many ways that you can make money for yourself. Some of these include:
- Working on a golf course tending to members' golf bags and golf clubs or being a caddie.
- Selling photos of yourself online via stock image services.
- Becoming a tutor in a subject that you're interested in.
- Working for a local coffee shop as a barista.
- Becoming a waiter/waitress at a restaurant near your college.
- Sell clothes on online platforms like Poshmark or Thredup.
- Make crafts in your spare time and sell them on Etsy or other similar websites.
By working part-time during college, you'll manage to have a steady stream of income that you can use to pay for your costs or put towards your tuition!
Recap: How To Pay for College
The extremely high costs of post-secondary education can sometimes leave you wondering, “How am I going to pay for college?”
This post has covered seven tips that will hopefully help you answer that question. As a quick recap, they are:
- Look for grants from the government
- See if your school offers financial aid
- Apply for scholarships
- Consider taking out a student loan
- Cut your costs while in college
- Choose an affordable school
- Work part-time during college
By using a few of these, you'll find that you can afford college quite easily. So get out there and start applying these tips: education is too important for money to be a stopping factor for you.
This post originally appeared on Wealth of Geeks.
Jeff is a Harvard 2025 student who is passionate about learning, living, and sharing all things personal finance-related. He has experience working in the financial industry and enjoys the pursuit of financial freedom. Outside of blogging, he loves to cook, read, and golf in his spare time.