How to Pay for College
| TBS Staff
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According to the US Department of Education College Affordability and Transparency Center, 4-year public colleges and universities increased tuition by an average of 5.8% between the 2012–2015 and 2016–2017 school years with rates increasing as much as 94%. The US Department of Education states that college and postsecondary credentials are more important, but also more expensive than ever before. As college becomes more and more expensive in many ways, how can you make college more affordable? This article outlines a variety of actionable steps that can help you secure a more affordable college degree and experience.
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How can I make college more affordable?
We offer this array of 20 tips and resources to help you make college more affordable. For more, check out our College Affordability Guide.
1. Know Your Options
Deciding to pursue a college degree is a big step. Within that large decision are a plethora of smaller options and choices. Knowing your options is key to making college more affordable. Before you decide on a school, consider each of these options. Follow these tips to find the most affordable universities and colleges and create a college experience that fits you and your budget.
2. Fill out your FAFSA
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is an application for financial aid for college, career school, and graduate school. It is completely free to fill out the FAFSA and doing so gives you access to the largest pool of financial aid available to cover college expenses. Federal aid can be used for tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, transportation, and other related costs including a computer or the cost of childcare. The US Department of Education awards more than $120 billion each year in grants, work-study funds, and loans.
You can learn more about the types of federal student aid made available to those who fill out the FAFSA here. As a college student, you will fill out the FAFSA each year. An additional note on the FAFSA: the US Department of Education offers free support in filling out the form. Several websites and companies offer to help you fill out the form for a fee, and will usually charge you to file the form each year. Avoid scam sites and be sure to fill out the FAFSA at the official FAFSA.gov website.
3. Stay In-State
If you are looking at public colleges and universities, going to a school in your state of residence is often a more affordable option, even for online colleges. For example, full-time, in-state tuition at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill [PDF] for the 2018–2019 school year is $3,509.50 for in-state students and $16,601 for out-of-state students, making out-of-state tuition more than four times the cost of in-state tuition.
Be sure to note the differences in tuition rates at the colleges and universities you are considering, and realize that staying close to home is often the most affordable option. However, some states and some schools offer programs that defray the high costs of out-of-state tuition.
Several regions offer reciprocity agreements, providing reduced tuition to students who live in a certain area:
- Academic Common Market (ACM)
- Midwest Student Exchange Program (MSEP)
- New England Regional Exchange Program (RSP)
- Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE)
As you search for affordable schools, be aware of the often large discrepancy between in-state and out-of-state tuition, but also take time to research programs that may help you offset the costs of out-of-state tuition.
4. Consider Public and Private Universities
In general, public colleges and universities are more affordable than private institutions. In a report on trends in college pricing [PDF], College Board found that annual tuition and fees for the 2017–2018 school year averaged $9,970 for an in-state student at a public, 4-year school, and $34,740 for a student at a private, 4-year school. However, many private schools offer generous scholarships that make the cost of tuition much more affordable. If you are interested in attending a private college or university, reach out to their admissions or financial aid department and inquire about scholarships.
5. Start at a Community College
Another choice when it comes to the type of school you will attend is considering both 2-year and 4-year degrees and schools. Community and junior colleges are a very affordable option that is sometimes overlooked. You can earn an associate degree and then go on to earn your bachelor’s, or you can get several semester’s worth of college credit at a 2-year college and then transfer to a 4-year institution when you’re ready. In the College Board report on trends in college pricing [PDF], the average annual tuition for the 2017–2018 school year at a 2-year, public school was $3,570, in contrast to $9,970 for annual tuition at a 4-year, public school.
If you are looking at 2-year college options, ask about transfer programs. Many community and junior colleges work with local 4-year colleges and universities to create programs that help students smoothly transfer in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree. In the end, your diploma will show the name of the school you graduated from, so if you earned several credits from a community or junior college, you needn’t worry about the prestige of your degree; all you’ll have to show for it is the money you saved by choosing the more affordable option.
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6. Consider a Gap Year
More and more students are choosing not to attend college immediately after high school, often taking one (or more) gap years to work, travel, or take a break from study. A gap year can be an excellent option, allowing you to gain work experience, figure out what you want to study in college, or save money for future tuition. If done this way, a gap year can help make your future college degree more affordable. However, it’s important to remember that your gap year is what you make of it. If you choose to spend it on an international vacation or watching Netflix, it is unlikely to have a positive impact on your college experience and goals.
In addition to working in order to gain job experience and build up savings, taking part-time college classes, either in-person or online can be a great way to keep your study skills strong and pick up some college credit during your gap year. In an article about gap years, Peter Kriel, General Manager at The Independent Institute of Education in South Africa, offers the following advice: “For those who have legitimate reasons for not going straight into further studies, our advice is definitely to ensure that you don’t lose sight of the long game, and that you keep learning even if you are already earning.” If you keep your long-term goals in mind, taking a gap year can be a great way to make college more affordable.
If you move out of your home and work for two years, you may be declared independent, meaning your parents’ income is no longer a factor, which is turn means you could qualify for more financial aid and substantially reduce the amount you pay for tuition.
7. Take Advantage of Support and Resources
College is expensive. However, there are many supports, programs, and resources in place to increase college affordability. It’s important to know about these available funds and programs, and then it’s equally important to take action. Learn what is out there, and then apply, apply, apply. Even if you don’t receive every scholarship, grant, or fellowship that you apply for, the application experience is valuable, and the more often you apply, the more likely you are to receive support that makes your college degree more affordable.
8. Improve your SAT and ACT Scores
Standardized tests are difficult and can often feel pointless. However, if you realize that your SAT or ACT score can earn you hefty college scholarships, the pain of test-taking might ease a little bit. Many schools offer guaranteed scholarships for certain SAT and ACT scores. Search online or reach out to the financial aid department to learn what the requirements are for test score-based scholarships at the schools you are interested in. Some schools offer full scholarships for certain standardized test scores, while other schools offer partial scholarships for your SAT and ACT scores.
If you are looking for help preparing for either of these college entrance exams, check out our test prep resources.
9. Contact Admissions Departments
It might feel intimidating to reach out to a college or university in the midst of applying to said college or university, and perhaps even more intimidating to reach out before you’ve applied. However, connecting with a college admissions officer can be helpful as you research schools, apply, and make your decision about where to attend college. That being said, it’s important not to be inconsiderate or entitled in your interactions with admissions department faculty at your schools of interest. Remember, you are not the only person applying to that college or university—far from it!
Check out the school’s website to see what information the admissions department has made available to prospective students. Carefully read and write the emails you exchange with universities, doing your best to establish clear, respectful communication. Whether you just browse an admissions department’s website for more information on scholarships, reach out to an admissions officer with a question about your application, or befriend an admissions counselor at a college fair, don’t underestimate the benefits of going directly to the source for information about college admissions at a particular school.
10. Apply for Scholarships and Grants
Though many scholarships and grants are very competitive, these awards are seemingly everywhere, available for anything and everything. There are several key places to look for scholarship and grants and several things to consider before you apply. Visit our scholarships directory page for some helpful direction. We also devoted an entire chapter of our “Savvy Student’s Guide to College Education” to Researching Scholarship Opportunities.
11. But Before You Do . . . Know Yourself
Before you begin applying for tons of scholarships, it is beneficial to ask yourself: who am I? No, really. Knowing who you are, what matters to you, and what you have to offer will help you know where to look for scholarships and give you plenty of authentic material for scholarship answers and essays.
Most scholarships and grants are either merit-based or need-based. Merit-based scholarships are financial awards given to students who show excellence in some category. Need-based scholarships are financial awards offered to students who demonstrate needs that might prevent them from attending or succeeding at college. Spend some time reflecting on yourself, your merits, and your needs, and apply for scholarships and grants based on what you realize.
12. And Know the Awards
Searching for scholarships and grants can be overwhelming. Here are a few key places to look.
- Colleges and universities. Check to see if the schools you are applying to offer any scholarships or grants. Many schools offer a variety of freshman scholarships that may be need-based or merit-based.
- Schools and departments. In addition to school-wide grants and scholarships, many schools and departments offer specific scholarships. Though they may not be available to freshman, it’s worth checking to see if the school or department (i.e. College of Business, English Department, School of Engineering) that houses your major offers any scholarships.
- Places you’re already connected. Think about places that you or your parents are already involved or connected, and check to see if they have any available scholarships. Places to look include your or your parents’ employers, religious organizations, community organizations, civic groups, and local businesses and foundations.
- Identity-specific groups and organizations. Are you a member of a particular racial or ethnic group? A member of the LGBTQIA+ community? A really tall person? An underwater photographer? There are scholarships for each of those things. Some of these scholarships are designed to offset systemic discrimination against marginalized groups and create equity in the educational system, while others verge on goofy and work to create camaraderie within a specific group.
- Scholarship search engines. There are a plethora of scholarship search tools available. The US Department of Labor offers a search tool. College Board, the organization that administers the SAT also has a scholarship search engine. Scholly, a website and mobile app, was created by Christopher Gray who earned $1.3 million in scholarship money and wants to help others do the same. Other popular search engines include Scholarships.com, Cappex, and Chegg.
13. Learn About Student Loans
If you are looking at applying to and attending college, it’s likely you’ve heard of, or even considered, college loans. We encourage taking out educational loans only after careful consideration and research, so that if you decide to carry student loan debt, you can be sure you know what you’re getting in to. In short, there are two main types of student loans: federal loans and private loans. Be sure to know the terms of your loan so that you know how much you’re taking out, how much time you have to repay, when you have to start repaying, how much interest you’ll pay, and more. To learn more about student loans, take a look at our articles: Benefits and Pitfalls of Student Loans and Applying for Student Loans: Everything You Need to Know and Do.
14. Wait . . . And Then Make Conscious Decisions
Once you’ve done your research, submitted your college applications, FAFSA, and scholarship applications, you’ll probably have to spend some time waiting. And then, at some point, it’s time to make several big decisions. It’s important to make these decisions thoughtfully, being as sure as you can be that these are smart decisions that will move you towards your goals. As you make the big decisions about where to attend college and how to pay for it, keep the following in mind.
15. Know Your Budget
It’s important to know what money you have available to you to pay for college. Best case scenario, you’ll get a full ride and not spend a dime on college. But if you have to spend some of your (or your parents’) money on college, what can you afford? Setting up a budget can be a helpful tool in planning an affordable college experience. As you do this, keep in mind that it doesn’t matter what you want to spend, what you feel you should spend, what your friends are spending, but what you can spend. Bottom line: what can you afford to spend out of pocket on your education? The answer varies greatly from person to person, but it’s important to be realistic about your budget. As you get to know your budget, don’t forget to consider other costs of college, like housing, food, books, and other supplies.
16. Know Your Totals
Your budget is what you can control, what you’re able to spend on college. In addition to knowing this number, it’s also important to know what your totals will be at the schools you’re considering. You won’t be able to calculate this number immediately, but eventually, considering federal grants available because you filled out FAFSA, any scholarships you were awarded, and any loans you are going to take out, how much will you pay each semester, both to the school and on other important things, like food, technology, and books? Once accepted to a school, you can ask them for this information. It’s exciting to see that you’ve been accepted to your dream school or won a $10,000 scholarship, but it’s crucial to know the bottom line. Is that scholarship divided into installments? Do you have to maintain a certain GPA to get it? How much are the total tuition and fees? Knowing what your college experience will really, truly cost each semester is key to planning and maintaining an affordable college career.
17. Be Yourself
Knowing and being yourself is important in several ways when it comes to college affordability. First of all, you up your chances of receiving college admittance and scholarships when you are open and honest and who you are, what you want to do, what you’ve been through, and what inspires you. Fudging facts on an application essay or feigning interest in a major that you secretly hate will not work in your favor in the long run. Secondly, it’s important to think about what YOU want from your college experience and to make decisions that align with your wants, needs, and goals. If you become distracted by your best friend’s college plan or your uncle’s pressure for you to attend his beloved alma mater, your ability to make financial decisions that get you closer to your goals may be compromised. Making college affordable might require some compromise of you, but be sure that the decisions you’re making lead towards the path you’re most interested in.
18. Speak Up
The college application process is tough. It requires a lot of focus, work, and dedication. It might be the first time you’ve had to learn your social security number, the first time you’ve been required to send professional emails, or the first personal essay you’ve written. This is a great time to learn to speak up for yourself, to ask questions and to advocate for yourself. Speaking up and taking the lead on college applications and scholarship searching can make a positive, lasting impression on admissions officers and scholarship committees when you’re surrounded by people who are disinterested while their parents and guardians ask all of the questions. Parents, you can help with this process (and greatly!) but you cannot do this for your children. Students, this is up to you. This is your college career, and you have the opportunity to create a more affordable college experience for yourself.
19. . . . And Listen
Of equal importance, once you’ve spoken, listen. Ask questions, and then take time to understand the answers you’re given. Ask for advice, and then take that advice to heart and put it into action. Be sure that you’re listening to trusted sources and following trustworthy advice. Remember your uncle who so desperately wants you to attend his alma mater? He might know all about the school’s football team, but does he know what their admissions requirements are? Many people are eager to offer advice about college, so be careful who you listen to. And once you’ve decided who to listen to, be sure to actually understand the information and opinions they’ve shared with you.
20. Stay Focused and Determined
The college application process alone is monumental and often daunting. And you still have (at least) four years of school ahead of you! It’s important to stay focused and determined as you pursue an affordable college degree. If you follow the steps outlined in this guide, you are likely to make your college experience more affordable, but realize that this doesn’t happen overnight. Continue working towards your dreams and goals, and work to cultivate the grit that allows you to continue even when things aren’t going your way.
There you have it: an array of tips and resources to help you make college more affordable. If you want to learn more about this topic, check out our feature article — The Student Aid Financial Source — which outlines everything you need to know about how to pay for your college education. If you’re looking for a college or university, check out our extensive school rankings. You can search by degree level, major, state, and more.
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