A college degree can give you a boost in today’s competitive job market. But with the ever-rising cost of tuition, most students are trying to figure out how to pay for college.
According to CollegeBoard, students at four-year public universities had an average leftover cost of $15,400 for the 2019-2020 academic year, after accounting for financial assistance in the form of grants and tax benefits. Worse, this figure only includes direct costs like tuition, fees, and room and board. It doesn’t account for other necessary expenses like books and sSupplies.
It’s no secret that higher education is expensive. So how can the average 24student pay for it?
Here are seven ways that can help you to pay for college and stay out of debt.
How to pay for college?
With some strategic planning and creativity, you can pursue your education goals without falling into a lifetime of debt.
1. Submit your FAFSA early
Start by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as soon as possible. The FAFSA can open doors that you may not otherwise have access to. You could qualify for:
- Federal grants. These grants don’t have to be repaid and are often need-based.
- Work-study. This federal program funds part-time on-campus or nearby employment opportunities to help students cover educational expenses.
- Federal student loans. Although classified as financial aid, student loans are not free money. You should carefully review and evaluate these offers before accepting them.
FAFSA deadlines vary across states and universities. Some financial aid is only available on a first-come, first-serve basis, so it’s best to file your application as soon as it becomes available. In recent years, FAFSA has opened for applications on October 1.
2. Apply for scholarships
One of the best ways to pay for college is to take advantage of scholarship opportunities. Scholarships are essentially free money that you don’t have to pay back.
There are a variety of ways to track down scholarships that suit your interests and experiences. These include:
- Checking with the financial aid office at both your potential college and your high school.
- Looking into local opportunities by contacting nearby community organizations and religious groups.
- Asking your parents. Their employers may offer sponsored scholarships for family members.
- Using online scholarship databases to search through thousands of opportunities.
Each scholarship has its requirements and deadlines. Resist the temptation of applying to as many random scholarships as you can find — you’ll get better results by taking the time to craft meaningful, tailored applications.
For example, consider applying for SuperMoney’s Financial Literacy Scholarship, which awards $2,500 a year to a student who wants to help Americans imrove their financial wellness through continued education.
Applying to scholarships requires some additional effort, but it pays off in the long-run if you can get a portion of your tuition paid for with no strings attached.
3. Consider a more affordable college
You may have your heart set on an expensive university, but you can find high-quality programs at plenty of other colleges. Where you get your degree isn’t nearly as important as completing your degree and staying out of debt. No matter how illustrious your degree is, it won’t get you far if you’re unable to pay off your loans. In any case, you may be surprised by which colleges provide the best return on investment.
Generally, public colleges are less expensive than private universities, though financial aid opportunities vary from one school to the next. When comparing colleges, focus on your total cost of attendance (accounting for any grants and scholarships you’ve secured). Consider knocking out your basic courses at a community college to save money, and then transferring to your desired university to finish your degree.
4. Tap into outside resources
Even if you want to pay for college yourself, look into any additional resources that can help foot the bill. Your parents may be willing to make a significant dent in the cost of your education. Further, other family members might want to pitch in for the cost of books each semester or to help you furnish your dorm. If someone is willing to help, let them! College is expensive, and every dollar will help reduce your long-term financial burden.
5. Ask your employer for tuition reimbursement
Many companies offer tuition reimbursement as part of their benefits package. If your employer offers this benefit, you’ll likely have to pay out-of-pocket for your courses and then get reimbursed for tuition expenses based on your academic performance.
Each employer sets its eligibility requirements and determines how much it reimburses workers. Speak with your human resources department to gain a full understanding of your company’s tuition reimbursement offering.
6. Pay as you go with a side gig
You can also try to pay for college the old-fashioned way: by funding it with your own income. Ask a financial counselor at your college if you can set up an installment payment plan for each semester to break up the cost over time. Then, pick up a side gig or a part-time job.
You can make money offline in many ways such as petsitting (through an app like Rover), babysitting, delivering food for UberEATS, and more. Additionally, you can make a significant income if you develop online skills like blogging, becoming a virtual assistant, or providing graphic design services for online businesses.
Want to browse top-rated side gigs, complete with unbiased reviews from people who’ve worked the job before? Check out the list below.
7. Turn to loans if necessary
Student loans should only be used as a last resort. They’re a useful tool for students who can’t otherwise afford tuition, but if you take on too much debt, you might find yourself unable to keep up with your payments for decades to come.
If you’re turning to student loans to cover some or all of your tuition, check out federal student loans before applying with private lenders. Why? Because unlike private student loans, federal student loans usually come with a low fixed interest rate. Some are even subsidized, meaning the government will cover your loan interest while you’re in school.
Once you’ve exhausted all other options, you may need to explore private loans to fill in any financial gaps. Be sure to shop around, as rates and terms vary greatly from one lender to the next. Look for a competitive interest rate, low-to-no fees, good customer service, and flexibility (just in case).
Also, it’s important to be aware of the risks and ramifications that come with private student loans. You won’t receive certain protections and benefits that come with federal loans, like loan forgiveness programs and income-driven repayment plans. And student loans can stick with you for decades after graduation. Before you commit, you should realistically appraise the salary of your intended career path and make sure that you’ll be able to afford your payments. A college degree is a massive expense — make sure that you’ll get some return on your investment.
Frequently asked questions about how to pay for college
How can I pay for college without my parents’ help?
Paying for college without your parents’ help is a challenge, especially if they have a high income. This is because financial aid is based on your household income, regardless of whether they help you pay for tuition costs. However, you can follow the steps detailed above to pay for college without their help.
Do most parents pay for college?
Parents pay 44% of their children’s college expenses. On average, students pay 27% of their college costs when you include income and savings (13%) and student borrowing (14%). About a third is paid from scholarships (source).
Are parents legally obligated to pay for college?
In general, parents are not legally obligated to pay for their child’s college expenses. There is an exception though. Parents who are divorced may be legally obligated to contribute toward college costs depending on the terms of their divorce settlement and their state of residency. However, there is always the expectation that parents will support their children. After all, financial aid eligibility is mostly based on the parents’ income.
At what age does financial aid stop using parents’ income?
Generally, you can file as an independent student if you are 24 years or older.
How do you go to college for free?
Community colleges are a great option if you live in an area that offers free community colleges. You can also join the military, which offers several free college options. There are some “work colleges” that allow you to work for your tuition fees. However, the best way to go for college for free is to get a full school scholarship from an elite university.
How much does an average student pay for college?
The average student pays about $24,000 a year (around $96,000 for four years) to go to college. Most households cannot afford to pay that with savings, which is why student loan balances are growing at an unprecedented rate. More than half of families (53%) needed loans to pay children’s undergraduate education and 66% applied for scholarships.
What companies will pay for college?
There are plenty of companies that help with college expenses. Read this article for a list of 55 companies that help pay their employees student loan debt.
How to pay for college and reduce debt
Pursuing your degree is both a commitment and an investment in your future. Although it can be expensive, there are many ways to pay for college. You’ll likely need to use a combination of the above strategies to make it happen.
Take advantage of federal- and state-funded financial assistance by submitting your FAFSA early, and apply for scholarships both locally and online. You can fund any remaining costs with supplementary income or, as a last resort, with student loans. Your goal should be to graduate with as little student debt as possible. This will give your the best chance of financial success in the future.
If you’ve exhausted all of the other options and need to find the best deal on a private student loan, compare industry-leading lenders below.
Jessica Walrack is a personal finance writer at SuperMoney, The Simple Dollar, Interest.com, Commonbond, Bankrate, NextAdvisor, Guardian, Personalloans.org and many others. She specializes in taking personal finance topics like loans, credit cards, and budgeting, and making them accessible and fun.