How to Pay for College the Smart Way

College tuition rises every year, and yet the guarantee that graduates will get a job immediately after graduation simply isn’t there. No matter what anyone tells you, it takes time to find employment.

students studying on campus

Regardless of how soon you are able to land a fantastic job, the grace period for federal student loans is only six months. That time can go by quickly if you’re looking for work and need money!

To minimize stress, you need to know how you will pay for college from the very beginning. Taking out a good loan is only one of many steps to getting financial aid.

9 Smart Strategies for Funding Your College Education

Whether you’re a parent or a debt-averse student, follow these tips on paying for college — the smart way.

1. Fill Out the FAFSA ASAP

FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is sometimes awarded to the first students to complete the form, depending on the school.

Through FAFSA, students are awarded grants, work-study jobs, loans, and state-based financial aid — all the things that make attending college possible.

Again, the sooner you complete the form, the better. This is the first step towards paying for college, so fill it out completely and as early as you can.

2. Apply for as Many Scholarships as Possible

Most high school students assume that scholarships are for the golden elite and that no scholarship committee would ever consider them a beneficiary. This simply isn’t the case. In fact, most scholarships have nothing to do with academic or athletic achievement and are attainable by regular, average students.

In the professional world, employers often weed out applicants by asking them to answer a few questions in their cover letter. Asking a few industry-specific questions scares away a vast majority of people who would apply — even those who know how to answer the questions. So instead of having thousands of applications to go through, employers only have a small handful.

In the end, only the most dedicated apply. This is true for most things in life. Many people don’t like to put in extra work, even if it is to their benefit.

The moral of the story?

Apply for as many scholarships as you can. You never know what will happen. You may be just the person they were looking for. And don’t think you have to wait until you are a senior to begin applying! You can apply for some much sooner.

See also: Best Scholarships for Medical Students

Scholarships and Grants for Adult Students Returning to College

3. Choose the Right School

Aside from going to a school that offers the major you want to pursue, the next thing you need to look into is which school is more cost-effective. Generally speaking, public colleges and universities are more affordable than private ones — often much more so.

Look at the cost per credit and compare that to graduation requirements for your chosen major. Then, figure out just how much it will cost to get your degree.

Next, look at housing and meal plan costs. Write down those costs.

college campus

Most importantly: are you required to live in a dorm for your first two years? If so, what is the price tag on that? Half, if not more, of most people’s student loan debt can come from room and board. Add up all of these costs and use them as a point of comparison. You can also Google each school’s net price calculator.

But, even when you have your schools listed from most expensive to most affordable, you’re not done. Next, you need to look into which school is most generous with its financial aid. For example, one school may have the lowest price tag, but it may not offer as much financial aid. So, theoretically, a $30K school could be more expensive than a $50K school if the $50K school offers more financial aid to students.

4. Jump on Grants

A recent study found that there are $2.9 billion of unclaimed federal grants each year. How does it happen? From students not completely filling out their FAFSA form. Fill out the entire FAFSA form, even if you think you won’t qualify. The time you spend doing so may be significantly dwarfed by the money given to you to pay for college.

Remember to renew each year that you are in school. This way, you get every cent you deserve.

When most students think about grants, they only think about Pell grants, but there are a few more out there. They vary state by state. Luckily, you don’t have to do too much digging if you go to the Department of Education’s website. Simply click on your state to see what is available to you.

5. Pick up a Work Study Job

When you submit your FAFSA form and hear back on what awards you are eligible for, you may see ‘work-study’ on the list. This doesn’t mean an automatic job, however. You still have to apply and, of course, work. Typically, these jobs are located on campus and should be relevant to your major. It’s an easy way to earn extra money towards your college expenses.

Work-study jobs are a great opportunity for college students to gain valuable work experience while earning money to cover expenses such as textbooks, food, and tuition. In addition to earning an income, participating in a work-study program allows you to gain experience that can be highly attractive to potential employers.

It can be challenging to manage the demands of college coursework while also working. However, the skills and experience you gain from a work-study job can be well worth the effort. It doesn’t matter how unrelated the job is.

Employers value employees who are competent and motivated, and holding a job, regardless of the type of work, demonstrates these qualities. It proves that you are able to perform tasks effectively and have the discipline and commitment to consistently show up for work. These are important traits that are sought after by employers across all industries.

6. Consider Federal Student Loans

When considering taking out a loan to pay for college, federal subsidized loans are generally a better choice than private student loans. One reason for this is that they do not accrue interest while you are enrolled in school. Additionally, after you graduate, you have a six-month grace period before you are required to begin making payments on the loan.

Furthermore, if you face financial difficulties, there are options available to help you manage your federal student loans. One option is to enroll in an income-based repayment plan, which allows you to lower your monthly payments or temporarily pause them until your financial situation improves. Another option to consider is student loan forgiveness, which may be available after a certain number of years.

This means that all of your loans could potentially be forgiven, providing some much-needed financial relief. It’s important to explore all of your options and choose the one that best fits your needs and circumstances.

Be mindful of how much you borrow when considering federal loans to pay for college. It’s generally advisable to only borrow what you need and to avoid taking out more than you expect to earn in your first year of employment.

Compared to private loans, direct federal subsidized loans are the way to go. Interest rates vary depending on the lender, but the perks involved with federal student loans can’t be ignored and are hard to beat.

7. Pay Less By Saving More

In addition to finding ways to pay for college, you can reduce your financial burden by saving on some of the necessities. While you can’t change the cost of college, you can minimize some of your expenses.

If you’ve already started college, you know that books can add up quickly each semester. Here are some tips for paying way less than just picking up everything at your school bookstore.

Option one: Get your books from the college library

Though it’s certainly not as easy as just going to the bookstore on the first day of class, this is by far the smartest way to get your books in college. The only problem with it is that it involves a fair amount of forethought and planning.

Once you sign up for classes and know what you are going to take, email the professor and ask them to send you the required reading. Most teachers will email you their syllabus. If they don’t write you back, one thing you can do is go to the bookstore.

college student in the library

College bookstores start stocking pretty early, and you should be able to find the shelf where the bookstore will stock the required reading for that class. Typically, the bookstore also labels what books it needs to put there. Write down everything you see, and then head on down to the library.

Reserve or check out what books the library has that you’ll need for your upcoming class. Don’t think that the library probably won’t have what you’ll need! This is a common misconception. Sadly, with the proliferation of computers on college campuses, far too many college students never even check out a book from their college library.

Most college libraries have a vast and diverse collection that they continuously update. Therefore, the odds that most, if not all of your required reading, is at the library are pretty high.

Option Two: Buy used and sell as soon as you can.

While it may be tempting to purchase new textbooks, minimizing college expenses may be a better long-term investment.

As soon as you know what books you will need for the semester, go online and find a used copy from websites like Amazon, eBay, Alibris, Thriftbooks, or AbeBooks. Look around, and you’ll likely be able to find the exact book you need for only a couple of bucks.

As soon as class is over, resell your textbooks. You might even be able to get back more than what you paid for or, at the very least, get back what you paid. If it’s reference material that you honestly think you’ll need, then keep it. Otherwise, just sell it.

As every college graduate will tell you, you may think you’re going to re-read certain books, but you won’t. So take the money and run — especially before the next edition is released.

8. Consider Starting at a Community College

Classes are a lot cheaper — you know that. But do you know how much? The cost of a class goes by how many credits it is, and your typical class usually gets you three credits closer to graduation (which is 120).

The average cost for one credit is $145, whereas the average cost for one credit at a public school (with in-state tuition) is $450. Go out of state, and you jump up to around $1,300. So, roughly speaking, going to a 4-year college costs three times as much as a community college.

But it’s apples and oranges because you can’t get a 4-year diploma at most community colleges.

How much will it save you?

Let’s do the math.

  • First two years of college at a community college: 60 credits at $145 per credit = $8,700
  • Last two years of college at a 4-year school: 60 credits at $450 = $27,000
  • Community college combined with a 4-year school: 60 credits at $145 and 60 credits at $450 = $35,700

All four years at a 4-year school: 120 credits at $450 per credit= $54,000

So if you got an associate’s degree and transferred to a 4-year school, you would pay approximately $35,700 to have a 4-year degree. That would save you about $18,300 compared to paying for all four years at that public school.

But don’t forget the money you would also save from not living in a dorm — about $10,000 a year. In the end, you would save around 40K by going to a community college first.

There’s no getting around the fact that college is expensive. But by planning ahead and exhausting all of your financial aid options, you can reduce the burden tremendously.

9. Check out Parent PLUS Loans

Parent PLUS Loans are a type of federal student loan that is available to the parents of dependent undergraduates. These loans are intended to help parents pay for their child’s education and can be used to cover the cost of tuition, fees, and other education-related expenses.

Parent PLUS Loans are issued by the federal government and are typically offered at a fixed interest rate. Parents are responsible for repaying the loan, and repayment typically begins within 60 days after the loan is fully disbursed. These loans may be a suitable option for parents who want to help their child pay for college but do not have the financial resources to cover the costs outright.

Lauren Ward
Meet the author

Lauren is a personal finance writer who strives to equip readers with the knowledge to achieve their financial objectives. She has over a decade of experience and a Bachelor's degree in Japanese from Georgetown University.