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.

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

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 going to 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.

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.

How do you get these scholarships?

The same way you get any other scholarship. You apply.

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.

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.

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.

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.

We mention work-study jobs because, like internships, they provide invaluable work experience while you are in college. So not only are you making money that you can put towards books, food, and tuition, but you’re getting work experience that will look great on a job application. It’s one thing to go to college these days, but it’s another to go to college and work simultaneously.

It’s not easy, but it will make it a lot easier to get a job as soon as you graduate. It doesn’t matter how unrelated the job is. Working, regardless of what the job is, shows that you are not only competent but have the drive to get up and go to work — qualities that employers look for no matter what job they’re hiring for!

Consider Federal Student Loans

Federal subsidized loans, as opposed to private student loans, are usually the better option if you need to take out a loan to pay for college. This is because they don’t accrue interest while you’re enrolled, and they give you a six-month grace period after graduation before they expect any payments from you.

Not only that, but if hard times hit, you have options to either lower your monthly payments or pause them until you get back on your feet through income-based repayment plans. And don’t forget about loan forgiveness! After so many years, all of your loans might be forgiven.

The thing you have to keep in mind with federal loans is never to take out more than you need, and if you can swing it, to not take out any more money than you would make your first year in the workforce.

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.

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.

Yes, it’s nice to buy a new and shiny book that you know no one else has tainted, but let’s get off that high horse and think about the long-term game plan: paying less for college.

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 book. 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.

Consider Starting at 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.

Lauren Ward
Meet the author

Lauren is a Crediful writer whose aim is to give readers the financial tools they need to reach their own goals in life. She has written on personal finance issues for over six years and holds a Bachelor's degree in Japanese from Georgetown University.