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4 steps to help you figure out if a college is within your budget
Is the cost of your dream school in your budget?
Knowing if you can afford a specific college depends on the school’s cost of attendance (COA) and the amount of aid you qualify for. By pitting your expenses against the amount you’ll potentially need to borrow, you’ll have a good idea of whether a program is feasible for you.
Step 1: Research the cost of attendance.
You can find the cost of attendance for most schools on its financial aid website. Choosing a public versus private college can significantly affect how much you pay. Here’s the average cost of attendance for different types of schools for the 2017–2018 academic year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics:
|Public two-year college||Public four-year college||Private four-year college|
|Tuition and fees||$3,304||$8,738||$34,600|
|Room and board||$6,483||$11,631||$14,864|
|Total cost of attendance||$9,787||$20,369||$49,464|
Step 2: Budget for extra expenses.
The cost of tuition will account for books, but it typically won’t factor in travel or lifestyle expenses. If you want to join a sorority or fraternity, study abroad or take part in extracurricular activities, you’ll need to have a budget that accounts for these extra expenses. To find out more about these costs — and the cost of other extracurricular activities — contact your school’s student resource center or financial aid office.
If you can get a job or a paid internship, you’ll offset some of your costs and improve your employment prospects after you graduate. Otherwise, you may want to factor these miscellaneous costs into how much you’ll need to borrow.
Step 3: Calculate how much you’ll need to borrow.
Unfortunately, you won’t know the full extent of your financial aid until after you apply to a school. However, you can estimate the amount you’ll need to borrow using a college’s net price calculator on its website, which subtracts any financial aid you plan on receiving from the school’s cost of attendance.
Types of financial aid you might qualify for include:
- Federal student aid. When you fill out the FAFSA, you’ll know all of the federal aid you qualify for — including grants and loans — and your expected family contribution. Estimate how much federal student aid you’ll receive with the FAFSA calculator on the Department of Education (DoE) website.
- Grants and scholarships. If you plan on receiving any grants or scholarships from your state, the school you’re attending or outside organizations, add these up as well. Keep in mind you might not find out what institutional aid you qualify for until after you fill out the college’s application and receive your financial aid award letter.
- College savings plan. If you or your parents have a savings account set up to pay for college, count these funds as well.
For example, suppose you receive $10,000 in scholarships and your school costs $25,000 a year. You’ll need to cover the remaining $15,000 with savings, income or student loans.
Step 4: Estimate how much you can afford to borrow.
Use a student loan repayment calculator to estimate potential monthly payments based on different loan amounts, but there’s a little more to it than that. To know what you can afford after you graduate, consider these three factors:
- Your job prospects. Not every major has the same employment rate. If you’re getting a degree in a competitive industry, you may not graduate with a job offer waiting for you. Consider a degree in a field that has a higher employment rate if you’re concerned about paying your loans once you finish school.
- Your potential salary. Just because you have good prospects for employment doesn’t mean you’ll earn enough to afford high monthly loan payments. Consider how much you stand to earn each year before you take out a large loan. To get started, check out the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ list of average salaries by industry.
- Your other debts. If you already have a mortgage or car loan — or plan to after leaving school — factor in these other repayments when planning your post-college budget.
What are my student loan options?
Once you know how much you can afford to borrow, you’ll want to compare your student loan options:
- Federal student loans. Your first choice should be Federal student loans when borrowing for college. They typically have more competitive rates and flexible repayment options — and the potential for forgiveness down the line. But there are limits to how much you can borrow depending on the loan type and your year in school.
- Private student loans. If you’ve exhausted your federal options, you’ll need to turn to private student loans. These typically have fewer repayment options and less opportunity for deferment or forbearance. And you might need to apply with a cosigner if you haven’t built up your credit history just yet.
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Use a school’s net price calculator to estimate the true cost of attendance after scholarships, grants and other financial aid. And looking at your potential job prospects and salary after graduation can help you avoid borrowing more than you can comfortably afford to pay back.
Learn more about how to pay for school with our guide to student loans.
Frequently asked questions
What happens if I don’t get enough financial aid?
If you feel like you may be eligible for more financial aid from your school, you could write a financial aid appeal letter to request additional funding. Otherwise, you might want to explore college scholarships you might qualify for to reduce the amount you need to take out in student loans.
How do I know if the college I’m attending is good?
Use the DoE’s College Scorecard to compare graduation rates and post-graduation salaries of schools around the country. This can help you determine if the program you plan on attending is really worth the money you’ll pay.
How else can I get money for college?
If you’ve exhausted your scholarship and grant options, you might want to consider taking AP and college-level courses as a high school student, crowdfunding or applying to schools that cover 100% of your financial need. Learn more with our page on ways to save on college expenses.
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