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How to pay for college
Explore free aid, student loans, employer-based programs and more.
The average cost of college reached an all-time high for the 2018-2019 academic year, according to a College Board study. In-state residents attending a public university paid an average of $25,890, while private school students were hit with a $52,500 price tag. Fortunately, you have multiple avenues to consider when it comes to funding your degree.
8 ways to pay for college
From grants and scholarships to private and federal student loans, you have a few different ways to pay for school.
Both the state and federal government, as well as many schools and private organizations offer grants to college students who show exceptional financial need. You don’t need to repay grants, which makes them a good option if you’re looking to avoid taking out student loans.
While you’ll need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to apply for federal grants, many schools also determine if you’re eligible for institutional grants by looking at your FAFSA or CSS Profile. You can learn more with our guide to grants for college.
Scholarships are another form of funding for college that don’t need to be repaid. While the federal government doesn’t offer scholarships, many states have scholarship programs for residents attending school in the state. You can also find scholarships through your school, as well as outside organizations.
Unlike grants, which are usually based on financial need, scholarships tend to be awarded based on academic achievement, talent or whether you’re a member of an underrepresented group. You can explore options specifically tailored to you with our A-to-Z list of college scholarships.
Like grants and scholarships, funding through a fellowship doesn’t need to be repaid. They’re typically provided by your school and open to students in a specific area of study.
This type of funding is usually reserved for graduate or doctoral students and comes with work or research commitments. Reach out to the head of your department to find out what fellowships are available to students in your major.
Similar to a fellowship, work-study involves working a job at your school or within the community. The difference is that it’s not tied to a specific area of study. Most work-study programs are supplemented by the federal government, though some states also fund these programs.
In either case, you’ll need to complete the FAFSA to find out if you qualify. Not all schools offer work-study programs, so reach out to your school’s financial aid office to find out if it’s an option.
How much you qualify for will depend on how soon you submit the FAFSA, your financial need and the school you’re attending. The average amount students received through the Federal Work-Study Program in 2016 was $2,469, according to a report by Sallie Mae.
5. Federal student loans
If you find you have to borrow, you might want to start with federal student loans first. Offered by the Department of Education, they tend to come with lower interest rates and more flexible repayment plans than private student loans.
You also might be able to qualify without a cosigner, depending on the type of loan you’re interested in. How much you’re eligible to borrow depends on your year in school and loan type. To apply, you’ll also need to fill out the FAFSA.
Learn more about the different options available with our guide to federal student loans.
6. Private student loans
If you maxed out your federal student loan options, you might want to turn to private lenders. They usually offer higher loan amounts than federal loans, though you’ll need to have good to excellent credit — or a creditworthy cosigner — to qualify for a competitive rate. Private student loans typically don’t have as flexible repayment options or deferment and forbearance programs, either.
You can learn more about how they work with our guide to private student loans.
7. Income share agreements
This unique alternative to student loans has been growing in popularity over the last few years. Offered by both schools and private companies, you essentially borrow money for college that you pay back with a percentage of your salary once you become employed after graduation.
Typically, borrowers pay back up to 10% of their income over five to 10 years. This might be ideal if you plan on entering a low-paying field immediately after graduating. You can compare options and learn more about how it all works with our guide to income share agreements.
8. Employer tuition assistance programs
More and more companies have started offering tuition assistance to employees, including the likes of Publix, UPS, Starbucks, Walmart and Chipolte. They’ll typically pay a certain amount per year toward your tuition and fees. Some come with a lifetime cap of how much they’re willing to cover, while others have no limit. Reach out to your employer’s HR department to find out if it offers any assistance programs to college students.
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How else can I save money on college?
Don’t stop at just trying to find ways to pay for college, also check out ways to save on your total bill.
- Look into institutional discounts. Some colleges partner with specific employers or organizations to offer discounts on tuition. Reach out to your financial aid counselor to see if there are any discounts you might qualify for.
- Go to a community college for the first two years. Community colleges are significantly less expensive than most universities. You can save thousands of dollars by attending a community college for two years before transferring to a four-year school. Just make sure all of your credits will transfer before making the switch.
- Attend a public university. Once you move to a four-year school, consider choosing a public university over a private one. On average, public schools are $25,000 less than their private counterparts.
- Claim a tax credit. You or your parents could be eligible to deduct up to $2,500 from your taxes each year with the American Opportunity Tax Credit. You can learn more with our article on student loan tax deductions.
If you’re stressed over how you’ll pay for school, start by looking into grants, scholarships, work-study programs and other options you don’t have to pay back. You can then use student loans to pick up the slack when your free aid falls short.
Compare your student loan options and learn more about how they work with our guide.
Frequently asked questions
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Finder Editorial Review Board Member: Kristin Burton, MPAS, PA-C, CAQ-HM
Certified physician assistant, money coach and keynote speaker on a mission to help others reach financial independence.
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