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Everything You Need to Know to Get Started With Paying for College

Everything You Need to Know to Get Started With Paying for College

With the rising cost of college tuition and increasing problem of student loan debt, you may have some anxiety about paying for college. But don’t let a school’s sticker price scare you away from getting higher education altogether! There are many colleges and universities that offer educational programs at a wide range of price points, and many forms of financial aid available to help cover the cost of a college education in whatever form it takes. Tuition, room and board, textbooks, and all other associated costs of college can be offset with grants and scholarships, or managed over the long term with student loans and careful planning. The tricky part is to find these resources, and then use them wisely.

So the question remains, how do you pay for college without going broke? We have many answers. Let’s take it one stage at a time.

Before You Apply

Applying for schools is a beast of its own, and we’ll let your counselors and your good personal judgment guide you vocationally, geographically, academically, etc., but while you’re doing so, start thinking about cost. Each college application can cost around $50 or $100, and they are a time investment as well. So while it makes sense to apply to many schools to improve your chances of getting in, don’t apply to so many that you spend a small fortune and spread yourself too thin. Choose enough to offer a range of options – academically and financially – because just as you want flexibility of choice in where you’re accepted, you also want options based on cost and financial aid awards.

Award Letters

Most colleges mail out their award letters in late spring – these will factor greatly into your decision of where to attend college. The award letter details the financial aid package a school can offer, and may include grants, scholarships, federal student loans or work-study opportunities. With the award letter in hand, you’ll have a better idea of how much money you (or your parents) will need to supplement.

Grants and Scholarships

Before you even start thinking about accepting award letters and taking out massive loans to pay for college, you should look into free sources of financial aid, namely grants and scholarships. Some grants are available from the department of education, and will make up a significant part of most students’ financial aid packages, but this doesn’t mean you should rest on your laurels and let the typical financial aid process dictate how you pay for college. In fact, searching for free money for college is one area where you can take the initiative, get creative, and go a little crazy.

What do we mean by “go a little crazy”? Well consider the following scholarships: American Fire Sprinkler Association Scholarship Program, Make Me Laugh Scholarship Contest, Flavor of the Month (based on, yes, you guessed it – ice cream), Zombie Apocalypse Scholarship, STARFLEET Academy Scholarship, the list goes on… and these are just a few of the many reasons different clubs and groups have found to dish out award money. The takeaway here is not that you need to do something truly bizarre to find money for school, but that chances are there is a scholarship out there that pertains to any of many talents or affinities you may have. Your job is to look for these opportunities. Scholarships may be “merit-based,” meaning they are awarded for achievement, or “need-based” meaning they are given to students who cannot otherwise afford to go to school. Since scholarships come in so many forms and from so many sources, you can get creative about searching for them and then put a little work into understanding the particular qualifications and requirements.

Student Loans, Applying for Aid (FAFSA), and Smart Borrowing

Unless you strike scholarship gold and cover the entire cost of college with free sources of aid, chances are you’ll have to rely on loans as well. Unlike grants and scholarships, student loans are not free – they must be paid back, and students are charged for borrowing them in the first place in the form of interest. Luckily, federal student loans are available through the Department of Education, and as the US government is not looking to make any profit off these loans, interest rates are kept to a minimum. Some students will find private loans to be more affordable, depending on their credit and circumstances, so it’s in your best interest (no pun intended) to research both options.

Back when you were filling out college applications, you were also likely required to complete separate applications for financial aid. To apply for federal student aid, the first thing you’ll need to do is fill out the FAFSA. (Really rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?) Get used to this word – FAFSA. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is required by nearly every institution of higher education, and you must update it every year. Many schools have additional financial aid applications as well (such as the College Board’s CSS PROFILE) so check with the financial aid office or website for each school to be sure you’ve satisfied all requirements.

Read the rest of the guide over at our Student Loan Center’s iGrad website. On top of this helpful guide, you’ll find videos, interactive modules, student loan help, calculators, live webinars, and more.

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