How to Pay for College in 9 Steps


The realities of paying for college expenses often overwhelms the initial thrill that comes with picking out the school you wish to attend. Instead of getting swallowed up by the big numbers, start breaking things down into a strategy to tackle your costs – then start saving today. The more preparation you do beforehand, the less likely it is that you or your family will have to contemplate selling off body parts.

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Why It’s Worth It

While life carries no guarantees, going to college increases your chances at future financial success by up to 50%, based on data from the Economic Policy Institute. You’re making an investment in your potential future career and the life you want your own family to have one day. Don’t let the costs intimidate you into giving up on your goals. Stay focused and start putting together a plan for tackling your college expenses.

We’ve come up with an action plan you can use as an outline. Use it as a guide for you and your loved ones to come up with options for payment. Make sure you research each choice before going down that path.

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Step 1: Fill out the FAFSA

Start by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Don’t worry about whether you think your family qualifies for any significant help. You may still be eligible for grants, work-study programs, aid from your school of choice, state-based educational funding, and low-interest loans.

You can gain an edge in qualifying for aid by filling out your FAFSA early. Many colleges award money to the earliest applicants. Delaying your submission until the last minute could leave you with a limited number of options for funding. Many families don’t realize that students can fill out their FAFSA during their junior year of high school.

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Step 2: Start Researching Scholarships

Scholarship hunting is also something that can be done before senior year. Have your parents or guardians check with any organizations or clubs they belong to for information on scholarships being offered. You can also check in with your school guidance counselor for information on grants or other aid for which you might be eligible.

The great thing about scholarships is that you’re not required to pay them back. That makes it worth the time and effort invested in research if you can score one or more to fund your college expenses. Filling out that FAFSA becomes doubly important since most scholarships make this a requirement.

Oddly enough, there are several “Celebrity” scholarship programs out there. Check out the Oprah Winfrey Scholarship which includes a $10,000 essay contest that is awarded to 50 students around the US.

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Step 3: Look at Affordability When it Comes to Your School

Most state schools offer a significant tuition break to students who are currently residents. You should also consider attending a two-year college before transferring to a major university to relieve the pressure on you and your parent’s wallet.

If you do decide to attend a four-year college, make sure that school has generous resources when it comes to providing aid. You can still save money if you’re attending a more expensive four-year college that covers most, if not all, of your expenses versus paying for everything at a lower-cost school.

Step #4: Test Out Where You Can

Some high schools allow you to use scores from tests taken in AP courses for college credit.  These exams can cost you quite a bit when it comes to your tuition expenses. Students should also see if their college of choice offers a College Level Examination Program (CLEP). It’s another way of using exams as a substitute for taking a college course. That’s less money you end up spending on tuition, books, and other course fees.

Step #5: Get a Head Start

Consider taking dual enrollment courses in high school. Many states allow students to claim both high school and college credit from courses that meet specific education guidelines. You get to take a college-level class without the costs that come with it.

Step #6: See if You Qualify for Grants

Billions of dollars in Pell Grant Funds go unclaimed each year. Don’t leave money on the table because you didn’t take the time to research items for which you might qualify. If you’ve submitted your FAFSA, you’ve got a chance at some free money for college.

Don’t limit yourself to Pell Grant funds. Many states provide their grants for residents. Try checking out the grant resources in your state for information on what it may offer.

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Step #7: Look Into Work-Study Programs

The federal government work-study program allows students to receive credit towards college expenses while working at a part-time job. Don’t assume you’ll get the money automatically just because you’re approved for work-study. It’s on you to research suitable employment opportunities that qualify for the program.

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Step #8: Tap Into Savings

You can start saving up for college expenses by working part-time or summer jobs while you’re still in high school. Your parents may also have money saved to cover the costs of your tuition and books or invested in a 529 plan which allowed them to start putting money away for college years before. Do not erode your savings to the point of causing harm to your finances. This is especially important during a recession.

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Step #9: Take Out a Loan

If you go the loan route, keep in mind that you don’t have to take all the money offered to you. Remember, loans must be paid back at some point, whether you take out a federal student loan or one from a private lender. Check out the interest rates on the loans you’re taking out. Private loans tend to charge a higher rate than those offered by the government.

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Have a Clear Goal in Mind

Focusing on why you’re making an effort to attend college should help you navigate all the available choices. Some degree programs require more schooling, meaning more expenses you’ll have to cover. You need to establish both your long term and short term planning goals, the more you document these goals and comment them to heart the higher probability you will have in achieving these goals.

Don’t stop researching once you’ve set yourself up in a dorm room. Continue looking for available funds each year that could provide further relief from the burden of financing your education.

To new parents, we recommend starting to save for college expenses as soon as you can. Remember, small amounts of consistent savings add up in the future.

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  1. No interest as I spent about 47 years in college, obtained my PhD, published over 150 articles, retired, started my own business,, Concept Keys, Inc. and have helped a few teachers, trainers, and leaders to minimize the misunderstandings people seem to maximize to their benefit in thousands of sub market areas! Now i’m Looking for folks who know what I don’t and want to maximize the benefits.


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