If you’re a current college student, you’ve likely had “the talk” with your parents: The talk about the high cost of attending college and what it might mean for your finances down the road.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 85 percent of first-time undergraduate students at four-year, degree-granting postsecondary institutions are awarded financial aid. So if you can’t pay the high cost of attending college out-of-pocket, you are not alone.
With college costs rising — Educationdata.org says the average total cost of attending a four-year college or university is now more than $120,000 — most students seek assistance to pay for their education.
Whether you are a first-year or a fourth-year student, if you are worried about paying for college, here are some things to consider.
Fill out the FAFSA every year.
Every student, regardless of their financial situation, should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Completing the FAFSA is the only way to get federal financial aid, including work-study programs. Even if you don’t qualify for need-based aid, sometimes schools require the FAFSA to be on file in order to award merit-based or other scholarships that aren’t based on financial need. It should take you less than an hour to fill out. According to NerdWallet, students should complete the FAFSA as close to Oct. 1 as possible, as some states distribute financial aid on a rolling basis. The FAFSA site lists deadlines for state-specific and federal awards for both the current school year and next school year.
Search for scholarships.
Unlike loans, scholarships don’t have to be paid back. Financial pros agree that the more scholarship or grant money you can get, the better. Search for scholarships before taking on loans. Where to look? Consider the following sources:
- The U.S. Department of Labor’s Scholarship Finder search tool
- Cappex’s scholarship search tool: They claim to be the nation’s largest scholarship database.
- College Board’s Scholarship Search function
- Your school’s financial aid office: A financial aid officer should be happy to talk with you about potential sources for funding your education. Take advantage of their expertise!
- JLV College Counseling: On the site, a former college admissions professional shares her insider scholarship knowledge with students and their families at no cost. The scholarship section of her site lets you view scholarships by application deadlines and interest areas, like military scholarships, scholarships by major, and religious scholarships.
- Your local community: What philanthropic organizations are in your hometown or state? Does your local Kiwanis or Lion’s Club, for example, offer scholarships? Do any local businesses award scholarships?
- Recent college graduates in your network: Ask alumni from your high school or college if they found any great sources to help fund their college education.
Consider applying for the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC).
Considering military service? Air Force, Army, and Naval (Navy and Marine Corps) ROTC scholarships are awarded to applicants on a competitive basis up to the full cost of tuition and fees, as well as other expenses. It’s certainly not “free money” — there are service obligations that come with accepting a ROTC scholarship — but it can be a great way to help pay for a college education while preparing to serve your country.
Consider opening a 529 savings plan.
Money in a 529 plan (named after Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code) grows federal tax-free and isn’t taxed when used to pay for college. More than 30 states also currently offer full or partial tax deductions or credits. Even if you can’t make large contributions to the plan, setting up a small percentage of a paycheck from a work-study or other job to go directly to a savings plan can help you chip away at paying for college. If you have relatives who like to give money on special occasions, consider asking them if they’d contribute to your 529 savings plan, instead. Savingforcollege.com has a great resource on 529 plans, including a 529 plan search tool.
Search for a work-study or other job.
My work-study job as a tour guide for my college admission’s office not only helped me pay for college — it was fun! I got paid to talk about the school that I loved (while walking backwards, of course). Official work-study jobs are part of many college’s financial aid packages. Not only do work-study jobs help finance your education, they also give you job experience and can help you form valuable connections. At my college, friends held work-study jobs everywhere from coffee shops to the campus police station. Ask upperclassmen for advice on what they consider the best work-study gigs. And, even if you don’t qualify for official work-study jobs, don’t let that stop you from seeking out a job on campus or in the community.
Work for yourself.
Take an inventory of your skills and consider how you might turn your talents and interests into a paying gig. Are you an English major with an eagle editing eye? Graphic designer who can create beautiful invitations? Math major with a knack for explaining algebra to befuddled high school freshmen? Working for yourself can afford valuable flexibility when you’re juggling your coursework, extracurriculars, and having some fun, too. Don’t be afraid to market your services to your network and ask them to share what you can offer with their networks.
While paying for college can seem overwhelming, remember: Most students and their families aren’t expected to foot the bill all on their own. There are scholarships, loans, and creative ways to reduce your out-of-pocket costs so you can feel confident investing in your future.