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10 Ways to Make Paying for College More Affordable

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This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

Having a college degree opens up opportunities galore when it comes time to enter the working world. But the price of a college education is significant, and many people feel priced out of their own futures by the hefty price tag associated with higher education. 

Just how expensive is college? On average, a student living on-campus attending a four-year public university will see a price tag of $25,707 per year, totaling $102,828 for their entire four-year journey.

That number only increases if you’re attending an out-of-state college, reaching more than $176,000. For anyone wanting to attend a private nonprofit university, you’re looking at over $218,000 over four years. 

If you’re seeing this price and feeling your head spin, you’re not alone. Plenty of hopeful students feel the crushing weight of this hefty financial obligation pressing down on their dreams for a better tomorrow.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are financial aid options designed to help middle-to-lower-class families afford college, as well as other strategic steps you can take to even the playing field. 

In this article, we’re counting down several ways you can make the college experience more accessible financially. If you want to discover how your dreams of higher education can come true, then read on. 

Understand financial aid options

Financial aid is the first and most obvious method of making college more affordable. Qualifying individuals will be able to get assistance, either from the federal or state governments, or from the school they’re attending.  

Financial aid is crucial in making college more accessible, but it can also be complex and challenging to navigate. To help students and families better understand their options, many institutions may use some kind of data visualization tool to present financial aid information in a more user-friendly way. By seeing how different aid packages stack up, students can make more informed decisions about their college choices and avoid taking on excessive debt.

The US Department of Education estimates that 40% of students who come from families that bring in under $125,000 per year will qualify for enough financial aid to cover the full cost of their tuition to a public university. That makes financial aid the best and most direct way to make college more affordable. 

Below, we’ve highlighted several ways you can help the financial aid process along, laying out several options to help you better understand what’s available. 

Apply early

The thing about financial aid is that it involves a ton of paperwork. Add to that the unclear deadlines often surrounding federal student aid, and you might find opportunities slipping through the cracks. 

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is an excellent opportunity for lower-income families to qualify for financial aid. It awards over $150 billion to students to use for higher education. Because of this, there are always a lot of applicants. 

You can improve your chances of qualifying for FAFSA by applying early. The FAFSA application is notoriously long and complicated, but the US Department of Education has made several adjustments to the process, eliminating 22 questions to make it more streamlined. 

FAFSA applications open every year on October 1 for the following school year. Applying right away could help get you to the front of the line and make college a much more affordable experience. 

Seek out a scholarship

Scholarships are another critical form of financial aid that can help give you money for school and reduce the price tag. But you can’t just sit around and wait for scholarships to find you. Instead, you need to seek them out yourself and apply

Many nonprofit and private organizations make money available for deserving students. Typically, scholarships are given out based on talent, academic performance, or an interest in a particular field of study. 

Often, scholarships are available for specific groups of people. For example, some scholarships might be for women or people of color. You can usually find information on available scholarships by speaking with the financial aid office at the school you want to attend or from a high school counselor. 

There’s also a free scholarship search tool offered by the US Department of Labor. 

Apply for a grant

One form of financial aid you can seek out is a grant. The great thing about grants is that they typically don’t have to be repaid. Of course, there are exceptions to this. Some grants require you to complete a service obligation; failure to do so could default on the money you received. 

The federal government provides many grants, but you should also be able to apply for grants from your state government, private organizations, or the college you’re attending. Grants are available to students who can prove ‌financial need. You can apply for a grant by filling out the FAFSA application. 

Some of the federal grants provided by the government include:

  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants
  • Federal Pell Grants
  • Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grants
  • Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants

Each grant has its own requirements. For example, the Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants are only for students whose parent or guardian fought as a member of the US armed forces and died from military service in Iraq or Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 

Get a work-study job

Students can receive financial aid through the Federal Work-Study program, which provides them with part-time work to earn money for school. Typically, these work-study positions pay at least the federal minimum wage, but some pay out more depending on the kind of work and the skills you bring to the table. 

5 Ways to Pay for College

Apply for a loan

While a loan can be considered financial aid, there’s a major caveat. You must pay the loan back with interest. Apply for a loan through a school’s financial aid office. When accepting any loan, it’s important to note the payback terms. 

For example, how long do you have to pay back the loan? What kind of interest will apply to it? Is there a period of no interest? You must be as informed as possible before going into any kind of debt. 

Consider community colleges and avoid private colleges

One way to considerably lower college costs would be to attend a community college before switching over to a major university. 

Remember that average price tag of over $27,000 per year for an in-state university? Well, community colleges average out to around $3,770 per year. That’s a huge difference that can cut a substantial chunk off your college education. 

Of course, a community college is a stop on your way to a full four-year degree, but you won’t be able to earn one solely from attending these schools. Community colleges are typically two-year schools that provide students with an Associate’s Degree. 

You can then take the credits you’ve accumulated at the community college and transfer them over to a four-year university to complete your bachelor’s degree. Unfortunately, not all of your credits will transfer over when attempting this.

Anyone going this route should make a transfer plan with an academic counselor. These professionals will help you choose the right courses to ensure that you can easily transfer as many credits as possible when the time comes. 

The other piece to this cost-saving puzzle is avoiding private for-profit colleges like the plague. These institutions are often in the news because they come under fire for what many call predatory business practices. Many critics point out that the loan default rate for private college students is twice as high as for public college students. 

They point to the higher cost of these schools coupled with a failure to connect students with promised employment opportunities after graduation to dissuade students from attending. 

Commute to school

One of the most significant expenses a college student faces is housing. You’re adding thousands of dollars onto the already hefty price of your classes. That’s why so many students attend universities within driving distance of their homes. 

By choosing to live at home and commute to school, you’re shaving thousands of dollars off your college price tag. And it’s not just a couple thousand.

Public four-year in-state colleges typically cost more than $10,000 per year in room and board. If you’re going to a private four-year college and choose to live on campus, you can expect to pay somewhere around $12,000 in housing accommodations. 

By living at home, you’ll be able to save five figures per year. While you won’t have the full college experience of living away from home and dorming with your peers, you’ll still be getting the most crucial element of your college journey — the actual education. 

Earn college credits in high school

One way you can cut down on the time you’ll spend in school and save some money is by earning college credits before you enroll in a university. There are a few ways to do this.

The first and most direct way is to take AP (advanced placement) classes in high school that offer college credit. Talk to your counselor for more information on these programs. 

Then you have Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which anyone connected to the Internet can take. Many of these are free, but to pass with college credit, you must pay to take a proctored exam.

You can also prove your existing knowledge to earn credits with Prior Learning Assessments. This will allow you to bypass certain classes and skip right to the exam, earning credits in the process. PLAs are typically for general education subjects like math and English. 

Make sure that your college of choice accepts credits from these programs before enrolling. 

Get a part-time job

Another way to earn extra money to make the college experience more affordable is to take on a part-time job in your free time. While this might not be the most appealing concept given the mountain of school work college students face, it could be a viable option that’ll help you afford your classes. 

Consider getting a part-time remote evening job to earn extra income to help pay for college expenses. Some customer service jobs or freelancing gigs will have flexible hours that allow you to make a good side income.

There has never been a better time to have a part-time job while in college, thanks to the wealth of remote options out there. For example, you could work the phones for a customer service department or write articles for businesses in your spare time if you have a gift with words.

Something like freelance writing could be a great way to earn extra money and gather valuable work experience if that’s the field you want to enter after graduating.  

Conclusion

A college education can open up a brighter future for you, but the cost of higher education can deter many students.

With a four-year degree costing well into six figures, the sheer concept of affording the college experience might feel impossible for some. With the cost-saving tips and tricks offered in this guide, you should be able to make your college education more accessible than ever before. 

To review, you can improve your chances of gaining financial aid by: 

  • Applying early for FAFSA
  • Seeking out scholarships
  • Applying for government grants
  • Entering a work-study program 
  • Applying for a loan (though this will need to be repaid with interest)

Additional cost-saving measures could include:  

  • Attending a community college for two years
  • Avoiding for-profit private colleges
  • Commuting to school instead of dorming
  • Earning college credits before starting school
  • Getting a remote part-time job in your spare time

Apply these tips to your college experience and suddenly the cost of a higher education degree might not seem so daunting after all. 

Author: Jeremy Moser

Jeremy is co-founder & CEO at uSERP, a digital PR and SEO agency working with brands like Monday, ActiveCampaign, Hotjar, and more. He also buys and builds SaaS companies like Wordable.io and writes for publications like Entrepreneur and Search Engine Journal.