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5 Best Ways to Pay for College

A person in a blue t-shirts sits and counts money, one dollar bills in each hand.

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.

You’re in high school gearing up for college, and the cost of tuition is still rising. Though this may feel like a doomsday scenario, there are plenty of ways you can tackle the cost of college without breaking the bank.

The earlier you start saving for your future, the better. If you’re already stressed about how you’re going to pay for college, here are some pointers for getting started:

1. Start saving early 

One of the first steps to managing your money is opening up a savings account, which can help you separate the money you want to spend versus what you want to save. Learning how to budget based on your income and current expenses is crucial before graduating high school.

Working a flexible after-school job, or one during your summers off, can be a great way to build up your savings and add to your growing college fund. Most likely, there are plenty of local opportunities to get a job, like babysitting, working at an ice cream shop, lifeguarding, waiting tables at a restaurant, etc. 

Looking for ways to pinch pennies and evaluate the value of your purchases will also help you in the long run. Selling things you no longer use, spending in smart ways with coupons and gift cards, and splitting costs with friends and family can be smart practices to adopt. 

Even if your high school savings are not astronomically high, they’ll still come in handy when you’re in college for fun weekends with friends or moments when you need to treat yourself.

2. Put in the effort

Though many have the mindset of college being a fresh start, it’s beneficial to push yourself academically in high school to ease some of the financial pressure that comes with college.

Working hard by taking AP classes or dual-enrolled community college classes will get some of your general education credits out of the way when you start your coursework. Creating goals for yourself to improve your GPA or study for the ACT or SAT can be a simple place to start.

Good academic standing in high school usually makes receiving scholarships easier. Searching online or talking to your guidance counselor about the available local, state, and national scholarships will make a difference when it comes time to pay for college.

Setting aside time to apply for these may seem tedious, but will be well worth the effort when your tuition bill arrives; the good news is that you can start searching for scholarships far before your senior year of high school even starts. 

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3. Understand the different types of colleges

There are many factors that go into picking the perfect school for you; deciding what you value most will help you find the perfect fit. It’s important to take into consideration fields of study, location, size, athletics, religious affiliations, social scene, distance to home, etc. 

Price is another area that holds significant weight in the decision process – understanding the difference between public versus private colleges can help when deciding what’s financially doable for you.

The state government funds public colleges and universities, while private schools rely on the students’ tuition, alumni contributions, and endowments

Public schools traditionally have a lower cost, as the government subsidizes a portion, and students in-state pay less tuition than those out-of-state. They also have a large student population and are known to have a larger party scene. In accordance with their population, classes are larger at public schools, with less face-to-face interaction between students and professors.

There is no discrepancy between in-state and out-of-state tuition for private schools, and the cost of attendance is significantly higher. Private institutions usually have fewer options in terms of fields of study, but strong programs if you do know what you want to major in ahead of time. These colleges tend to be smaller, more close-knit, and offer more advising to students.

Two-year colleges, like technical or community colleges, are worth exploring as well as they can offer a quicker way into the job force. This can also be a great way to save money before transferring to a four-year school.

4. Explore financial aid options 

Despite the type of college or university you choose to attend, you’ll always have financial aid as an option to pay for college. The first step to receiving anything is filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

Even if you think you won’t qualify for any financial assistance, it’s still an important place to start. Each college you apply to will use this data to determine your aid eligibility, and this can put you in the running to receive federal grants, work-study jobs, student loans, etc.

While in college, be sure to renew the FAFSA every year to ensure you’re maximizing the amount of aid you’re receiving; need-based qualifications are always evolving, and you want to make sure you’re being supported accordingly. 

Upon acceptance to each college, students will receive a letter with the proposed amount of financial aid and any eligibility for work-study jobs. These jobs can be a great way to maintain a source of income, get work experience, and build connections.

Federal work-study programs fund students working part-time jobs on campus while attending college, but you still have to take the initiative to seek those out upon arrival and put in the hours.

5. Talk to your parents about a financial plan

Above all else, you should have an open discussion with your parents about money and creating a financial plan for college. It can be a tough conversation to have, but one that’s important before starting your college hunt.

First off, establish who is paying for college. Occasionally, parents are able and willing to pay for their child’s tuition, but this isn’t always the case.

Some parents may want to go 50/50 and split the cost, while others expect their kids to pay for college all on their own. Having parents as a support system to establish budgets and plan for this next step of your life is a significant resource on its own.

It’s important to ask your parents if they have any savings set aside for your college funds, like a 529 plan. This is an investment account that can be started for education expenses and is the most popular (in addition to ESAs) given that they have tax benefits.

Your parents may also have an opinion about the types of loans they feel comfortable utilizing, whether that be a loan of your own or a loan they take out for you.

Besides the typical federal or private student loans, they may want to consider a home equity loan, which often has a lower interest rate and provides money in a lump sum. 

Congress sets the interest rates of federal student loans and almost every high school graduate qualifies, as they don’t require a cosigner or good credit. Private loans are given out by banks, credit unions, or online lenders, and are best used to fill the gap after you’ve maxed out federal loans. The benefits of starting with federal student aid stem from income-driven repayment plans and student loan forgiveness opportunities.

Rather than dipping into your parents’ retirement funds, finding ways to break down expenses and look for other options can help minimize the debt that often accompanies a college experience.

Taking strides to start your next journey off right will ensure an easier transition into your career and life after college; this next chapter will truly be the time of your life and a worthwhile investment in the bright future ahead of you!

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