The Ultimate Guide to Paying for College Tuition

Posted March 27, 2015 by
Sarah Landrum photo

Sarah Landrum

Let’s be honest, college is expensive. Loans and scholarships enable more people to attend college than ever before, but the current economic climate is still an obstacle when it comes to covering the cost of college. With the U. S. economy in a state of recovery, credit is tightening and tuition costs are rising – leaving students to wonder how they can pay for college without going broke.

Can I Afford College Tuition?

The answer is yes, as long as you make the right decisions along the way, and properly plan and budget. It’s estimated that more than 21 million students will attend college or a university in the fall of 2015. That’s an increase of nearly 6 million students since 2000. As the number of students seeking higher education rises, financial concerns increase as well.

In figuring out how to pay for tuition, the current forecast for college attendance, associated costs and the job market cause concern for many students and parents. By taking a comprehensive look at how to pay for an undergraduate degree, you can progress through the college years without a worry in the world – except keeping your grades up.

Consider the Current Forecast

It’s no secret that the high price tag associated with college, recovering rates of unemployment and a rising student loan deficit cause many recent graduates to suffer from financial problems. Beyond this, college graduates face underemployment more than ever before.

However, a closer look at the current forecast proves that although the outlook is less than optimal, a public education is a wise decision. Consider the following:

  • College-educated individuals have a better chance of gaining employment when compared to individuals without degrees.

Considering the current forecast, a public education is a sensible and worthwhile option.

Recognize the Benefits of Public Education

The average tuition cost for a public education is significantly lower than that of a private education. Besides the reasonable cost, public education offers the following benefits:

  • More choices. Bigger schools offer more choices when it comes to degrees and fields of study. With upwards of 100 options, there’s a program to fit every interest.
  • Bigger campus. A larger school subsequently offers a bigger campus. The library is likely larger and there are more areas to study and interact with other students.
  • Greater diversity. More students at a larger school offer a greater degree of diversity. Students who attend public universities appreciate the chance to meet other students from diverse backgrounds. Furthermore, there will likely be more diversity among the faculty and staff.
  • Quality education. Simply because the price tag is lower does not mean that quality is sacrificed. In fact, public schools are able to offer tuition at lower costs because they get subsidies from their states. This equals a high level of quality at a lower cost. Plus, most public schools are still able to maintain low student/faculty ratios. Shippensburg University, for example, has a 19 to 1 student/faculty ratio that allows for a personalized education.

Know the Job Market and Your Passion

Before investigating exactly how to pay for college without going broke, it’s prudent to look at the current job market. If you want to make the most of your college investment, choose a career that has a positive employment growth outlook as well as a salary that will please you.

Regardless of the career path you choose, it’s important to work in a field that you enjoy. The level of passion you will bring to the job each day and the amount of dedication you bring with you will outweigh any of the statistics available. Your chances of getting hired – no matter what the projected employment outlook may be – are multiplied by your level of personal commitment and passion for the career you choose.

How to Pay for College Without Going Broke

There are many things you can do long before it’s time to apply for college that can help with the cost, such as saving early, taking college credits while still in high school, and scoring high on the SAT or ACT. Still, it’s wise to learn a few other ways to reduce the cost of college.

Find Scholarships and Apply Early

The beauty of scholarships is that they are gifts; they do not need to be paid back. Scholarships are created to reward and assist students with the cost of higher education. Finding and applying for scholarships requires a great deal of time, so it’s important to be patient as you search for the right ones.

Furthermore, you must be diligent in setting aside time to complete the applications, many of which require an essay or substantial application form. Consider taking the following steps to ensure searching and applying for scholarships is as simple as possible:

  • Discover what scholarships are available. Some scholarships are merit-based, granted to those who have earned high levels of academic achievement or have a special talent or skill. Others apply to particular demographics, such as military families, those with a financial need, or even where your parents work.
  • Find scholarships that apply to you. There are three places to begin looking for scholarships: your school counselor, the financial aid office at the college you plan to attend, and the U.S. Department of Labor’s free scholarship search tool. After looking in these three places, you will likely have plenty of work to do. Don’t forget to check with your employer, church or other organizations you’re affiliated with and find out if they offer scholarships.
  • Avoid scams. Any site that asks for money to help you look for scholarships is not worth your time. It’s simple to locate scholarships yourself, so save your money; in fact, put it toward your tuition instead. Also, be cautious of any pressure tactics or guarantees. Never give out your personal information, like your bank account or social security numbers, unless you’re sure of a source’s credibility.
  • Don’t procrastinate. Scholarships come with deadlines. There are deadlines as early as a year prior to the start of college, so timeliness is important. Plus, if you avoid procrastination, you can apply to more scholarships – and be rewarded with more funds.

Apply to Multiple Schools

Applying to more than one school is important for a few different reasons. First, you want to give yourself options. Second, you want to increase your chances of acceptance. Third, budgeting for college expenses is easier if you have a few different tuition figures to consider. Hey, you may discover in a few weeks that you’ve been the recipient of a substantial scholarship or grant and can pay for that pricier tuition after all.

Don’t limit yourself when it comes to applications. Rather, apply to one or more schools from the following categories:

  • Safety schools. Safety or fallback schools provide you with ease of mind. These are the schools you know you can get into. While it might not be the school you always dreamed of attending, there is comfort in knowing that you always have something to fall back on.
  • Reasonable schools. These schools are the ones you can probably get into, but they aren’t exactly guarantees like safety schools. Your grades and test scores should be competitive with other applicants, but admission to the school could go either way.
  • Reach schools. Your reach schools are the ones where your qualifications fall a bit below the average statistics of previously enrolled freshman. It’s worth applying to a reach school you would love to attend; you never know what will happen. You could be the next Elle Woods.

Complete the FAFSA

After Jan. 31 for the upcoming school year, you should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Grants, student loans and work-study opportunities are awarded to students based on their Expected Family Contribution. The government then calculates a need analysis, which is based on your family’s financial situation.

The results are then sent to schools you’ve chosen to possibly attend. Keep in mind that there is $238 billion in financial aid available to students, and nearly every student qualifies for some type of aid. It is imperative that you apply as soon as possible because federal financial aid is granted on a first-come, first-served basis.

A bit of advice: Before you apply, be sure your savings accounts aren’t counting against you. Financial experts recommend that college savings accounts be placed in the parents’ names. Since students are expected to contribute 20 percent of their total assets to their education (versus 5/6 percent for parents) assets in your name would lower the possible financial aid award package.

Understand the Terms of the Loan

Once you determine how much student aid you will receive, it’s time to think about how to cover the remaining costs. Most students opt to take out student loans to cover what their savings, financial aid and scholarships won’t cover. For many families, student loans aren’t an option – they’re a necessity.

If you must take out student loans, make sure you understand the terms of the loan. A subsidized loan is one that the government pays the interest for during periods of deferment, such as unemployment or while the student is in school. An unsubsidized loan is one that holds the borrower responsible for the interest at all times.

Here are two simple tips to follow when it comes time to take out student loans:

  • Consider what your first year’s salary will be. Don’t exceed that limit when taking out a loan. This will ensure your ability to pay back the loan in a reasonable amount of time.
  • Opt for federal loans over private loans. Federal loans come with fixed interest rates and offer a deferment period for problematic financial situations. This is welcome news to many borrowers entering the job market in an unstable economic climate.

Sarah Landrum is a freelance writer and the founder of Punched Clocks, a site dedicated to helping young professionals realize happiness and success in their careers and live life to the fullest. Follow her for more great tips @SarahLandrum

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