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The Top Strategies to Afford College


Once you have made the decision to go to college, your next step is to identify the pathway that will best enable you to achieve your goals.

Gail daMota

President, Education Finance Council

“The first step to reducing the financial burden of postsecondary education is to think about the long-term value of what you study.”

Don’t let the sticker price of a postsecondary education discourage you. While it is true that, after accounting for inflation, published tuition and fee prices at public four-year institutions nearly doubled in the last three decades, the good news is that you can find an affordable and high-quality higher education with a little planning, prudence, and independent thinking.

Identify the right program

The first step to reducing the financial burden of postsecondary education is to think about the long-term value of what you study.

Where you go to school has a greater impact on your finances than you might expect. While many leading figures in popular culture focus on four-year residential baccalaureate degree-granting schools, the truth is that your return on investment may hinge more on the academic program you study than the perceived prestige of your institution.

The U.S. Department of Education’s free online College Scorecard tool allows families to see the debt and income outcomes for students broken down by institutional degree level and specific academic program. You should leverage this valuable resource to compare your prospective institutions and programs of study. Doing so will allow you to select the school and program that will reward you for your investment of time and money. You may be surprised to learn that a prestigious institution may not give you the best return on investment.

Save every penny you can

Not everyone has money to spare in their budget. But, for those who have some discretionary income, one of the greatest tactics to make college more affordable is to set aside a little bit of your paycheck every month. The earlier you can start saving, the better. Every dollar you save today will reduce the stress of paying for school, textbooks, food, and housing while enrolled in college and set you up for financial success after graduation.

There are three approaches you can take to increase your savings: earn more money, cut back on expenses, or a combination of both. Choose the option that makes the most sense for you. For example, you can consider forgoing an expensive coffee once a month, increasing your carpooling or public transportation usage, finding additional roommates, starting a flexible part-time job, or buying more items second-hand. Remember, saving money does not necessarily require seismic changes to your lifestyle.

For many families, investing their savings in a 529 plan can provide a significant boost to paying for postsecondary education. Named after a section of the tax code, state-sponsored 529 plans can either lock you into today’s tuition rates before they increase or let you grow your savings in an investment account tax-free. A 529 plan is a flexible financial instrument that can compound your money, so be sure to open and fund it as soon as possible.

Find free financial assistance

Most people won’t be able to cover the cost of college using their personal income alone. In those cases, students rely on financial aid from other entities. You should prioritize finding aid that you do not have to repay. By exhausting free financial assistance, you can reduce reliance on student loans and keep college costs manageable.

The best thing you can do to access free aid is to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid®, or FAFSA. This newly simplified government form is free to complete and is the gateway to obtaining college funding from the U.S. Department of Education, including the Pell Grant. In the 2023-24 school year, the maximum Pell Grant award was $7,395 and the average Pell Grant recipient received $4,514 to go to college.

Filling out the FAFSA is always worth it. With this one application, you can unlock funds from the federal government, state governments, colleges and universities, and other private organizations.

There are also billions of dollars in scholarships awarded to students every year. Scholarships are like grants in that they are gifts you do not need to repay. In 2022-23, scholarship providers doled out over $8 billion to more than 5.3 million students, which resulted in an average $1,517 award per recipient.

The key to finding scholarships is to use multiple and diverse search techniques. Don’t hesitate to contact state higher education agencies, nonprofits, your university, your employer, or local business associations or places of worship. Scour social media sites and the internet. You also might be surprised how many organizations you already interact with provide financial assistance to college students.

One word of caution: Most reputable scholarships and search sites are free. Don’t pay for a scholarship search or application unless you are sure it is not a scam.

Every scholarship or grant you earn will make college that much more affordable.

Borrow low-cost student loans, but only take out what you need and can afford

Sometimes borrowing education debt is the best option remaining to cover remaining college expenses. Student loan rates may seem high, but they are a much smarter option than swiping a credit card.

If you find yourself needing to borrow money, apply for federal student loans first. Generally, federal student loans offer lower interest rates and feature many more repayment and forgiveness benefits than private student loans. Before taking out a student loan, research your anticipated earnings and calculate your existing debt burden. This way you can know exactly how much money you need to complete your program. Borrow only what you need.

And if you must borrow a private student loan, shop around before committing to any one lender. Finding a lower interest rate will save you hundreds of dollars in interest over the life of the loan. Nonprofit and state-based student loan organizations are normally able to offer qualified applicants a better deal than for-profit companies because of their public purpose missions and access to tax-free capital.

Bringing it all together

Financing your college education seems daunting at first. You can significantly reduce your anxiety by considering the long-term value of your intended program of study before enrolling in an institution, smartly saving your money now, and seeking out grants and scholarships.

Embrace the roadmap outlined in this article. Complete the FAFSA, apply for scholarships, and choose low-cost student loans. If you follow these steps, you will be well-prepared to make informed decisions and achieve your educational and financial goals.

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