Money & Budgeting

How to Pay for College

Learn about all the different ways to help pay for college.
Allan T
Nov 9, 2023

Only a third of college students leave with no student debt. A lucky few come from rich families, but a fair amount of them take the right steps to make sure they get as much help as possible. Student loans can put you tens of thousands of dollars in debt, so finding ways to pay for college is essential. In this article, you will learn how to pay for college including how to receive money that you don't need to pay back, tips on how to save money, and advice regarding loans.


FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Filling out the FAFSA puts you in the running for several financial aid opportunities like state and federal grants, work-study programs, financial aid programs, as well as some scholarships. The FAFSA is simple and free to fill out and most people don't even realize that they qualify for at least some level of financial aid. It is the single most important application if you’re wondering how do I pay for college? People are given FAFSA benefits based on their family's financial status, and some of the grants are reserved for specific groups.


You can apply for federal education grants as well as state grants if you fulfill certain criteria. Unlike scholarships which are mostly merit-based, grants are need-based. Different organizations offer grants to different minority groups. Like scholarships, grants do not need to be paid back which makes them one of the best ways to pay for college. The Pell Grant is the largest grant-giving organization in the United States and operates at a federal level.  

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Emergency Grants

If you're a student right now or are just entering College then under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act or CARES Act you may be eligible for an emergency educational grant. This is a new grant created in response to the Coronavirus situation and can help offset a massive amount of college tuition. 

Apply for Scholarships

Private individuals, community centers, universities, and many other organizations award scholarships based on merit and several other types of criteria. Like grants, scholarships do not need to be paid back, making them one of the best ways to pay for college.

Applying for scholarships can take up a lot of time because the process requires filling out forms as well as writing essays and sometimes going for interviews but you should apply for as many as possible since every little bit of money you save now will be less debt to pay back in the future.

Local scholarships have the least competition, so approach businesses in your community as well as unions and other local organizations to find scholarships. Your high school guidance counselor should be able to point you in the direction of scholarships that you should apply for. 

Make sure you apply for a scholarship to the universities you have applied for. If you have an acceptance letter from a university that means that they want you to attend. There is no harm in asking them for financial aid through merit-based scholarships. Even while you are in University you can keep applying for scholarships from a variety of sources.

There are tons of scholarships out there including scholarships for minority groups, sports, the arts, military families, niche hobbies, and a lot more. So make sure you spend time searching and applying for as many scholarships as you are eligible for, it is the best way to pay for college.

Approach Your University

There are several cases in which you can ask a college that has accepted you for more financial aid. If your family's financial situation has changed since you filed the FAFSA you may be eligible for more money. If your grades have improved or you've won a national competition,   you are a stronger candidate and may be eligible for more aid. An impassioned plea coming from your family or from you can convince a university's financial aid department to increase the amount of help you get. 

Work-study Jobs

Federal work-study programs allow you to work a job while pursuing a college degree. These jobs generally pay higher than minimum wage and have a maximum hourly cap per week.  Federal work-study jobs are generally given to students who show financial need and those that qualify are placed in jobs in local, state, or federal organizations.

You can also apply for work-study jobs directly to your University. This will give you access to jobs on campus such as working in the cafeteria, in the library, as a research assistant, as an administrative secretary, etc. 

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Part-time Jobs

A part-time job is a lot of extra work to take on especially if you are a full-time student, but if you do not qualify for a work-study program then getting a part-time job is the simplest way to make some money to help pay for college. Almost all colleges and universities are surrounded by towns where people are willing to give jobs to students. A part-time job can add a lot to your plate though so make sure you find a balance between academics, a job, and rest. 

Community College 

Community College is generally a fourth of the cost of state colleges and can be up to a tenth of the cost of private colleges. You can save tens of thousands of dollars by attending Community College for a few years and then transfer your credits to a four-year course of your liking. The first two years of most colleges are the general requirement and foundation courses. These are the same courses offered in the first few years of Community College. Make sure that the classes you take in Community College can be transferred to a few of the programs you would like to end up in eventually and you will save thousands of dollars.

College Level Classes in High School 

Take as many advanced placement classes as possible in high school. AP classes allow you to get credit for college-level foundation and general requirement classes, which can allow you to graduate earlier and therefore save on a semester's worth of tuition. IB programs also allow you to gain college credit while in high school. You can also take CLEP tests, which if you pass allows you to gain college credit.

Cut Down on Expenses 

How do students pay for college? Well, the less money you spend the easier it will be to pay for college. Find ways of reducing your expenditures so that you can save as much as possible.  Consider cooking rather than taking a meal plan, find cheap accommodation off-campus or live at home rather than stay at a dorm, take public transportation instead of a car, etc.  

Take Federal Loans

If despite trying all the other options you still have to take out loans to pay for college look into the Federal Direct Loan program. Federal loans are the answer to the question of how do most people pay for college? There are four types of direct loans from this program.

If you are an undergraduate student in financial need, you can take a subsidized direct loan that does not start accruing interest until six months from graduation.

Direct unsubsidized loans are available to all students regardless of financial need. The amount of money you can borrow is based on your college tuition and any financial aid you already receive. The downside is that direct unsubsidized loans start accumulating interest from the moment the money is borrowed.

Direct Plus Loans are available to all students that need help covering expenses apart from tuition. These types of loans require a credit check and start accumulating interest the moment the money is borrowed.

Direct consolidated loans combine all loans into a single loan with a fixed interest rate making it easier and simpler to pay back but it starts accumulating interest the moment the money is borrowed. 

Take Private Loans

Private loans should be your absolute last option on how to pay for college. Though some private loans may have interest rates lower than federal loans, federal loans have more safeguards in place for borrowers. Private loans also require a credit check as well as a cosigner. If you do need to take a private loan then make sure you go over several options and look out for the fine print. 

Final Words

How do I pay for college is a question most aspiring graduates worry about. In this article, we have gone through several different types of methods for how to pay for college, but there is no one right answer. Use a combination of all the methods mentioned above while focusing on applying for as many grants and scholarships as possible since this is financial aid that does not need to be paid back. Next, look into part-time jobs and ways of cutting down on expenses.  Only after you have exhausted all of these options should you consider taking on loans.

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