Financial Aid the Best Option When Paying For College? How to Choose the Smartest Payment Strategy

Last Updated on June 1, 2021

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Taking on financial aid for college can be very intimidating. But it’s not the only option! Whether you get a family loan or a student loan, a fellowship or work-study agreement, there are many paths towards paying for that costly education. Here’s a guide to navigating the complicated world of school financing.

 Step 1: Consider Your Options


As acceptance letters continue to roll in, one of the biggest decisions of your life is imminent. If you’re worried about how to pay for college, there are important factors to consider before committing.


Take finances into account before choosing a school. Check out tuition prices, room and board rates, and cost of living for each college you’ve been accepted to. Once you’ve tallied the numbers, you’ll be surprised by the difference in cost between one school and another.


Rank your dream school. It may turn out that the one you want to go to is cheaper than the rest after you’ve considered all expenses, including travel, dorm room preparations, and whether you can live at home.


Make your choice! You need to have an estimated cost before moving on to the next steps. Knowing how much you need will make achieving the financial goal a lot easier.


Step 2: Find Financial Aid

If the school you’ve chosen offered you scholarships or grants, you’re in luck. If not, there are still plenty of ways to earn a full-ride (or close to it) by applying to private scholarships and grants.


Complete your FAFSA on time. Your college or state may have state financial aid that you qualify for, but they won’t know to award you with it if your FAFSA isn’t complete on time. Thousands of students fail to submit it, which means a lot of money is left unspent – and a lot of money you can use to pay for college.


Apply for private grants and scholarships. It may take time, but many of the applications can be rolled over from one to another, reducing the time it takes to apply. We suggest applying to over 50 private scholarships or grants. It sounds like a lot, but if you pen in 1-hour a day for scholarships throughout the summer, you’ll likely hit that mark in no time.


Financial aid can be a lifesaver when paying for college. If you look in the right places and put in the work, the money will follow.
Financial aid can be a lifesaver when paying for college. If you look in the right places and put in the work, the money will follow. Photo Credit: Shutterstock


Use advanced scholarship search engines to identify which ones you qualify for. NicheCollegeBoard, and are all great tools to locate financial aid. 

Note: Don’t stop after you’ve entered college. Many scholarships for college sophomores to seniors are available if you do your research.


Step 3: Plan It Out With What You Have (And Are Willing To Make)


If financial aid isn’t enough to pay for college fees like tuition, room and board, and all other expenses, consider utilizing what you’ve already saved from summer jobs. It can be way more cost-effective to drain your bank account now, instead of living with interest-ridden debt for years to come. If your savings aren’t enough, consider finding a job near campus.


Some companies have franchises all over the country. You can apply to one near your home at the start of the summer and then transfer to one close to your school when the fall semester begins. If you stash away your paychecks now, you may only need to take out loans for the first semester.


Step 4: Ask Your Parents (And Other Family, Too)


Scraping by may be necessary for your four-year education. However, you can reduce some of the financial burdens by asking your parents and other family members for help. If you don’t ask, you shall not receive.


Write an individualized letter to those who might be willing to help out. The personal touch might score you additional funds.


Step 5: Fellowships and Assistantships (Or Other School Work-Related Programs)


Arriving as an undergrad, you may not have many connections. Begin by sending letters to the administration and other staff members at the school. Introduce yourself and ask if there are any work-study programs available to undergraduate students. Oftentimes you won’t see a dime from your work, but tuition remissions can go a long way.


To earn fellowships and assistantships for your graduate program, you’ll want to start as soon as your undergraduate years. Begin networking and assisting around campus. If your grad program is at the same school as your undergraduate, you’ll make important friends with the hiring bodies (or those who know them) who can give you recommendations when the application process rolls around.


Step 6: Alternative Routes


If paying for college still seems like a far-off dream, there are extremely reliable routes you can take to achieve that four-year diploma.


Attend community college or a trade school to earn your associate’s degree. This can substantially reduce the tuition rate when you’re finally ready to go to a traditional four-year school. You may also qualify for financial aid you didn’t previously, so do more research when you start applying to four-year schools. 


Live off-campus to prevent exorbitant room and board costs. Sometimes buying a used car or using public transportation to get to college is cheaper than living on campus for four years.


Step 7: Loans … As Your Last Resort


Sometimes loans are a necessary investment in your future. College is worth it long-term if it means achieving a stable career. However, loans can set you back quite a bit for years or even decades, so be sure to carefully consider all other options before going down this route.


Federal student loans have relatively low-interest rates and sometimes don’t require payments until after you’ve graduated. At the moment, interest rates for direct subsidized loans are as low as 2.75 percent. These are certainly more affordable than private student loans, so make sure to apply for these first.


Private student loans should be your final option if all else fails. Don’t worry, there are ways to offset the cost of private student loans for college students. They can be found here.


Calculate your college education’s return on investment and determine if you’ll make enough after graduation to pay back your loans. You can always defer a year or two and try to save money. Added bonus:  You’ll be so much more mature when you start freshman year!