Chances are that if you have a son or daughter in their sophomore, junior, or senior year of high school; you’ve had the post-graduation talk. Maybe your child has plans to take a gap year or they want to work right away. Or maybe they value higher education and have plans on attending college. They might be one of the lucky ones and already have been accepted with a slew of scholarships and grants and that’s great. Paying for college can be a huge source of stress for any family. Loans aren’t always ideal but you can come up with an actionable and realistic plan for how to pay for college.
There several free ways to find money for college and of course, your child can always go the student loan route. Depending on your financial situation, you can also look into PLUS Loans which are just for parents. The problem with loans, of course, is that they are just that- loans. It’s borrowed money and eventually you will have to pay it back and usually with interest.
Understanding the Financial Aid Award Letter
When your child applies for college, they’ll also apply for Financial Aid. Depending on your needs and financial situation, your child will then receive a Financial Aid Award letter that outlines the various options you have to fund this college education.
Each school will offer different award packages, which can include a combination of grants, scholarships, work study or student loans. Students and families should carefully read all of the information contained in the award letters and clearly understand the letters’ terms and conditions. Equally important, try not to panic if the amount of money awarded is not enough to cover college expenses.
“The financial aid award package is not the end of the road by any means,” says Martha Holler, spokesperson for Sallie Mae, the nation’s No. 1 paying-for-college company. “Never simply settle for a school based on cost alone. With roughly $143 billion in financial aid awarded last year, financial assistance is out there for students to attend their dream school.”
In addition to thoroughly reading each award letter received, students and families should ask themselves the following:
– What are the enrollment requirements for grants and scholarships?
– Are the awards for one year or all four years?
– Is the required GPA to maintain the awards realistic?
– If student employment is part of the financial aid package, what types of jobs are available and what rate of pay is typical?
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“Above all, it is important for students to compare their award packages on an apples-to-apples basis,” says Holler. “While one letter may total a higher amount, it may be more heavily weighted with loans and not free money, like grants and scholarships.”
Holler adds that while most colleges rarely negotiate or match another school’s award package, they should be alerted if a family’s financial circumstances have changed. In that case, families should contact the financial office as quickly as possible for a reassessment.
5 Ways to Pay for College (that don’t involve loans)
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Accelerate Your Degree
Essentially, accelerating your degree means cramming a semester’s worth of material into a six-or eight week session. Many schools are now offering these accelerated sessions, and while classes can be intense, the benefits are that they allow you to take classes more quickly and thereby move up your graduation date. By accelerating your degree, you spend less time in college and can start your career sooner, which saves you time and money. In addition to these accelerated sessions, you should also consider summer school or evening classes, which are often cheaper than regular classes and which also speed up the learning process. Many colleges also offer online courses which could be a cheaper option.
Examples of this are programs that combine your Senior year of college earning your Bachelor’s Degree with your first year of Graduate school.
Become a Transfer Student
One of the best kept secrets in higher education is that of transferring. The idea here is to earn as many credits as possible at a low-cost community college before transferring to a pricey, elite school prior to graduation. This way you can still get a diploma from a prestigious university but at a fraction of the price. Furthermore, because community colleges are less competitive, you will be a better candidate for scholarships and other financial aid. What’s more, by attending your local community college, you can also reduce room-and-board costs by bunking at your parents’ house.
Wherever you do decide to attend, ask about the transfer rate and if there are any existing transfer agreements between the two-year school and the four-year school that you intend to transfer to.
Go Where You’re Wanted
Conventional wisdom says you should go to school you want. But if you’re trying to cut costs, maybe you should consider going to the schools that wants you. In other words, find the college or university that is dying to have you as a student, fire off an application, and then watch the discounts roll in. Star students get discounts on tuition as well as housing and other fees. The trick is to find the school that thinks you’re a star. Start by checking out the smaller, regional colleges in your area. Chances are you may be exactly the kind of student they’re looking for.
Another smart option? Attend a school that you’re already a resident of. In-state tuition at a public college or university is significantly cheaper than out-of-state tuition. And if you don’t want to attend a local college, check your state university system. For example, here in New York it’s the State University of New York system (or SUNY) while in California they have The University of California and California State University.
Apply For a Pell Grant
Every year, the U.S. Government provides millions of dollars’ worth of grants to help students finance their college education. A grant is an ideal way to help pay for college for two reasons: first, grants do not have to be paid back, and second, grants are awarded based on need. What this means is that depending on your financial need you can receive a federal grant or Pell Grant worth anywhere from $400 to $4000 dollars. Typically, Uncle Sam sends the money directly to your school of choice to apply directly to tuition. However, if your tuition is already paid for through scholarships or other financial aid, the money is dispersed directly to you to cover other expenses such as housing, books, and transportation. To apply for a Pell Grant all you need to do is fill-out a Free Application For Federal Student Aid or FAFSA, which you can do online at http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/. The application will take about an hour, but you will need your Social Security Number, driver’s license, income tax return, bank statements, and investment records.
Your Pell grant will show up on your financial award letter that was discussed previously. And don’t overlook your state’s grant programs, either.
Never Give Up On Scholarships
Many students think you need a 4.0 GPA to land big scholarships. But that’s not always the case. Even with strictly academic scholarships, you have a fighting chance so long as your grades make the cutoff, which may be as low as 2.75. What have you got to lose? Furthermore, there are plenty of non-academic scholarships you can apply for, including scholarships for athletics, military service, community service, and leadership. Also, in addition to college or departmental scholarships, there are thousands of private organizations and religious organizations who also offer scholarships. And don’t forget about local or community-based awards. Although these scholarships are typically more modest, they are easier to win. What’s best is that you can apply for (and receive) multiple scholarships, which means if you don’t land a big, ultra-competitive, academic scholarship you can still get the same amount of money through a combination of smaller, less-competitive scholarships.
When it comes to paying for college, the important thing to remember is that education is an investment. And like the old adage says, you’ve got to spend money to make money. That being said, there are ways to curb the amount you’ll have to spend to get a quality education- and they don’t all involve taking out a loan. And if none of the above options are viable, or if you’ve already exhausted all possibilities, there’s also getting a part time job.
An undergraduate or graduate degree just might be the key that your child needs to set themselves apart and provide a solid ground on which to build their career. But funding that degree doesn’t mean that you (or your child) have to go into debt. Consider these options when it comes to paying for college.