Paying For College

This guide is designed to show you what your first steps should be in figuring out how you will pay for your education. There is a lot of information online already about how to pay for college, but because this really is big business, some purveyors of information may not have your best interests at heart.

Let’s make things more simple, shall we? Here are your best bets for finding money to pay for your college education.

Scholarships

Scholarships are the best way to finance a college education because they are given out with no strings attached, usually. However, they are not so easy to come by. Most scholarships require you to have excelled academically, athletically or somehow in your community.

That said, you are probably a more competitive candidate than you realize. This Kiplinger article says the average odds of getting the scholarship you qualify and apply for is 1 in 10. If you apply for 50, the numbers predict you will get five of them.

It is absolutely worth your time to find as many scholarships as you can possibly apply for because scholarships are free money. Even if you have to hand-write essay after essay, the payoff when you do land a scholarship makes it worth it.

Most universities will offer their own scholarships, so start there. Explore your chosen school’s website to see what scholarships are available; you might have to check on a department-by-department basis, as even some of the university’s own scholarships can be obscure. Some scholarships are automatically granted to students who get a certain score on their ACT or their SAT. Completely scour the university’s website to find as much of this information as you can.

Next, check to see what kind of public scholarships your state offers. Many states offer at least modest scholarships to high schools graduates who maintain a certain GPA. Exhaust all of the state-level resources you can.

Finally, there is an entire universe of private scholarships available. Some are sponsored by major companies such as Coca-Cola. Others are sponsored by small interest groups that offer scholarships to people of a certain race, culture, sexual orientation and religion. Furthermore, if you have already picked a major, or at least know the field of study you would like to pursue, look to see what kinds of scholarships are sponsored by individuals or groups in that industry.

Grants

Grants, like scholarships, are usually free money, but they are not necessarily merit-based. Grants are available for students from low-income households, and grants are available through not-for-profit groups that want to support research. The National Science Foundation, for example, earmarks money for undergraduates who have specific ideas they want to study. (Please note in the previous link that there is a special deadline for any student whose application requests money to go to Antarctica. Apparently, the NSF folks have rather open minds.)

Work

If you can find time to work while studying, even if it’s just for the summer, do it. This keeps you from racking up student-loan debt later, and it looks much better on your resume after you graduate. Granted, a part-time job is very unlikely to offset all your costs (at least $20,000 per year for a bachelor’s degree, on average), but every little bit helps. In conjunction with scholarships and grants, maybe this is enough.

Loans

For most students, though, work plus scholarships and grants is not enough. According to a recent NPR story, 70% of all undergraduates in the US had borrowed money to pay for school.

The current student-loan debt nationwide is one trillion dollars. That’s a one with 12 zeros. That’s more than all other consumer debt combined. Student loans are big, big business.

There are a number of things to consider before you sign your name on any dotted lines. First, remember that student loan debt does not go away if you ever file for bankruptcy. Death, taxes and student loan payments will be your three guarantees in life.

Also, understand what interest rates you are offered and what your payments will be after graduation. If this works out to $200 per month (or $2,400 per year) for the next 20 years, that’s $48,000 you will pay over your lifetime for access to money up-front to pay for school, assuming you can afford to make payments on time.

If you need to take out a loan, start with federal loans. These are cheaper than private loans and offer more flexible payment options. Look into Perkins loans for undergraduate studies and Stafford loans for graduate studies.

Once you have exhausted every resource above, plus broken into your piggy bank and searched through your couch cushions, then you can consider taking out a private loan. Private lenders are less flexible on their payment plans and usually offer higher interest rates, but they can help you pay for school.

And as long as you study hard, spend money wisely, network constantly and build a successful career, it will ultimately be worth it.


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