How To Pay For College: 9 Ways To Cover Costs

No matter which college route you choose, it can be expensive. Learn how to pay for college



3 years ago | 7 min read

No matter which college route you choose, it can be expensive. And paying for it has become one of the biggest economic problems in America today. At the average private college, the sticker price for tuition, room and board is $199,500 for the standard 4 year degree And $87,800 for a public 4-year institution (in-state rate).

The good news is that most students receive some financial help paying for college, bringing the cost down from the school's "sticker price."

With costs of higher education rising so much, many students need to ask themselves: how do I pay for college? Figuring out how to pay for college can be difficult, if you’re feeling anxious about the best ways to pay for college, we’ve got your back.

Here’s our list of the 9 best ways to pay for college.

1. Scholarships

Scholarships should be at front of mind when thinking about how to pay for college. You could end up with a four-year full-tuition offer. These 10 online scholarship search tools can help you find scholarships to pay for college. There are thousands of private scholarships out there from companies, nonprofits and community groups. You can receive scholarships for everything from academic and athletic achievement to community service or your unique personal background.

You don’t have to wait until you’re a senior in high school to start your scholarship search either. In fact, it could pay to start earlier. For example, the Evans Scholars Foundation awards full-ride scholarships to hundreds of golf caddies each year.

But you have to be a caddie for at least two years to qualify, which means you’d have to start caddying during your sophomore year in high school at the latest to be eligible by the time you apply at the beginning of your senior year.

It’s also important to keep applying for scholarships even while you’re in college. You can get funding to help cover books, housing and other costs, even as a sophomore or junior.

Some examples of scholarship categories include academic, athletic, for minority students, military families, writers, and so many more. There are many scholarships out there, including the College Ave $1,000 monthly scholarship. Check out these guides to learn more:


One of the most important steps to take when figuring out how to pay for college is to fill out the free application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA even if you don’t expect to qualify for any aid. The form will determine your eligibility for financial assistance like federal loans, grants, work-study benefits, student loans and some state and school-based aid. The form can be completed online.

Depending on your financial need and the schools you consider, you may be able to cover your education entirely through grants and/or aid from your state or the school itself. We’ll talk more about grants below.

3. Grants

Colleges, states, and the federal government give out grants, which don't need to be repaid. Most are awarded based on your financial need, and determined by the income you reported on your FAFSA.

Last year, undergrads at public colleges received an average of $5,000 in grant aid and those at private colleges received about $16,700, according to The College Board. The biggest grant awards usually come from the college itself.

Colleges will take into consideration how much they think you and your family can afford to pay for college and try to fill in the gap with a grant. Some pledge to fill in more of the gap than others.

A 2018 NerdWallet study found high school graduates who don't complete the FAFSA leave behind billions of dollars in unclaimed federal Pell Grant money. This is another reason why submitting the FAFSA and renewing it each year while you’re enrolled in school is important. But even if there is no aid to be had there, you can contact your state grant agency for more aid possibilities.

4. Work-Study

Federal work-study is another program that can help you with expenses. With this program, you’re guaranteed access to a job — usually on campus — that can help you keep up with college costs.

You do need to have submitted the FAFSA in order to qualify. The U.S. Department of Education reports that there are roughly 3,400 participating post-secondary institutions offering work-study on or off-campus. If you qualify, make sure you take advantage of it while you’re in school.

To apply for work-study, submit the FAFSA. If you qualify, you’ll see “work-study” listed on your financial aid award. However, just because you’re eligible for work-study doesn’t mean you automatically get that money. You have to find an eligible work-study job on your campus and work enough hours to earn all of the aid you qualify for.

5. A job

A part-time job can be a great way to help pay for expenses related to attending college. Many students work part-time in the university cafeteria to pay for some of their living expenses. Plus, after the shift, you might get a free meal, which could save you about $50 a week.

Students might also be able to work on certain projects as undergraduate researchers to help cover college expenses. Student Research can also help pay some of the bills, but also provides real-world experience that can help students land jobs after graduation.

Look for research positions in an area you have experience. Also check with your professors and other teachers for anyone looking for undergraduate researchers. Organizations outside of your school, such as hospitals, research institutions and community-based organizations often look for students to fill research positions that are backed by grants. Whether you work on or off campus, having that income can help you pay for your education and potentially reduce what you need to borrow.

Additionally, you can work extra hours over the summer to earn money to put toward the coming semester. Start a side hustle if you want more flexibility in your work schedule but still want to earn money to help pay for college.

6. Internships

Like research positions, internships can be a way to build some real-world cred while in school. Some internships are paid, helping you cover your costs. How much internships pay varies from field to field.

Visit your school’s career center for information about available paid internships. It’s also possible to find a paid internship by networking with family and friends.

7. Federal Student Loans

For many students, it’s difficult to avoid taking on loans. Loans should be your last resort, but they're often inevitable if scholarships, grants, and savings don't cover the entire bill. Federal Student loans, issued by the government, are categorized into two types for undergraduate students: direct subsidized (based on financial need) and direct unsubsidized loans (not based on financial need).

This is money that must be paid back, will accrue interest, and often has some type of origination fee. You'll want to borrow money from the federal government before turning to a private lender because federal loans generally offer lower interest rates and sometimes, offer borrower protections. Federal student loans do have annual and lifetime limits, putting a cap on how much you can get through federal loans alone.

Federal loans also have a fairly low interest rate, which often does not exceed the single digits. As reported by loans first disbursed on or after 7/1/20 and before 7/1/21 have the following interest rates:

8. Income Share Agreements

Income Share Agreements (ISAs) have emerged as a great way to help cover some of the costs of college. Unlike a traditional loan, there’s zero interest, and there are added protections to help in the case that the student loses his job or is making less than the Minimum Income Threshold. With an ISA the student will pay back a percentage of his income for a set period of time.

Some schools, like Purdue University, help students set up ISAs as a form of student aid. Many agreements are capped at 10% or 15% of income, ensuring affordable payments. Although not every school offers an ISA you can check out this list of some schools who do offer them.

Be sure to research your options and, since ISA terms vary, make sure you know what exactly you could be paying back. Income Share agreements can be more beneficial for certain career paths over others.

9. Private Student Loans

Private loans, for the most part, are borrowed as a last resort. These may be loans from banks or other lenders that are non-government. They tend to have higher interest rates than government loans and oftentimes won’t provide the same advantages. Credible is an excellent choice to compare private loan options because you can compare about 10 different lenders in 2 minutes and see what you qualify for.

With private student loans you can borrow up to 100% of your cost of attendance which can include tuition, fees, room & board, and other college costs. Private student loans offer variable or fixed interest rates, and you can pay them while you’re in school or when you graduate. Each private loan has different terms, so if you’re approved, you should map out a repayment schedule to build and maintain good credit.

Learning how to pay for college can seem overwhelming. We suggest consulting the experts: talk with the financial aid department at the schools you’re considering. They’ll be able to explain all your options and advise you as you move forward. You can also use online resources, including this student loan calculator.

This handy tool helps you understand what your potential student loan monthly payments might look like, and how to make smart plans for the future. So, depending on your financial need, areas of interest, special qualifications, and school of choice, you have many opportunities to use financial aid to fund your education.

Hopefully, these tips are helpful as you plan out the best way to pay for college for you.

ISAs are emerging as a great way to help fund your education. There are many schools beginning to offer them and some private companies may provide you with an ISA to help cover the costs of your school. Think your school should offer an ISA? Let us know here.

Carefully research the cost of attendance at the school of your choice and put together a plan that allows you to meet those costs as efficiently as possible.


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