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When paying for college, some forms of financial aid are better than others.
Money that you don't have to pay back should take priority — like scholarships, grants and fellowships — followed by income from work-study programs, or even employer assistance if you can work while enrolled.
To keep college costs manageable, exhaust free financial aid before taking out student loans when planning how to pay for college.
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1. Fill out the FAFSA
Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to receive federal aid like grants, work-study opportunities and even federal student loans. You can also qualify for state-level and school-based aid.
Be as thorough as you can when filling out the FAFSA. The federal government uses this to gauge what resources you and your family have to pay for college. For example, if you or your parents saved money in a 529 plan — a state-sponsored tax-advantaged college investment account — you'll be expected to tap into this to cover your costs.
Submit the FAFSA as soon as possible because some colleges award both need- and merit-based money on a first-come, first-served basis. In addition to the FAFSA, some schools also require you to complete the CSS profile to be considered for aid.
2. Search for scholarships
You don’t have to wait until you’re a senior in high school to start your scholarship search. 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.
Scholarships, unlike student loans, don’t have to be paid back. Thousands are available; use the Department of Labor’s Scholarships Finder to get started. While many scholarships require that you submit the FAFSA, most also have an additional application.
» MORE: How to get a scholarship
3. Choose an affordable school
If you opt for a traditional four-year university, research the school's net price — the cost to you after grants and scholarships. This will show you your out-of-pocket cost instead of solely focusing on the sticker price.
For example, if a $28,000-a-year school doesn’t offer you any aid, and a $60,000-a-year college offers you $40,000 in aid, the school with the higher sticker price could be a better option because of it's lower net price.
Schools have net price calculators on their websites to help you estimate the amount you’ll have to pay out of pocket.
4. Use grants if you qualify
Don’t make that mistake. As long as you submit the FAFSA and renew it each year you’re enrolled in school, you’ll receive Pell money if you’re eligible for it.
In addition to the need-based Pell program, the federal government offers several other types of grants, which also don’t need to be paid back in most cases. Many states have grant programs, too. Use the Education Department's state education contacts and information locator to find the agencies in your state that administer college grants. Then look up and apply to state grant programs you may qualify for.
» MORE: Guide to grants for college
5. Get a work-study job
A college job checks multiple boxes: It provides an income, work experience and potentially valuable connections. The federal work-study program funds part-time jobs for college students with financial need.
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.
6. Work for an employer that pays for college
Nearly half of employers offer undergraduate or graduate tuition assistance, according to a 2022 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management.
A company can help you afford college by covering a percentage of costs, a flat amount, or even 100% of tuition. For example, you have access to over 75 fully-funded associate and bachelor's degree programs if you work at Chipotle.
Employer tuition assistance programs can come in the form of tuition reimbursement — where you're reimbursed for tuition you already paid — or the company can pay the school directly.
When applying to jobs, research what educational benefits they offer. And if you're already employed, connect with the human resources department to see what is available for you.
7. Take out federal loans if you have to
You don’t have to say yes to all the aid you’re offered — especially student loans. As a rule of thumb, aim for student loan payments that don’t exceed 10% of projected after-tax monthly income your first year out of school.
If you need to borrow to pay for college, take out federal student loans before private ones. Federal loans have benefits that private loans don’t, including access to income-driven repayment plans and loan forgiveness programs.
» MORE: Is college worth it?
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