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Asking “How do I pay for college?” is like asking, “How do I get healthy?” or, “How do I learn another language?” There are lots of answers, but there’s not always one clear path.
If you’re like most students and families, you’ll cobble together funds from multiple sources. Some types of financial aid are better than others, so use the following advice in this order:
1. Fill out the FAFSA
Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid even if you don’t expect to qualify for any aid, says Ben Miller, senior director of post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress. The FAFSA is your ticket into the financial aid arena. Submitting it puts you in the running to receive financial aid including federal grants, work-study opportunities, student loans, and some state and school-based aid.
Fill it out as soon as possible because some colleges award money on a first-come, first-served basis. In addition to the FAFSA, some schools also require you complete the CSS profile to be considered for aid.
» MORE: NerdWallet’s FAFSA guide
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 a scholarship search tool to narrow your selection. 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
Paying for college will be exponentially easier if you choose a school that’s reasonably priced for you. To avoid straining your bank account, consider starting at a community college or technical school.
If you opt for a traditional four-year university, look for one that is generous with aid. Focus on the net price of each school or the cost to you after grants and scholarships. Use each school’s net price calculator to estimate the amount you’ll have to pay out of pocket or borrow.
Just because one school’s sticker price is lower doesn’t mean it will be more affordable for you, says Phil Trout, a college counselor at Minnetonka High School in Minnetonka, Minnesota, and former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. 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 is actually more affordable for you.
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 Pell program, the federal government offers several other types of grants, which don’t need to be paid back. Many states have grant programs, too. Use this map on the Education Department website 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.
» MORE: What is work-study?
6. Tap your savings
Realistically, you’ll probably have to dip into your income and savings to pay for tuition, room and board, and other college-related expenses. The typical family covers 43% of college costs that way, according to a 2019 report by Sallie Mae.
If you or your parents saved money in a 529 plan — a state-sponsored tax-advantaged college investment account — access the funds by contacting the plan’s administrator.
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.
8. Borrow private loans as a last resort
If you do need to use private student loans, compare your options before you choose a lender. Shop around to find the lender that offers you the lowest interest rate and the most generous borrower protections, such as flexible repayment plans or the option to put your loans in forbearance if you’re struggling to make payments.
Remember: After you graduate, you’ll have to pay back any money you borrowed. Many student loans — all but federal subsidized loans — accrue interest while you’re in school, which means you’ll have to pay back more than you originally borrowed. You can use a student loan calculator to see how much you'll owe later based on what you borrow now.