How to Pay for College

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There are a variety of ways that college students can finance their education. The large majority of accredited colleges and universities provide several scholarship and financial aid options for their students. Most financial aid packages are sponsored by a college or university, the federal government, a private company, a private scholarship fund or special interest organization.

If you want to qualify for federal aid (e.g., low interest loans, grants or work-study programs), you’ll need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in January of the year you plan on attending college. The quickest and easiest way to apply for federal aid is online at the federal student aid website. Once you’ve completed the online application you should check with your college to find out if they require you to complete any additional financial aid forms.

You should also check with the financial aid office at your college to explore all avenues for receiving financial aid. Make sure to ask specifically about any scholarships that you may qualify for, as many scholarships are based on criteria not relating to financial need. If you don’t qualify for financial aid, you may very well qualify for a scholarship, but you’ll need to make sure you do your homework quickly in order to meet scholarship application deadlines.

Read our Financial Aid Options: Ask the Experts article that has financial aid tips and tricks from 6 well-known financial aid, scholarship and student loan experts.

College Sponsored Scholarship Programs

Larger colleges and universities provide a variety of scholarship programs for their students. These scholarships may be funded by the university itself, alumni, staff members, or a specific academic department.

College scholarships are typically based on student merit, financial need or athletic accomplishment/talent. You’ll want to find out from your college’s financial aid office exactly what scholarships are available. You’ll also want to ask if you are automatically considered for scholarships or if you need to apply for each scholarship. If you want to search colleges based on scholarships they offer, there are a large number of Internet Web sites with extensive lists of college scholarships. (Sometimes it’s easier to select a college based on which one can provide you with a good scholarship).

Scholarships from Non-college Sources

While colleges are the primary sponsors of scholarships, there are large number of scholarships available through businesses, ethnic groups, churches, community organizations and foundations. You can get more information about such scholarships through a high school counselor, college admissions officer, librarian, or look them up on the web. There are several large scholarship Web sites that provide comprehensive directories of college scholarships.

Veterans’ Programs

There are educational financial aid programs, sponsored by the Federal Department of Veterans Affairs, for students who have served active duty in the U.S. armed forces.

The Federal Department for Veterans Affairs also has educational assistance programs for the immediate family members of veterans who died during active service or died afterward due to service-related injuries. These same programs are also available to the spouses and children of veterans who have been permanently disabled due to their military service.


The nice thing about grants, as opposed to student loans and other forms of financial assistance, is that you don’t have to be repaid. The most common grants available to undergraduate students are the Federal Pell Grant and the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant. While grants can be awarded for various reasons, these two grants are awarded to students based on financial need.

In addition to federal grants, students may also qualify for state sponsored grants and awards. These grants are typically based on financial need, satisfactory academic progress and availability of funds. You’ll want to check with your college advisor to learn more about grants available in your area.

Work-study programs

To qualify for the federal work study program you must be able to demonstrated financial need, be enrolled half time or more and have a satisfactory grade point average. Once you’ve determined that you’re eligible for work-study you should go to your college’s student employment center to explore available jobs. Jobs will likely include cafeteria helper, grounds maintenance worker, library assistant, etc. While not glamorous, these jobs will help pay your college tab. Focus on working hard, studying hard and know that the job you get after you graduate will be much better.

No Work-Study Campus Jobs

Most larger colleges and universities will provide a variety of job opportunities for their students. In fact, instead of employing outside professionals many colleges will rely almost exclusively on students workers to provide much need college support services. College jobs will include many of the same jobs listed under the “Work-study Programs” section above but will cover a larger variety of positions. Many local employers will also advertise jobs for college students. Check with a college student employment advisor to learn more about all the job opportunities at your college.

Student Loans

While most people only like considering student loans as a last resort for paying for college, it is a very real option that most students who require financial aid end up using. Borrowing to finance your education is a serious commitment, so make sure the education you get will allow you to repay your loans once you’ve graduated. There are several types of student loans that are based on financial need. These include Federal Subsidized Stafford Loans and Federal Perkins Loans. Two additional loans, The Federal Unsubsidized Stafford Loan and the Federal Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students are available to all students regardless of their financial status.