Tap into a few tricks that can ease your mind about how to pay for college.
Tip 1: Know that aid is available to everyone.
You don’t have to be a financial aid whiz or “an insider” to get financial aid. You can tap into lots of different types of financial aid. What most people don’t realize is that financial aid is a puzzle — you combine grants, scholarships, your own income and more to piece the entire financial aid puzzle together. You can tap into grants, scholarships, work-study and loans.
A grant is a form of financial aid that you don’t have to repay unless you don’t fulfill a specific obligation, such as you don’t teach, even though you accept the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant.
- You can get federal grants, such as Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants and Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants.
- You can also get state and other institutional grants for college. A great example is the Iowa Tuition Grant, which is offered in my home state.
Scholarships = free money, and many families don’t know where to start to look for scholarships, and that’s understandable. In fact, it’s one of the most perplexing parts of the college search: Where to find scholarships. You’ll hear, “There are scholarships out there…”
You can find various scholarships by asking around at:
- Your school counselor, TRIO counselor or college and career center office
- Civic organizations
- Your church
- The company you work for
- Your parents’ companies
- Scholarships and universities for merit-based scholarships
- Your local library
- Federal agencies
- State grant agencies
Don’t forget to look for scholarships on:
- Scholarship search engines
- Merit aid scholarships on MeritMore
- Social media
- The U.S. Department of Labor’s scholarship search tool
The federal work-study program lets you earn money to pay for school by getting a part-time job on or off campus. You must file the FAFSA in order to get a work-study job.
Loans might be your last choice option for paying for college but they’re a great way to “plug” the gaps between what you can afford to pay out of pocket and all other financial aid opportunities.
- Private student loans: Private loans offer a higher borrowing limit compared to federal student loans. You may need a cosigner to get a private student loan. Cosigners must undergo a credit check to prove your creditworthiness. You can use a private student loan to pay for college tuition fees, room and board, textbooks, laptops or computers, transportation costs and living expenses.
- Federal student loans: You can get federal student loans through the U.S. Department of Education. Federal student loans offer lower interest rates and flexible repayment plans for borrowers compared to private student loans. You must submit the FAFSA, which requires you to fill out information about you and your parents’ financial status, especially about income and investments.
Tip 2: Don’t discount your parents’ (or your own!) current income.
Never, ever discount your current income’s power potential. It packs a potent punch, especially when you sit down and figure out how you can divert money toward college instead of things you normally spend money on.
For example, let’s say your parents are really close to paying their house off. Your house is not one of the things that you list on your FAFSA, so it’s not benefiting you to hold onto a mortgage. Why not try to pay it off in one lump sum and divert that money toward college?
Tip 3: You can use a tuition payment plan.
Colleges let you break up payments just like your mortgage lender lets you make payments. What’s even better about tuition payment plans is that they usually don’t charge interest like a mortgage or other type of loan.
An installment plan for college can have several different names:
- Monthly payment plan
- Tuition installment plan
- 10-month (or 8-month or 9-month) payment plan
- A branded name from the college or university your child plans to attend
Let’s say you have a $10,000 out-of-pocket cost, the remainder after taking scholarships, grants, federal student loans and other aid into consideration. Let’s say your college-bound student’s school offers a 10-month payment plan. You simply spread that $10,000 over 10 months, which results in a $1,000 monthly payment.
Tip 4: Approach colleges and ask what they can give you.
Talk to individuals at colleges — financial aid professionals and admission counselors — and have very specific conversations about costs.
I spent 12 years in college admission and I know for a fact that when I talked to families about costs, they understood the costs better, understood our scholarships and merit-based aid and also asked very specific questions (and got specific answers in return!) about their personal situation.
Do not — I repeat — do not sit at home, staring at a website, freaking out about the cost all by yourself. Call the schools your child is interested in and talk to people who work there.
Step 5: Know you have the power to negotiate.
You’re not powerless once you get your financial aid award. In reality, you have a lot of power in your hands because colleges ultimately need to fill their seats and their bank account!
When you get a financial aid award that’s out of your range, you can ask the financial aid office at the school you really want to go to for more money.
College Isn’t Out of Reach
I’ll repeat what I already said — don’t sit at home by yourself with a computer screen, looking at screen after screen of scary numbers.
Reach out to colleges and other people (school counselor, a state organization like Iowa College Access Network) and ask for help. You’re never, ever alone in this journey — ever.
Bio: Melissa Brock is a 12-year veteran of college admission, founder of College Money Tips and Money editor at Benzinga. She loves helping families navigate their finances and the college search process. Check out her free essential timeline and checklist for the college search!