Paying for College: The Basics

Find out what you need to know about financial aid and the different ways to pay for college.

August 12, 2014

There is a broad variety of financial aid available for all kinds of students, so it’s worth finding out what you’d be eligible for and applying for it.
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Getting into a college or university is the first hurdle, but paying for college can bring its own set of challenges. As education costs continue to rise and our economy struggles, you may question whether college is worth it. The answer: Yes. Education is an investment in yourself and your future, and college aid is available to help you complete your degree programs. BUT -- you need to be smart about how you pay for college.

There is a variety of financial aid available to students seeking higher education, both federal aid and private aid. Learning what type of college aid is available to students, what you’re eligible for and how to get it will get you well on your way to paying for your college education.

Keep a running list of special skills, awards you receive, extracurricular activities and work experience. All of these things could earn you a scholarship from an organization or corporation, so keeping a list ensures you don’t forget anything then it’s time to pursue these scholarship opportunities.

What Does It Cost to Go to College?

College costs vary greatly depending on the type of school you’re attending: Public colleges and universities tend to be less expensive than private ones, and four-year universities are more expensive than two-year universities. Taking online classes can bring down costs a bit, since online classes don’t require schools to maintain classrooms or materials for students.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in 2010-11 "prices for undergraduate tuition, room, and board were estimated to be $13,600 at public institutions, $36,300 at private not-for-profit institutions, and $23,500 at private for-profit institutions." The average undergraduate costs for full-time students in degree-granting four-year colleges and universities, as well as two-year institutions, like community colleges vary greatly. Here's a breakdown:

Two-year institutions
Public institutions: $8,085
Private institutions: $23,871

Four-year institutions
Public institutions: $15,918
Private institutions: $32,617

These costs include tuition, fees and room and board for the year 2010-11, the most recent year analyzed.

Want to know the cost of attending the schools you’re specifically interested in? A Campus Explorer college search tells you the average undergraduate cost of tuition and fees for each college, university and community college on your list, as well as the average amount of grants and loans students receive, and the percentage of students who receive this financial aid.

Where Does the Money Come From?

Student aid comes in two forms: gift aid and self-help aid. Gift aid usually comes in the form of college grants and scholarships and doesn’t have to be repaid. Self-help aid is money you earn beforehand or have to repay, like loans or college work-study programs.

Common Types of Student Financial Aid:

  • College grants: Federal grants are usually awarded based on financial need, while many state grants are based on need and merit.
  • College scholarships: These awards are given by the federal government, schools and private organizations.
  • Fellowships: This free money is usually given in the form of a stipend toward a specific project or purpose. It can also be based on financial need. Most fellowships are given to graduate students, but some are available to undergraduate students.
  • Tuition waivers: Some schools offer students reduced tuition or free tuition.
  • Work-study programs
  • Loans: Students can take out loans from the federal government or private lenders. All loans have different stipulations, so it is necessary to compare student loans to get the best financial aid package.

What Kinds of Students Get Financial Aid?

There’s a common misconception that only students who are academic whizzes or have obscure and sought after talents get financial aid like college scholarships and federal grants. Actually, there is a broad variety of financial aid available for all kinds of students, so it’s worth finding out what you’d be eligible for and applying for it.

Quick Tips

  • Keep a running list of special skills, awards you receive, extracurricular activities and work experience. All of these things could earn you a scholarship from an organization or corporation, so keeping a list ensures you don’t forget anything then it’s time to pursue these scholarship opportunities.
  • Ask teachers if they’ll write you letters of recommendation for the financial aid you’re seeking.
  • Compare costs at your top colleges and universities. Find out how much financial aid they provide to students.
  • Estimate how much federal student aid you’re eligible for with the FAFSA4caster. This will not only give you an idea of how much financial aid you can get, it will also familiarize you with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form you’ll need to fill out to get it.

People Who Read This Article Also Read:

You're In! How Are You Going to Pay for College?
10 Things You Need to Know About Paying for College
Top 5 Mistakes Students Make with Financial Aid
Figure Out What College Will Really Cost You

See All College Financial Aid: The Basics of Student Aid and FAFSA Articles

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