How to Pay for College: 7 Strategies to Make College Affordable

Last updated on - October 9, 2023

How to Pay for College: 7 Strategies to Make College Affordable

As parents with teenagers, figuring out how to pay for college can be daunting. With rising tuition costs and the burden of student loans, it's essential to have a solid plan in place. This blog post will investigate strategies to pay for college with minimal debt and maximum educational advantages.

We'll discuss the importance of filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which unlocks numerous financial aid options such as grants, work-study programs, and federal loans. We'll also cover tips on choosing an affordable college by considering community colleges or early collegiate high schools and saving money through living at home.

Plus, you'll learn about applying for scholarships effectively by finding suitable opportunities and mastering application techniques. Additionally, we will delve into 529 plans - tax-advantaged savings vehicles designed specifically to help families save up for education expenses - exploring their benefits and the different types available.

Lastly, our guide will provide valuable insights on taking out student loans responsibly so that your child can focus on their studies without being overwhelmed by mounting debts upon graduation. 

Here are seven key strategies to make college affordable:

1. Understand the Different Types of Federal Aid

There are various types of federal aid available to help cover college expenses. These include:

  • Pell Grants: Need-based grants that do not need to be paid back.
  • Federal Work-Study: A program providing part-time jobs for students with financial needs, allowing them to earn money while attending school.
  • Federal Student Loans: Low-interest loans from the government that must be paid back after graduation or leaving school. These can be either subsidized (interest-free while in school) or unsubsidized (interest accrues during enrollment).

To maximize your chances of receiving these benefits, make sure you fill out the FAFSA accurately and completely.

2. Fill Out the FAFSA: Deadline & Tips

Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the first step in paying for college. This form determines eligibility for federal aid, including grants, work-study opportunities, and student loans. Submitting it early is essential as some funds are limited and awarded on a first-come-first-served basis.

Deadlines and Tips for Submitting the FAFSA

The deadline for submitting your FAFSA varies depending on your state and chosen schools' requirements. Though it's wise to fill out the FAFSA quickly after October 1st, since many awards are given on a first-come basis, there is still some variability in state and school deadlines. Here are some tips when filling out this crucial application:

  1. Gather all necessary documents beforehand: tax returns, W-2 forms, and bank statements.
  2. Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to import your tax information directly into the FAFSA form for accuracy and convenience.
  3. List all potential colleges you're considering attending so they can receive your financial aid information. You can add or remove schools later if needed.
  4. Verify your Social Security number and other personal information to prevent any obstacles in submitting your request.

Click here for more detailed instructions on completing the FAFSA form.


3. Choose an Affordable College

Selecting a reasonably priced school can significantly impact overall costs. Consider attending community colleges or early collegiate high schools before transferring to a four-year institution. Living at home during studies can also help cut down expenses.

Benefits of Attending Community Colleges or Early Collegiate High Schools

Community colleges offer several advantages when it comes to paying for higher education. For starters, they typically have lower tuition rates than private colleges and universities. Moreover, community college courses are often transferable to four-year institutions, allowing students to save significantly on tuition fees by completing their general education requirements at a much lower cost.

  • Savings: By attending a community college for two years before transferring, you could save thousands on tuition fees compared with starting directly at a four-year university.
  • Career-focused programs: Many community colleges provide vocational training in fields such as healthcare or technology that lead directly to well-paying jobs upon completion.
  • Easier admissions process: Unlike competitive universities, most community colleges have open enrollment policies that allow anyone with a high school diploma or GED equivalent access regardless of GPA scores.

If you're still in high school but want an early start on earning college credits (and saving money), look into enrolling in an early collegiate high school. Attending a college while still in high school can be advantageous, providing the chance to gain an associate degree or receive credits before graduating.

4. Save Money by Living at Home

Room and board expenses can add up quickly when attending a four-year institution. One way to significantly reduce these costs is by living at home during your studies. By living at home, not only can you avoid paying for housing but also have the chance to lessen other college costs such as food plans and transportation fees.

  • Avoiding dormitory costs: College campuses often charge hefty fees for room and board; staying with family eliminates this expense entirely.
  • Cheaper meals: Cooking at home or participating in family meal plans will generally be more cost-effective than purchasing expensive campus dining options.
  • Familiar surroundings: Remaining in your hometown allows you access to existing support networks of friends, mentors, and loved ones who can help guide you through the challenges that come with pursuing higher education.

In conclusion, choosing an affordable college option like community colleges or early collegiate high schools can significantly affect overall educational costs. Additionally, living at home while studying further reduces expenses related to housing and meals. With careful planning and consideration of these alternatives, families can become financially savvy about paying for their children's higher education without breaking the bank.

5. Apply for Scholarships

Scholarships are like the golden ticket to paying for college. They provide free money towards tuition fees that don't need repayment, and who doesn't love free money? Scholarships can be obtained from both educational institutions and private organizations, depending on criteria such as academic performance, extracurricular activities, or financial requirements. So let's dive into finding suitable scholarship opportunities and some tips on applying successfully.

Finding Suitable Scholarship Opportunities

You'll want to start with a good ol' fashioned scholarship search to find the perfect scholarship match. To discover the ideal scholarship fit, you can utilize a variety of resources to locate awards that suit your requirements. You can find scholarships by some of the following criteria:

  • Financial Need
  • Area of Study
  • Ethnicity
  • State of residence
  • Application deadline

Besides searching our website, make sure to check with your high school guidance counselor or prospective college campuses about any available local or institutional scholarships. Also, consider looking into organizations related to your field of study or career interests, as they may offer industry-specific awards.

Tips on Applying Successfully

  1. Start Early: The early bird gets the worm, and in this case, the scholarship. Begin your search well before you need to start paying for college expenses. This gives you ample time to find scholarships that fit your needs and submit applications without feeling rushed.
  2. Stay Organized: Keep track of deadlines, application requirements, and submission materials using a spreadsheet or calendar. Staying organized will help ensure you don't miss any opportunities due to missed deadlines or incomplete submissions.
  3. Tailor Your Application: When applying for scholarships, it's essential to tailor each application specifically for that award. Highlight how your experiences align with the scholarship criteria and demonstrate why you're an excellent candidate.
  4. Ace Your Essay: Many scholarships require essays as part of their application process. Take time to craft a compelling essay that showcases your unique story while addressing the prompt effectively. Don't forget to proofread.

The world of scholarship hunting may seem overwhelming at first glance but fear not. With some research skills (and perhaps a bit of luck), finding suitable opportunities becomes much more manageable than trying to win Willy Wonka's golden ticket contest ever was. So put on your detective hat and get ready to uncover free money waiting just around every corner - because who doesn't want to pay for college without relying on student loans?

6. Save Up with 529 Plans

As a parent, you desire to provide your offspring with the greatest launch possible in life. One way to do that is by contributing to their education through tax-deferred savings accounts called 529 plans. These nifty little accounts allow families like yours to save up over time without worrying about taxes eating into your investment returns. Let's dive deeper into how these plans work and explore different types of options available.

RELATED: Saving for College: Understanding 529 Plans & Benefits

How 529 Plans Work

A 529 plan, otherwise referred to as a "qualified tuition program," allows family members to invest money towards the beneficiary's college costs (usually a child). The beauty of this plan lies in its tax advantages: contributions grow tax-free, and withdrawals for qualified higher education expenses are not subject to federal income taxes. In some cases, they might even be exempt from state taxes.

  • Earn Money: Your investments within the 529 plan have the potential for growth over time, allowing you to save more for college expenses.
  • Tax Benefits: As mentioned earlier, earnings on investments within the account are not taxed at either federal or state levels if used correctly - free money.
  • Flexibility: You can change beneficiaries within the same family without any penalties, so if one child decides against attending college or receives scholarships covering all costs, another sibling could benefit from those funds instead.

Different Types of 529 Plan Options

You may be wondering what kind of options exist within the world of 529 plans. Fear not, for we have your back. There are two main types to choose from:

  1. Prepaid Tuition Plans: These allow you to lock in current tuition rates at eligible public and private colleges, essentially "prepaying" for future college expenses. This option can be a great way to hedge against inflation and rising college costs.
  2. College Savings Plans: The more popular choice among families, these investment-based accounts offer various portfolios based on factors like age or risk tolerance. They provide flexibility in terms of where funds can be used (not limited to specific schools) and cover a broader range of qualified expenses such as room & board or books.

To make an informed decision about which plan suits your family best, consider factors like your child's age, projected college costs (Net Price Calculator, anyone?), state tax benefits available with each plan type, and any fees associated with the account management.

In summary, 529 plans are fantastic tools that help parents save up for their children's education while reaping some sweet tax advantages along the way. Whether you opt for prepaid tuition or a college savings plan will depend on your unique circumstances - but rest assured knowing that either choice is likely better than having no plan at all.

++This article is for informational purposes and should not be considered investment advice. We encourage you to seek professional financial advice before investing in a 529 plan. The information provided herein is not intended to, and does not constitute professional advice. Investing in a 529 plan involves risk and you should carefully consider your individual financial situation before investing.

7. Take Out Loans Responsibly

While it's best to exhaust all other options before resorting to loans, sometimes they're unavoidable. But fear not. Before deciding to take out a loan, it's important to research all options responsibly to avoid overwhelming debt after graduation. Let's explore the world of federal student loans and private student loans, along with some tips on how to keep your future monthly payments manageable.

RELATED: The Reality of Student Loans – 3 Things You Should Know

Federal Loans: The Safer Bet

When considering loan options, always start by looking at federal loans. These are provided by the government through the Federal Student Aid (FSA) program and usually have lower interest rates than private ones. Additionally, federal loans come with flexible repayment plans that consider your current income level—something you won't find in most private loan agreements.

  • Direct Subsidized Loans: Available for undergraduate students who demonstrate financial need; interest doesn't accrue while you're in school or during deferment periods.
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans: No requirement for demonstrating financial need; available for both undergraduate and graduate students; interest starts accruing as soon as funds are disbursed.
  • DIRECT PLUS Loans: Aimed at graduate/professional students or parents of dependent undergraduates who don't have adverse credit history; higher interest rate compared to Direct Subsidized/Unsubsidized Loans but still generally lower than private loans.

Private Loans: Proceed with Caution

If federal loans don't cover your college costs, you might have to consider private student loans. Banks, credit unions, and other finance-related entities offer private student loans. However, tread carefully. Private loans tend to be pricier and less adjustable in terms of payment plans than federal ones. To avoid getting stuck in a debt trap:

  1. Shop around for the best interest rates and terms.
  2. Consider using a co-signer if it'll help secure better loan conditions.
  3. Beware of variable interest rates that may skyrocket over time—stick to fixed-rate loans when possible.
  4. Read the fine print thoroughly before signing any agreement.

Maintaining Manageable Monthly Payments

To ensure your future self doesn't curse present-day you for taking on too much debt, keep monthly payments under 10% of your expected income after graduation. Use online tools like this handy-dandy loan calculator to estimate what those payments will look like based on different borrowing scenarios.

In short: Do your homework before diving into the world of student loans. Prioritize federal options, be cautious with private ones, and always keep an eye on future monthly payments to ensure a smooth financial journey through college and beyond.

Frequently Asked Questions

Read on for answers to some frequently asked questions about paying for college.

How to Afford to Pay for College?

To afford to pay for college, start by filling out the FAFSA to determine eligibility for federal aid. Consider attending an affordable community college or early collegiate high school. Apply for scholarships and save with a 529 plan. If necessary, take out loans responsibly.

How Do You Talk About Paying for College?

Discussing paying for college should involve open communication between parents and students. Begin conversations early, establish expectations, explore financial aid options together, create a budget, and research scholarship opportunities. Be realistic about costs while considering both the student's goals and family finances.

What Types of Money Are Used in Paying for College, and in What Order Should You Use Them?

The order of funding sources typically includes:

  1. Grants
  2. Scholarships
  3. Federal work-study programs
  4. Federal loans (subsidized first)
  5. Private loans

How Can I Pay for College Without a Loan?

Paying for college without loans involves exploring alternative funding sources such as grants, scholarships, work-study programs, or even employer-sponsored tuition assistance programs. Additionally, consider attending an affordable institution like community college or living at home during studies to reduce expenses.


Exploring all available options for financing college is essential to making higher education more accessible. From filling out the FAFSA and applying for scholarships to choosing an affordable college and using net price calculators, there are numerous strategies that can help make higher education more accessible.

It's also crucial to consider alternative education paths, such as attending community college before transferring or living at home while studying. Exploring all options, including grad school fellowships and work-study programs, is key to obtaining the financial aid needed for higher education.

If you're looking for more guidance on how to pay for college, check out some of our other blog posts. Our platform offers resources to help you navigate the complexities of higher education financing so that you can achieve your dreams without breaking the bank.


+This article is not intended to provide financial advice. Readers should always seek professional guidance before making decisions related to investing in 529 plans or taking out student loans.

++This site is also reader supported and may contain affiliate links. When you make a purchase through these links, we may earn a commission at no cost to you.

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