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How to Afford College: Financial Aid, Scholarships & Budget Tips

written by: William Springer•edited by: Noreen Gunnell•updated: 9/21/2012

College can be a great investment...but what if you can't afford to go? We offer a few tips on covering the cost of going to college, including a sample student budget available to download.

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    The Cost of College

    We've all heard the statistics about how a person with a college degree will make a million dollars more over his or her lifetime than someone with only a high school education. Sounds like a no-brainer...but what if you can't afford to go to college? More likely than not, you won't have enough financial aid to completely cover the cost of going to college; how do you make up the difference?

    The first step, of course, is figuring out how much you really need. If you haven't started college yet, it might be necessary to attend a less expensive school; community colleges provide very good value for the first two years of college without sacrificing quality, and state schools can be quite affordable for residents. Look into ways to save money in other areas as well: perhaps the largest cost to attending college is the lack of time to earn money for living expenses. We'll discuss a few ways to cut costs below.

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    More Scholarships

    One thing students may not realize is that the search for scholarships doesn't end when school starts! A personal story: in my junior year of college, I applied for a scholarship that was supposed to be $500 each for eleven students. The interviews were inconveniently scheduled at the last minute and only five people showed up; as a result, we got $1100 apiece! Don't stop trying because you don't think you'll get anything; you never know what's going to happen.

    You'll want to be sure to fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible every year; this keeps you eligible for new scholarships and grants. Check in with your college financial aid office a couple times per year; they'll be able to tell you about new scholarships you might not be aware of, particularly ones that are available only to students are your school (and thus have less competition). Also, be aware that changes in your circumstances may make you eligible for additional money; for example, a change in your tax status from being a dependent to an independent student may make you eligible for Pell grants.

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    Workstudy

    The financial aid office is also where you're most likely to find out about work-studies, which are jobs on campus with flexible hours that you can schedule around your classes. Aside from being more convenient, the pay is often treated as a scholarship, which exempts you from paying social security taxes on it; this can be a big deal for a struggling student!

    Other on-campus positions save you money rather than (or instead of) paying a salary. For example, residence halls tend to hire upperclassmen as RAs (resident advisors); in exchange for helping to run the halls, they get free room and board.

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    Loans

    Loans should be a last resort; who wants to finish college owing money? But when you don't have enough financial aid for college, sometimes loans are the only way to continue attending. There are a number of different college loans available, depending on your circumstances. Generally you want to look at federal loans first; while you can also get private loans, they tend to cost more. Stafford loans are the most common and come in two flavors: subsidized, in which the government pays the interest while you're in school, and unsubsidized, where it doesn't. The important thing is to make sure you don't end up with so many loans that the payments keep you from doing what you want to do after you finish school!

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    Be Creative!

    Paying for college can be difficult, but it's worth it in the long run. Cut down on expenses, pick up extra cash where you can, and don't fail any classes; it sucks to pay all that money and not have anything to show for it! If you've never budgeted before, now is the time to start. Downloadable this sample student budget to help you see where your money is going and adjust your expenses. College can be a great investment, but what you get out of it depends on what you put in to it. Put in a lot of effort, but follow these tips so you can avoid putting in a lot of money!