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How to Pay for College

DormEssentials January 11, 2019
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So… You’ve been dreaming of the college experience: graduating from high school, moving out, making new friends, partying all the time, taking interesting courses, and becoming a young scholar. Well, there was one aspect of college you didn’t quite appreciate at the time—the cost. Can you pay for college? Will the cost influence where you decide to go?

The harsh reality is that university education in the United States is going to typically run between $15,000 (public schools) to $50,000 (private schools) per year. This cost generally reflects tuition, with another $10,000 to $15,000 for room and board as well as additional expenses. Depending on if you go to a college that is ‘in state’ vs ‘out of state’ can also impact costs (in state being cheaper).

If, like most of us, your parents did not have a college fund steadily growing and awaiting the day you turned 18, how are you expected to pay for college right out of high school?

Well, the first and most obvious answer is financial aid. Federal financial aid is available by filling out the FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). This form collects financial information about you and your family to determine what type of aid you qualify for. There is need-based, like federal subsidized loans and work-study. There are also more general forms of aid, like federal unsubsidized loans.

Both subsidized and unsubsidized loans essentially enable you to borrow money from the government at a lower interest rate than anything you would find from a commercial lender given your (presumably) shallow financial history and income (lenders defer to your financial history to determine how much risk you pose to them in defaulting on a loan). The big difference between federal subsidized and unsubsidized loans are that subsidized loans generally do not accrue interest on the amount you borrowed while you are still a student. This means that for the roughly four years you are a college student, your freshman year subsidized loans were not accumulating interest during your sophomore, junior, and senior years. If you borrowed $10,000 as a freshman at an interest rate of 5%, by the end of your senior year an unsubsidized loan would mean you owe $12,155 while, if you had a subsidized loan, you would still only owe $10,000 (hence the government “subsidizes” the interest while you are a student). Submit the FAFSA® before January 1st each year to meet their priority deadline for first dibs on some of the more lenient forms of financial aid.

Another need-based form of financial aid through the FAFSA® are federal work-study awards. Essentially, the government offers to pay most of your salary for you to perform part-time work—usually work pertaining to your studies. Some universities match you with a job on or off campus, but many require you to find the job on your own. This subsidy probably makes it easier to get hired, but let’s roll federal work-study awards with the more general strategy to help pay for college through part-time work while still a student. Working part-time is a great way to gain meaningful work experience that allows you to explore careers, makes you competitive for full-time employment on graduation, and earns you some money while still a student. The trick is to find employment which is enriching your career. For instance, a paid lab assistant allows you to gain research experience while getting paid. Other such suitable jobs might be a teaching assistant or tutor, which help you refine your scholarship, or more career-specific positions, like hospital aid, medical scribe, or EMT for people aspiring to enter the medical field.

Finally, apply for scholarships. An astronomical amount of scholarship money is not claimed each year because students do not apply for many available scholarships. Go to your financial aid office at school and ask for available scholarships given your major, interests, career goals, and background. Most applications require some essays and some letters of recommendation, but being strategic about applying to a few every year can easily pay off.

In sum, college is expensive, but there are several ways to help pay it off. As a bright young college student, you are offering society a tremendous amount of value by becoming educated. Federal programs are in place to encourage you to obtain higher education. If you are mindful, you can also find part-time work that gives you valuable career experience and some income. Finally, loads of scholarships are available, often funded by private-donors who remember what it was like to be a young scholar, and they want to help you enjoy your college years by taking some of the financial burden off your shoulders.

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