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How to Afford College

Director of Education and Corporate Communications
Financial Literacy Specialist

Finding smart solutions to afford college, so you can avoid the burden of student loan debt.

The cost of higher education has become a phenomenal burden for students and parents alike in recent decades. U.S. News reported that from 2008 to 2021, the cost of in-state tuition among public National Universities grew by 72%. If a student attends college and relies solely on student loans to cover the tuition and other costs, it creates a phenomenal financial burden by the time they leave school. Student Loan Hero reports that 56% of public and non-profit college seniors graduate with student loans, with an average debt of $28,800.[2] That amount of debt can lead to serious delays in achieving life goals, such as getting married and buying a first home.

How much does college cost in 2021?

According to the College Board, the average net price paid by full-time students enrolled in public four-year colleges increased again in 2020-21.[3] 

2018-19 was the seventh consecutive year that tuition increased before an almost historic price drop in 2019-20. To relieve the financial stress COVID-19 put on students, many institutions lowered their tuition prices for the year. Aside from the pandemic’s impact on cost, the average net price for public two-year and private nonprofit four-year students also increased. The table below reflects the increases in tuition and fees, room and board for full-time undergraduates by type of institution. 

We provided the 2019-20 and 2020-21 college costs, so you can see how much costs have increased over the past academic year.

SectorTuition and Fees Academic Year 2017-18Room and Board 2017-18Total 2017-18Tuition and Fees Academic Year 2018-19Room and Board 2018-19Total 2018-19
Public Two-Year In-District$3,730$8,990$12,720$3,770$18,550$22,320
Public Four-Year In-State$10,440$11,510$21,950$10,560$26,820$37,380
Public Four-Year Out-of-State$26,820$11,510$38,330$27,020$43,280$70,300
Private Nonprofit Four-Year$36,880$12,990$49,870$37,650$54,880$92,530

The cost of tuition for for-profit college for 2019-20 was $15,400; costs for 2020-21 have not been provided yet as of the publishing of this page.[2] While the sticker price for college can be enormous, the best way to prepare for college is to save.

How to afford college and minimize student loans

Step 1: Plan ahead and do your homework.

Begin to research programs, scholarships, and grants well before it’s time to apply to the school of your choice. Consider attending a local university or even starting at a Community College. This will help you save on the cost of room and board and tuition as in-state rates are often significantly cheaper for residents. A good place to start is at

Step 2: Apply for financial aid.

Apply for financial aid as soon as you can to beat the deadlines. Fill out the FAFSA form (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), whether you think you’ll qualify or not. Be sure to register when the application opens on January 1st to ensure that you do not miss out on available aid. You can also fill out a paper application available at any college campus Financial Aid department.

Here’s what FAFSA offers:

  1. Loans: Student loans make up the majority of most students’ aid packages. Some come directly from the federal government, while others are made available through individual lenders. It’s important to understand the difference between the two types of loans you could receive, subsidized and unsubsidized. With subsidized loans, the government pays the interest while you are in school, up until the grace period ends. Unsubsidized loans on the other hand mean you are responsible for paying the interest that begins to accrue when the loan is disbursed.
  2. Work-study loans: The federal work-study programs allow students to work part-time to earn money for college expenses. These jobs are either on-campus or off-campus and sometimes relate to your field of study.
  3. Grants: A grant is money that you don’t need to pay back and is based on your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The lower your EFC – a number used by your school to determine your federal student aid eligibility and financial aid award—the higher your chances of qualifying for a Federal Pell Grant, or a Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG).

What to do after FAFSA:

After applying for FAFSA, check if you are eligible for PLUS loans. These federal loans help students pay for what the FAFSA doesn’t cover, and are available to parents with a good credit history. There is no grace period on these loans, and interest will start accruing immediately. You can also look for private lenders that offer loans to parents, but this should be a last resort—as rates may not be fixed.

Step 3: Apply for scholarships:

Scholarships are a great way to help leave college debt-free. Essentially, scholarships are free money usually awarded to students based on academic achievements, the field of study, minority group membership, and GPA. The federal government, state government, college or career schools, non-profit organizations, high school guidance counselors, and public libraries are excellent places to ask about scholarships. Stay ahead of deadlines and do your best to apply early.

Beware of scholarship scams:

According to the Federal Trade Commission, you should never need to pay for a scholarship. Keep a lookout for these tip-offs that a potential “scholarship” is a scam:

  • “The scholarship is guaranteed or your money back.”
  • “You can’t get this information anywhere else.”
  • “We’ll do all the work.”
  • “I just need your credit card or bank account number to hold this scholarship.”
  • “The scholarship will cost some money.”
  • “You’ve been selected by a ‘national foundation’ to receive a scholarship” or “You’re a finalist” in a contest you never entered.

Step 4: Start saving early.

The earlier you start to save the better. Here are a few popular options to save for a child’s education.

  1. 529 Savings Plans: Anyone can open a 529 savings account for themself or someone else. Individual states sponsor different 529 plans, with various costs and investment options. In some cases, investing in your state’s plan might give you state tax benefits—but be sure to do your research and don’t automatically assume your state’s plan is the best option. Visit to learn more and find a plan that will work for you.
  2. Coverdell Education IRAs: Education IRAs allow anyone to open an investment account on behalf of a child and contribute up to $2000 a year. The account earnings grow tax-deferred and may be withdrawn tax-free for qualified expenses.[3]
  3. Home Equity: Some parents use their home equity as a form of college savings. They set a goal of paying down their mortgage or paying it off entirely by the time their children enter college. Because some colleges do not count home equity when calculating aid awards, if your child decides not to go to school (or gets a boatload of scholarships) you still have a house that’s paid for!

Step 5: A part-time job could earn you extra credit

When considering job offers, take into account the benefit of tuition reimbursements. Some employers will pay for part or all of higher education expenses, allowing students to work through college without taking on debt. Look for work in a field that’s related to your career goals. That way not only will you be making money, but you will also be honing relevant skills, contacts, and experience that are needed to help you land that dream job after graduation.

Don’t let your debt derail you or your children’s future!

It’s almost impossible to start saving the money you’ll need for your children’s education if you’re saddled with high credit card debt. If you’re struggling to stay afloat and are worried about how you’ll afford your children’s education, we can help.

Making Graduate School Affordable

If you’re thinking about graduate school, go for it! Not only is it a great way to further your education, but a Master’s or Doctorate degree is rising in demand for many careers. Don’t let the price of tuition hold you back, there are easy ways to minimize the debt burden that can be caused by grad school.

Step 1: Apply for financial aid.

Many people don’t know that the FAFSA can also cover graduate school. Just like you might have done as an undergrad student, apply for need-based financial aid with the FAFSA form. The only difference is that this time around, you’ll need to file as an independent and you won’t be eligible for subsidized loans.

What to do after FAFSA:

After completing the FAFSA, you can request a “grad PLUS loan”. Use the Direct PLUS Loan Application to apply as a graduate or professional student. If you previously did this as an undergrad, save time by simply requesting to change the loan amount detailed in your already submitted application. Once approved, grad students are able to use their loans to pay for tuition, room and board, or other related fees.

Step 2: Apply for merit and need-based scholarships.

One of the most popular ways to finance grad school is to apply for scholarships. Sites like GradSchoolHub aim to make it simple for graduate students to find and apply for college-based, career-specific, or Fulbright scholarships. Remember, you are also more likely to receive a career-specific scholarship, so look for programs that meet your field of study and qualifications. 

With that being said, don’t limit yourself, seek out as many opportunities as possible. Start by checking out GradSchoolHub’s diverse compilation of 40 graduate school scholarships. There, you can check your eligibility for certain programs and view each scholarship amount and application deadline.

Step 3: Look for a one-year program.

It’s simple, the less time you attend school, the less you pay. One-year programs are a cheaper and more streamlined alternative to two-year programs. Many reputable schools offer degrees in a variety of disciplines, so you’re sure to find a subject that aligns with your credentials and career goals. Although this might be an out-of-the-box way to save on school, many students really enjoy these accelerated programs, so it’s worth looking into.

Step 4: Work for your school

Although most any part-time job could help you pay for graduate school, seek out ones at the institutions you attend. Some universities offer their students no-cost tuition as an employment benefit. Balancing school work and a full-time job can be difficult, but by being proactive and managing your time you can attend school for little to nothing. 

Most public universities also offer graduate assistantship programs. This is where students are offered full tuition reimbursements or a stipend to teach classes or conduct research. These programs are available in diverse areas of study so not only is it going to pay your bills, but you can gain valuable resume-building experience.

Step 5: Tuition reimbursement from an employer

While searching for a job, try to find one with a tuition reimbursement program. Many corporations like DaVita, Deloitte, and Qualcomm cover portions of their student employee’s tuition. Other companies offer policies based on specific universities. For example, Papa Johns gives employees the opportunity to take business classes, and other related courses, at Purdue University for free. There are also certain limitations for each program, such as being an employee for a few months, so be sure to do your research.  

If you are currently employed, talk to your Human Resources department about tuition reimbursement. Some companies might cover a portion or half of tuition, while others could offer to cover the full price—this will most likely happen if your job is related to your area of study. 

If credit card debt is holding you back from saving effectively for your children’s college, we can help. Talk to a certified credit counselor for a free debt and budget analysis.