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How to Afford College

Director of Education and Corporate Communications
Financial Literacy Specialist

These five steps can help you avoid the burden of student loan debt.

The average cost of attending an in-state public university is $26,027 — that’s 23 times more expensive than it was 60 years ago. By the time they graduate, the average student will have accumulated $156,162 in debt (and that may not reflect the true cost of college, which may include room and board, textbooks, other supplies, or food). 

However, when considering loan interest charges, multiple years of lost income, and stagnating wages, the real price of a bachelor’s degree across a person’s lifetime is closer to half a million dollars. These large amounts of debt have been shown to delay important milestones for student loan borrowers like getting married, having children, and buying a home, as well as preparing for the future by contributing to savings or retirement accounts. 

While the pursuit of higher education is typically considered an investment, it’s not always worth accumulating thousands upon thousands in debt. Here are five steps you can take to make college more affordable whether you’re an undergrad or post-grad student. 

Step 1: Plan ahead and do your homework.

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.

Fill out the FAFSA form (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) whether you think you’ll qualify or not. Note, when you apply, you are requesting financial aid for the following academic year; someone seeking funding for their upcoming freshman year would need to apply when they’re a senior in high school. If you don’t have access to a computer, paper applications are available at any college campus Financial Aid department.

Here’s what FAFSA offers:

  • 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.
  • Work-study: 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.
  • 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.”
  • “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”
  • “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.

529 Savings Plans

Anyone can open a 529 savings account for themselves 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.

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]

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.

Parents: 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.

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

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 post-grad 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 schoolwork 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’s 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.