How To Pay for College When Times Are Tough

College is expensive and the price of tuition increases every year. Most families across America find it difficult to cover the full cost of college from their savings. And this is even during normal times. When finances are tight, paying for college becomes even more stressful. With stiff competition for limited resources, families have to prioritize and compromise to make sure that the important expenses are covered. College is one of those crucial expenses. There’s no denying the importance of getting a college education. Fortunately, there are ways to pay for college even when times are tough.

We’ve put together 9 ideas and tips on how to pay for college regardless of your financial situation.

9 Tips On How To Pay For College When Times Are Tough

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1. Start exploring financial aid opportunities early

There is a lot of financial aid available to support students’ dream of getting a college degree.

The federal government offers various types of financial aid. Each has a different set of conditions as well as eligibility requirements. When allotting funds, special consideration is given to students who demonstrate exceptional financial need to help pay for tuition.

If you meet the ‘exceptional financial need’ requirements, make a note of how to apply and the application opening and closing dates. Gather together all the documents you need so you are ready to fill out the application closer to the opening date. The earlier you apply, the better your chances of getting the financial aid you need to cover the cost of college. The competition for financial aid increases tremendously during an economic downturn. The key to getting the maximum funding from these opportunities is to submit your application as early as possible. You can only do this if you start your search early and keep all your documents ready to go.

2. Apply for scholarships and grants first

Scholarships and grants are free money. Unlike loans, you don’t pay interest on funds you receive through scholarships or grants, nor do you have to return the money. It’s yours to keep. The only condition is that you have to meet the sponsor’s qualifying criteria.

Scholarships are usually based on merit and are offered by the federal government as well as private organizations. The exact criteria varies among scholarships. The biggest benefits of scholarships is that there’s no limit to the number of opportunities you can apply to. And there’s no limit to the amount of award money that you can accept in a year. Taking time to look for and apply to scholarships is time well spent.

Grants are offered by the federal government and are based on demonstrated financial need. The federal government does limit the amount disbursed to each student that qualifies. Submitting your application early will increase your odds of getting the maximum amount that you’re eligible for.

3. Submit your FAFSA application as soon as it opens

FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. You must fill and submit this application within the deadline to avail of any type of federal or institutional financial aid. If you don’t submit the FAFSA within the deadline, you’ll lose the opportunity to get thousands of dollars in financial aid.

The federal government uses the information you submit on the FAFSA to calculate your EFC (Estimated Family Contribution) and aid eligibility. Based on the information you submit on the FAFSA, you’ll receive financial aid in the form of grants, loans, and work-study.

Federal financial aid is disbursed on a first come first served basis. Students who apply closer to the application opening date have a greater chance of getting the maximum aid they are eligible for.

4. If you have to borrow, take federal student loans first

If you’ve exhausted all your free aid opportunities and need more funds, you can take student loan. When it comes to student loans, you have two options – federal student loans and private student loans. As a rule, it’s always advisable to prioritize federal student loans. They have considerably lower interest rates and offer a lot of flexibility in terms of repayments. There’s also the potential to get part of your loans forgiven if you meet certain conditions. In addition, federal student loans offer deferment and forbearance options if you’re struggling financially.

Private student loans on the other hand have much higher interest rates. Also, they don’t offer any of the protections that you get with federal student loans. As far as possible, avoid taking private student loans altogether. Keep them as a last resort and apply only after you’ve exhausted all other resources and are still short.

5. Look into community colleges

Community colleges have gotten a bad rap for no reason other than that they aren’t as prestigious as 4-year private universities. While community colleges may lack the pomp and prestige of private colleges, what they do offer is strong academic programs. You can complete 2 years of your undergrad degree at a community college for about 1/3rd the cost of a private college. You can then transfer to a private school to complete the remaining 2 years. Many private colleges accept credits from community colleges.

Attending community college for two years can save you a considerable amount of money. When times are tough, this is a great way to get a solid college education without the hefty price tag. And if you choose an institution closer to home, you could save on accommodation too.

Students who choose this route graduate with far less debt than students who complete all 4 years in a private school.

6. Negotiate your college tuition

Maybe you’ve got your heart set on a particular college but can’t afford the tuition even with financial aid. In this situation, you have two choices – give up on your dreams or ask the college for a tuition reduction. Some schools may consider your request while others may not. You won’t know until you ask.

Schools that have seats vacant in your chosen program are more likely to negotiate your tuition.  Be prepared to submit considerable documentation supporting your request for lower tuition. You’ve got everything to gain and nothing to lose with this strategy.

7. Pick Up a Side Hustle or Part-Time Work

Would you rather give up your dream of going to college or work for it? When times are tough, that’s a decision you’ll be faced with. The truth is it’s not all that tough to take up a part-time job when you’re in high school. There are several jobs you can do that won’t interfere with your studies. Consider taking up jobs within your neighborhood such as babysitting, dog-walking or giving tuition. Look for summer jobs. Plenty of fast-food chains hire high school students during summer to help with the increase in orders.

It’s worth exploring part-time job opportunities to earn some money towards college. The pay may not be much but it does add up over time and it will help offset the cost of tuition. The money you earn could make the difference between attending the school of your choice and having to choose your third or even fourth choice.

What you earn through part time jobs will also help reduce the amount of student loans you take on. You’ll be glad you chose this path when you graduate with lower student loan debt.

8. Work-Study Program

When you fill the FAFSA, you’ll can choose to apply for the work-study program. The work-study program involves working a certain number of hours a week to earn towards tuition. FAFSA moderates will determine your eligibility for work-study based on the information you’ve submitted. But you have to choose that option to even be considered.

Work-study programs offer several benefits. It’s an opportunity to earn while you learn. The jobs that you’ll be offered are on campus itself. More often than not, you’ll work in a role closely related to your major field. This will be counted as relevant work experience in your resume, which helps when applying for a job after graduation.

The only drawback is that you’ll have to juggle your academics and work. But if you can manage it, it helps to pay for college when times are tough.

9. Save your money

It may seem obvious but it needs to be said. Have you really added up how much you spend every month on things that you don’t really need? They may have seemed like small purchases at the time but these small amounts add up to a sizeable total. For a couple of months make a note of everything you spent on, however small. You’ll be surprised at how much those small spends can add up to.

Make a concerted effort to stop spending on frivolous items and put that money aside for college instead. Got cash for your birthday or for Christmas? Put it in a savings account so you’re not tempted to spend it. How many subscription services do you pay for every year? Cancel most of them and save that money for college.

There are a lot of ways that you can pay for college even when times are tough. It’s worth spending time working on all or at least some of these ideas. Each one of these tips will move you closer to realizing your dreams of going to college regardless of financial limitations.

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