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How to Pay for College: the 7 Best Ways

Two high school boys talk about their financial aid

For many students out there, getting into college is only half the battle. Paying for college is the other half. With college prices higher than ever, funding your higher education dream can seem next to impossible.

But don’t worry - we’re here to help. If you’re wondering how to pay for college, this is the guide for you. In the sections below, we provide strategic ways to pay for college. We also offer insightful statistics and answers to some of your most commonly-asked college funding questions. You can pay for college. We’ll show you how.

How Families Pay for College in 2023

Since very few students get full-ride scholarships or enough private awards to cover the cost of education fully, how are families coming up with the money to pay for college?

Let’s take a look at current numbers according to the 2022 “How America Pays for College” study from Sallie Mae and Ipsos.

According to the report, families spent $25,313 on average for tuition and expenses in the academic year 2021-2022. That's down 4% from the previous academic year. Of these costs, the study reported the following:

  • 87% of families used their income and savings to pay for college.
  • 41% of families borrowed money to pay for college.
  • 73% of families used grants and scholarships to pay for college. 

The bottom line? From scholarships to saving strategies to limiting spending, there are so many different ways to help you pay for college.


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The 7 Best Ways to Pay for College

With the data now clearly laid out, it’s easy to see that there are several ways that students and their families pay for college. For some, families provide the money. For many others, this simply isn’t possible. In cases where family money won’t get you across the finish line, there are several routes you can take to fund the next step successfully. Below, we’ve compiled 7 of the best ways to pay for college.

1. Pay for College with Financial Aid

Of all the college-funding methods discussed in this guide, the first one we’re discussing is perhaps the most surefire. It’s federally mandated financial aid. The reason that college financial aid is perhaps the best way to pay for college is that it’s virtually guaranteed if you qualify, and many families do.

Plus, applying for financial aid isn’t difficult — and those who qualify often go on to achieve their collegiate dreams. There is a strong connection between applying for financial aid, enrolling, and ultimately earning a bachelor’s degree. But millions of families who would qualify for financial aid never file the documents.

There are two main types of financial aid from federal institutions. The first is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA): a form that determines whether students qualify for a wide range of financial aid. Based on a student’s individual or family income, FAFSA can automatically qualify college applicants for a host of loans and grants, including Stafford Loans, PLUS Loans, Federal Pell Grants, and other need-based grants. FAFSA is also the benchmark used by most colleges to distribute their own need-based scholarship packages. 

You can file the FAFSA starting October 1 of each year. It’s important to file early to capture any money that students qualify for, especially for low-income students. If you don’t start early, you might miss the ability to get the Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant (FSEOG), which can run out on some campuses.

Perhaps the most important source of financial aid that FAFSA can qualify you for is the Federal Pell Grant. Unlike loans, Federal Pell Grants do not have to be repaid (except under very particular circumstances). They are awarded as a lump sum that can total in excess of $6,000 for a single academic year.

Students with extreme financial need who qualify for the Pell Grant are eligible for the FSEOG. In addition, some state aid programs and college aid programs run out of money and operate on a first-come, first served basis. So apply early. 

If you have trouble completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), contact the FAFSA hotline at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243).

2. Pay for College with Scholarships

When people think of scholarships for college, they often think of financial awards provided by schools or governments. However, there is a huge array of scholarships also provided by private organizations like companies, foundations, service groups, and even individuals. These are called private scholarships, and they’re a great way to pursue funding outside of college- or government-offered financial aid packages.

But to summarize scholarships, four major types are available to college applicants. Federal and state grants and scholarships, which make up over half of all scholarship funding. Then scholarships and grants from colleges and universities, and private scholarships.

Be sure to use Appily when checking for scholarships. Our site includes lists of scholarships broken down into categories, including:

The office of U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard in California publishes a helpful student resource guide for scholarships, internships, and other opportunities. There also are scholarships available through MALDEF and the Hispanic Scholarship Fund. But these are just a couple of the many places to find scholarship money.

And be advised - schools don’t list every scholarship on their website. So be sure to talk to your advisor to find available scholarships you're eligible for. 


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3. Pay for College with a Federal Direct Loan 

The Direct Loan, which is designed exclusively for students, is the safest loan to use and has built-in safety nets if you graduate without a well-paying job. Provided by the U.S. Department of Education, the Direct Loan is currently available in four options: Direct Subsidized Loans, Direct Unsubsidized Loans, Direct PLUS Loans, and Direct Consolidation Loans.

  • Direct Subsidized Loans

These loans are only available to undergraduate students with demonstrable financial aid (established via FAFSA). These loans do not accrue interest while students are in school or for the first sixth months after school is finished.

  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans

This loan type is available to eligible undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. Demonstrable financial need is not required to earn these loans, though the amount you borrow is determined by your cost of college attendance and the amount of financial aid you’re currently receiving. Direct Unsubsidized Loans accrue interest the moment they take effect.

  • Direct PLUS Loans

These loans are available to eligible graduate and professional students, as well as dependent undergraduate students that may need extra assistance with costs not covered by other forms of financial aid. You do not need to demonstrate financial need to apply, but you will need to conduct a credit check. Direct PLUS Loans are unsubsidized, so they accrue interest the moment they take effect.

  • Direct Consolidation Loans

These loan plans allow borrowers to consolidate all of their loans into a single plan through one loan servicer. Doing so allows you to have just one fixed interest rate, which can make loans more affordable and easier to pay. Direct Consolidations Loans are provided at no charge and welcome all borrowers to apply.

4. Pay for College with a 529 Savings Plan

Another great way to save for college (and ultimately pay for it) is a 529 Savings Plan, also called a 529 Plan. State-sponsored and offered by nearly all U.S. States, 529 Plans are specialized savings and investment accounts that do not tax the interest accrued. In almost all cases, you keep everything you earn to put towards a college education.

There are two primary types of 529 Savings Plans: College Savings Plans and Prepaid Tuition Plans. College Savings Plans work like retirement funds in that they invest deposited money into mutual funds or other options (some of which can be determined by the individual). Prepaid Tuition Plans allow plan owners to pre-pay all or some of the cost of an in-state public college education. (There is also a Private College 529 Plan, which offers the same service for participating private colleges.)

Interested in learning more about 529 Savings Plans? Check out this page for more information. 

5. Pay for College Prep with “Fly-In Programs”

Tuition, room and board, and other academic expenses are the biggest contributors to the cost of college. However, one of the added college expenses that many overlook is the cost of visiting colleges. Traveling to schools, staying overnight, and traveling back can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars. Thankfully, with fly-in programs, those costs can be covered.

Offered to applicants from certain demographic groups and/or those with demonstrable need, fly-in programs cover the cost of travel, lodging, and other expenses so students can visit certain college campuses. These programs are usually offered in partnership with schools themselves, so check out the websites of your top schools to see if they have fly-in opportunities.

You can also read College Greenlight’s annual list of the most popular list of college fly-in programs.

6. Pay for College Prep through Summer Programs

A pre-college summer program is a short-term academic program designed to help you get a head start on your college education. These programs typically take place during the summer months and are hosted by colleges and universities.

Pre-college summer programs offer students a less stressful way to take initial college-level courses. Students are able to gain valuable experience and explore potential career paths, all while gaining confidence and comfort on a college campus. 

Veronica Longstreth, a school consultant in San Diego, said an impetus for these programs was that universities were concerned that they weren’t getting minority students in certain majors, such as STEM. You can find some of these free summer programs for minority students programs through College Greenlight.

7. Pay for College More Easily by Choosing an Affordable School

College affordability is a popular topic, and one of the smartest ways to pay for college is to choose a college that fits your price range. The annual tuition for colleges and universities across the country varies considerably, but so does the aid offered by these colleges.

Once you have your aid offer in front of you and notification of any scholarships awarded, you can begin to make a choice that works best with your financial situation. Ideally, you'll look at the net price and not the sticker price to determine which school is the most affordable. 

Choosing an affordable school means being honest with how you expect to handle finances going forward. If your primary goal is to avoid loans, then you’ll want to avoid any colleges whose costs will require you to take out loans. On the other hand, if you have a solid plan to pay back loans after college, then a college payment plan with loans may be the right choice for you.


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Paying for School FAQs

Q: What is an Application or a Fee Waiver?

An application or a fee waiver is a form of financial assistance offered to students who are unable to afford the application fee for college or university.

When applying to colleges or universities, you're typically required to pay an application fee. This fee can range from a few dollars to over a hundred dollars, and it can be a burden for some students and families, particularly those from low-income backgrounds. In order to ensure that all students have equal access to higher education, many colleges and universities offer application fee waivers.

An application fee waiver allows you to submit your application to a college or university without having to pay the fee. To qualify for a fee waiver, you'll need to demonstrate financial need. This can be done by submitting documentation such as tax returns, proof of government assistance, or a letter from a school counselor or other professional.

In addition to application fee waivers, some colleges and universities also offer fee waivers for standardized tests such as the SAT or ACT. These waivers allow students to take the test for free or at a reduced cost. Like application fee waivers, eligibility for test fee waivers is typically based on financial need.

Q: How can I save money on textbooks and other school supplies?

You can save money on textbooks and other school supplies by buying used or renting them instead of purchasing new items. You can also search for digital versions of textbooks, which are often less expensive than print editions.

Q: Can I get financial aid if I'm not a full-time student?

Yes, you can still receive financial aid if you're not a full-time student. However, your eligibility for aid may be affected by your enrollment status, so it's important to check with your school's financial aid office for specific information.

Q: What is work-study, and how does it work?

Work-study is a type of financial aid program that allows students to work part-time while they're in school to help pay for their educational expenses. Work-study jobs are often located on campus and can include a variety of roles, such as working in the library, cafeteria, or administrative offices.

Students typically earn an hourly wage and can use the money they earn to pay for their tuition, books, and other school-related expenses. The amount of money you can earn through work-study is limited by your financial need and the availability of funds. To be eligible for work-study, you must complete the FAFSA form and indicate that you're interested in work-study on your application.

Q: Should I Work Part-Time While Attending College to Help Pay for School? 

If at all possible, attend school full time. Your chances of graduating will increase. In fact, studies show the chances of earning a bachelor’s degree increase significantly if you take 12 credit hours or more in your first semester in school.

The students studied were also more likely to have higher grade point averages when they took a full load of classes and didn't work. Students who received Pell Grants, the study discovered, experienced similar results.

That said, if you personally feel that you have the bandwidth to work part-time while at school, you certainly can help pay for college by doing so. Out of the many ways to pay for college, working part-time during the school year is one of the most immediate. (For those with loans, money earned in college can facilitate a repayment plan that avoids most interest.)

Need help finding a place to work? Start with your college’s career center. There, you’ll find opportunities for employment through on-campus jobs, internships, and other positions in the area.


How to Pay for College? With a Appily Scholarship!

Now that you know the best ways to pay for college, it's time to start securing your funding.

With Appily, you can sign up to search and apply for scholarships in seconds. Or apply for the Appily Easy Money scholarship. No GPA requirements or Essay needed. Click the button below to get started. 


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