Paying for Your College Education: Plan and Prepare to Get There

If education is expensive, then consider the alternative. College graduates from the millennial generation – those aged 25 to 32 – earned about $17,500 more in 2012 than their peers with just a high school diploma, according to a new study from Pew Research. While college may be costly, it is within your reach with careful planning.

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First, become acquainted with the various general costs of attending school. Check out our chart for a range of what you can expect to spend, and then hone in on the costs of your schools of interest through the National Center for Education Statistics College Navigator or U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard.

College expenses generally fall into three categories: tuition and fees, housing and other expenses, including books, supplies, recreation and transportation. When you are shopping schools, be sure to research all expenses and carefully compare the full financial aid packages offered to calculate the average net price you will actually pay. Competitive financial aid might actually bring an out-of-reach tuition rate to an affordable level.


Consider the types of financial aid available and research what you can qualify for:

Scholarships. Based on merit alone or a combination of merit and need, scholarships are non-repayable, so it makes sense to find as many scholarship awards as possible. Talk to your high school guidance counselor, research church and community scholarship sources and visit your college’s financial aid department to learn about opportunities. Remember to keep looking for scholarships well beyond your first year of college.

Grants. Often based on need, grants do not require repayment. Like scholarships, grants can come from the federal or state government, your college, private institution or community group.

Loans. When you apply for financial aid, loans may be offered as part of your financial aid package. Loans may be available through the federal government, private lenders or colleges, and they require repayment with interest, although most interest rates are low. Loans may also be available to eligible parents for the college costs of their qualifying children. Learn more about loans, including updated interest rate information, at the U.S. Department of Education Federal Student Aid website.

Work-study programs. This type of aid provides part-time employment while you attend school and is available to undergraduate, graduate and professional students from state agencies, the federal government, private foundations and professional organizations. Check with your financial aid office to see if you qualify.


Ideally, you will start a conversation with your family about college costs early in your decision-making process. Begin by learning your various options through the forecasting calculator on the Federal Student Aid website. Talk about what you can afford and how you plan to cover the expenses associated with your education, taking into account all financial resources you expect to be available.

Above all, remain calm and focused on your goal. Education professionals agree that costs should not determine whether you apply to a particular college, as unexpected financial sources may bring that school within reach.

A Word About Scholarships 

Private scholarship money is available, but it won’t necessarily come knocking on your door. You might have to dedicate considerable time and energy to finding and applying for available funds. 

Begin by asking your school counselor, then set aside some time weekly during your senior year to search for and complete scholarship applications. But be aware – a company offering to do the work for you for a fee is a scam, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Some red flags:

• “You have been selected to receive a scholarship” that you never applied for

• “Just pay a processing fee” or “Give me your credit card info to hold the scholarship”

• “You can’t get this information anywhere else”

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More Information

U.S. Department of Education Federal Student Aid:

U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard: