Your 5 step guide to paying for college

Young female hand showing five fingers.

How to pay for college and what to expect along the way.

College is a time that many claim to be the best years of their lives. It offers the chance of independence, lasting friendships, and of course, the education for the career of your dreams. But for some, it may seem out of reach.

The good news is, it can be within your reach — even if, financially, it doesn’t seem like a reality right now. The article below provides an overview on applying for financial aid, scholarships, along with more information on the cost of college and private student loans.

Step 1: Complete the FAFSA after October 1

Regardless of family income, you should always complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), as it’s required for all federal financial aid and most state and institutional aid. Complete the FAFSA form here. You will need to complete the form for each year you plan to attend college.

Step 2: Apply for scholarships

With all of the various kinds of scholarships available, there is something for just about everyone, and applying for scholarships is a great way to increase your chances of getting money for school.

To get started with your scholarship search, visit our Scholarship Resource Center, which provides access to billions of dollars of scholarships, and makes it easy to search scholarships that are both relevant for you and currently accepting applications. Applying for scholarships is something any student who is planning for college, already in college, or working toward a graduate degree can do.

Step 3: Estimate and compare your total college costs

How much does college cost? Comparing your total college costs can be a bit overwhelming when you talk about tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars. But that’s why the FAFSA and scholarships are important—they may help ease the sight of those large dollar amounts.

To get started on comparing your college costs, check out your preferred college or university’s website for its Net Price Calculator (NPC). This college cost calculator breaks down everything based on the information you put in—financial status, grades, even community service history—pertaining to your personal situation. It can help you estimate what types of financial aid resources may be available at that school. As a result, you’ll be able to better compare the costs, options, and opportunities available to you at different schools.

Step 4: Determine if you need additional money for college

While the NPC will help you plan in advance with a ballpark figure of financial and scholarship aid, against the estimated tuition cost, you can better determine what additional out-of-pocket costs you need to cover once you receive the award letters from your chosen schools. Evaluate your expenses and how they differ between schools, starting with your first choice to your last.

For example, if your total cost of college—tuition, fees, room and board, etc. —tallies out to $15,000 and your grants, scholarships and federal student loans cover $10,000, then you’ll need $5,000 in additional funds to attend that particular college. If you need additional money to cover college expenses, continue on to step 5.

Step 5: Additional college financing options

If the financial aid you receive from your award letter doesn’t cover your total college costs and other funding sources – like savings accounts, 529 plans, income, etc. – aren’t enough, you may want to explore additional federal and private financing options.

One of those options is a tuition payment plan, available through colleges to help students pay tuition in installments instead of one lump sum at the start of each semester. This is also beneficial because it allows you to pay your monthly tuition, typically interest-free. Another option includes Federal Direct PLUS Loans, which are credit-based loans offered by the federal government. You may also consider private student loans or alternative student loans, which are credit-based loans provided by banks or other lenders.

College is supposed to be the best time of your life. Hopefully this list is the first step you take to getting there.

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