How to Pay for College: Scholarships, Grants, Loans, and Financial Aid

WeAdmit Master Guides
September 2, 2019
With The Rising Costs Of Education, Students Must Face The Tough Challenge Of Figuring Out How To Pay For College…

To complicate matters even more, there’s no single answer as to how much college will cost. The lack of clarity on the costs of college, combined with all the acronyms school counselors like to throw out about financial aid, can confuse even the brightest students and their parents.

Thankfully, there are more resources than ever before to help connect students with the financial aid they need. Students are armed with more sources to help pay for college than ever before. A plethora of grants, scholarships, loans, and work study programs exist to help students achieve their higher education goals.

Figuring out how to pay for college is a headache that many wish they could go without. However, there are ways to simplify the process for yourself and find ways to make going to college affordable for you. The first step is to educate yourself on the real costs of college.

What You’ll Find In This Article

How Much Does College Really Cost?

Many students believe they can easily boil down their college costs into one simple number. Unfortunately, figuring out what you’ll need to pay for college is no easy task. College includes a variety of costs such as tuition, books, transportation, housing, and more.

Ultimately, each college comes with a different price tag; it's up to you to research how much your chosen school will cost to attend.

How much college will cost for you will depend on many factors such as the institution you attend, which classes you take, where you live, and how you keep yourself entertained between classes. Some of the biggest price tags are attached to tuition and housing, but the small costs of fees and snacks between classes can quickly add up.

Doing your due diligence on the costs of college is key if you’re looking to pay for college without loans. During your research, you may find that you have to change how you plan on paying for college as you better calculate the many costs involved.

The total price you pay for college is called the net price. This price, thankfully, is often far lower than the published price on a college’s website or pamphlet. Your net price is the total owed after applying any grants, scholarships, or other financial aid you receive.

The annual “How America Pays for College” report from Sallie Mae puts the average cost for college at $26,226 for the 2018 - 2019 school year.

The various factors that go into the cost of college are outlined below. Keep in mind that there are other expenses to consider such as living essentials, school fees, and personal expenses. Students should learn how to properly balance a budget before heading off to college in order to keep their college costs in check.

What To Budget For When Planning For College


Properly budgeting for tuition is one of the biggest concerns for incoming college students. The tuition prices published on college websites and informational pamphlets is high enough to give almost anyone sticker shock. Thankfully, the listed average of around $9,400 dollars for a public four year college isn’t the full story of what students end up paying. A wide variety of financial aid can be used to offset or outright cover the cost of tuition.

Tuition prices are where school choice usually comes into play as a factor in determining your college costs. The difference in tuition costs between an in-state and out-of-state school can decide where a student chooses to attend college. Additionally, public colleges tend to charge much less in tuition than private colleges. Due to this, many private institutions offer grants to help low income students pay for part of their tuition.


The College Board estimates that the average student spends around $1,200 per year on books. This average doesn’t include the cost of a personal computer or other necessary tools for studying, doing homework, and staying organized. However, books and supplies are often a place where savvy students can save money by renting, buying used, borrowing, or using their college’s other free resources.

Fortunately, colleges are beginning to take note of the rising cost of books. Many schools offer programs to help combat these costs like textbook buyback opportunities at the end of each semester. Other schools encourage students to rent or buy used textbooks to lower costs.


For incoming freshmen, the real cost of housing and food is hard to pin down until you’ve gotten a semester or two under your belt. Whether you choose on campus housing or live off campus with roommates, your costs can vary between semesters and living situations. In addition, college is the first time many students are in charge of what they eat and when they eat, which can lead to some surprising food bills.

Many students choose to attend schools closer to home to allow them to avoid paying for food and housing entirely by living at home. This option, if available, is a great way to save thousands per semester, though you’ll need to consider the higher costs of transportation if you go this route. Other cost cutting options available to students include living with roommates and learning to cook from scratch to cut down on their food costs.


A student’s transportation costs can vary wildly for each student, but the following questions can help students and parents estimate their costs.

  • How far away from home is the college?
  • How often will you go home for a visit?
  • Will you be bringing a car to campus?
  • If you’re not bringing a car, how will you handle off-campus transportation needs?

Be aware that many college campuses require registration and fees to park in certain areas on campus. In addition to the costs of maintaining and fueling a car, these fees may make leaving cars at home the financially wise decision for some students.

However, transportation fees can still rack up if you plan on taking a ride share service to the grocery store across town every week. For this reason, many students opt to use a bike, especially at schools with a robust biking infrastructure.


Even students who plan to live frugally and within their means will want to experience the full spectrum of college life. Many college experiences such as clubs and events are free or low cost, but what about the study group turned weekly pizza party? Planning ahead for the small expenses that make college life worth it is essential in order to avoid burnout and overspending by fun-deprived students.

Creating an estimate of your college costs based on each college you plan to apply to will help ease any financial related misgivings. Be sure to account for your specific financial situation when making your estimates. When you’ve done the math yourself, you’re much more likely to make an informed choice about where you’re attending college and how you’ll ultimately pay for it.

How Do Most Families Pay For College?

The average American family will use a variety of sources to pay for their children’s secondary education. There are a plethora of resources available to help pay for college, such as federal aid, student loans, and work-study programs. In the end, there is no single financial aid solution that will work for every college student; no two schools and no two students are the same, after all.

Still, every family’s journey paying for college should start by filling out the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Even if you don’t believe you’ll qualify for any federal aid, filling out the FASFA is essential for finding every bit of financial aid you do have access to.

Because there isn’t a single solution for financial aid, college students and their families should familiarize themselves with all the types of financial aid available. Just because a student isn’t eligible for a certain type of aid right now, doesn’t mean that a student won’t be eligible to receive it in the future.

Students and their families should work together to figure out how to pay for college. Together, they can explore every option of financial aid available to the student to determine which is best for their financial situation and their student’s college goals.

Understanding College Scholarships And Grants

Scholarships and grants are forms of gift aid, or money you can use to pay for college expenses without having to pay it back as you would with a student loan. This form of financial aid can come from sources like the government, specific colleges, or private organizations. Many students use scholarship and grant money to help cover costs that otherwise would have to be covered by savings or loans.

Scholarships and grants are considered some of the best forms of financial aid due to the fact that they don’t have to be repaid. Students looking to lower their total out of pocket cost for college should pursue applying for as many scholarships and grants as they can.


Scholarships are generally awarded on a merit-based system in order to encourage the most talented students to apply and to help students reach their full potential in college. These funds can be used to pay for various school essential expenses such as tuition, books, housing, a personal computer, or transportation. Some scholarships may come with requirements, such as maintaining a certain GPA.

There are also scholarships for a wide range of sports, academic interests, hobbies, and future careers. Scholarships come in a wide range of award sizes, from small scholarships designed to help pay for a single cost, to completely covering all the costs for prestigious institutions. Some colleges even offer scholarships as a form of financial aid to help low-income students attend their school.

Ultimately, a counselor will be able to point you in the direction of any scholarships you should apply for based on your skills, interests, and achievements.


College grants are offered for a variety of reasons, but many are awarded through a need-based system in order to help students who couldn’t otherwise attend college due to financial circumstances. Grants are awarded by institutions such as the government, private organizations, and colleges themselves. One of the most commonly known grants is the Pell Grant, which is the government’s largest grant program.

Many grants require that students reapply for them every semester. Despite this, they are another great way for students to help pay for the costs of college.


Students who find themselves needing financial assistance to attend college should focus on applying to need-based scholarships and grants. Need-based awards are aimed at helping students who otherwise would not be able to afford attending college.

On the other hand, merit-based scholarships and grants are aimed at awarding deserving students for their efforts, talents, and achievements. One of the most common ways to receive this type of aid is through sports. Other merit-based scholarships focus on academic achievement, volunteer efforts, and other displays of talent.

Students should work together with their counselors, teachers, and family to identify scholarships and grants they should apply for. Many organizations that offer gift aid will ask students for an essay, portfolio of work, or similar proof of effort on the student’s part in order to apply. Fortunately, these requirements are often small when compared with the size of the scholarship or grant.

According to Sallie Mae, on average, students used just over $3,000 in grant and scholarship money to help pay for college in the 2018 - 2019 school year. This is no small amount of money, which is why it’s so important that every family learns about and applies for financial aid.

What Is College Financial Aid And Do I Qualify?

Financial aid refers to monetary awards given to students to help cover the costs of college. It refers to any type of aid that helps you pay for college. The costs covered by college financial aid can range from specific costs such as tuition and housing to more general college costs like textbooks and transportation.

There are some students who neglect to fill out financial aid forms because they wrongly believe they won’t qualify for financial aid. Every student should apply for financial assistance, because not every award is need-based. This means that students are potentially leaving money on the table by not seeking financial aid.


Financial aid for students is available to those who fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA). As the name implies, this is a form provided online by the government to help connect students to aid such as grants, scholarships, and loans. The application becomes available every year on October 1st, and students must reapply every year to keep their financial aid.

FASFA represents the largest bounty of financial aid available to students, meaning every student should fill it out, even if they think they won’t be eligible.

There is no upper income limit for FASFA. While not every student will be eligible for a grant, the application works to connect students with aid that they do qualify for such as subsidized loans, work study programs, or scholarships.

Filling out the FASFA may take a student a few hours, and you’ll be required to have your parent or legal guardian’s tax information. Your school counselor should be able to help you with any questions you have about filling out the web application. Don’t neglect this; filling out the FASFA is an important first step in receiving financial aid to help pay for college.


Tuition assistance is offered by many businesses, and most notably by several branches of the United States Military. This assistance can be used to cover the cost of tuition and must be reported when a student fills out FASFA. While receiving tuition assistance does not bar a student from receiving more financial aid, it may lower the amount of aid they receive from other sources.

Tuition assistance programs vary based on the employer or organization. Some students will be required to pay for their tuition out of pocket to later be reimbursed by their employer; some employers prefer to pay the cost of tuition directly to the school.

Taking advantage of your financial aid opportunities is a critical part of setting yourself up to be successful in college. When you don’t have to worry about your finances during the school year, you allow yourself to worry about more important things such as your next exam, or what you plan to binge watch on Netflix after midterms are finally over.

Sometimes, however, your financial aid opportunities won’t be enough to cover all your college costs. In that case, it may be time to consider learning more about student loans.

When Is The Right Time To Get A Student Loan?

While student loans may be a hot topic of conversation across the country, they’re still a viable option for students who need extra funds to pay for college. With so many opinions, options, and advertisements it’s difficult for incoming college students to find the real truth about student loans. This is why it’s crucial that students and their families do their homework and seek outside help if needed when researching student loans.

Overall, the best student loans are the kind that work for you and your family’s financial situation. While you should be optimistic about your future, you shouldn’t take out student loans as if your projected salary is a guarantee. With that in mind, student loans are another important tool to help pay for college as an investment in your future.


When considering using loans as a way to pay for college, it’s important that students and their families consider how the loan will be spent and repaid. This includes asking questions about your future career, spending habits, and school choice. Preparing before you take out a loan can help ease any worries you may have about the student loan process.

When planning to take out student loans, keep the following questions in mind:

  • Can my future career financially support my loan repayments?
  • Am I attending the most cost-effective school for my needs?
  • Is there any other way I can pay for school without taking out loans?
  • How long will I be repaying these loans if I can only afford the minimum payments?
  • What happens if I don’t land a high paying job in my career field right after college? Will I still be able to meet my payment schedule?

It’s important to get a clear picture of all of your college costs and financial aid before taking out a student loan. Some students may be able to find other sources of financial aid that they’ve overlooked, rather than taking out a student loan.

Work closely with your family and counselors as you research your student loan options. Never be afraid to ask questions about the student loan process! It’s a convoluted process that nobody expects students to figure out by themselves.


Federal loans are offered by the government. These loans are often more beneficial for students than private loans due to perks such as fixed-interest rates, income based repayment plans, and the ability to delay repaying the loan until a student is out of school. Students apply to these loans by way of their FASFA applications.

Private loans are offered by institutions such as banks and credit unions. Many private loans require that students begin paying off the loan while still in school, feature variable interest rates, and are often unsubsidized. Each private loan provider has different terms and conditions that students should make themselves fully aware of before taking out a loan. Despite these drawbacks, private loans can be beneficial because they offer students more flexibility and options than federal loans.

As a general rule of thumb, students looking to take out loans should start by first evaluating their federal loan options. Federal loans offer more security and perks than private loans, at the cost of being limited and tied to a deadline. Students looking for flexibility in how much they can borrow and when should research private loan options.


If you plan to use student loans to pay for college, you should look to take out student loans well before the semester you’ll need them for. However, the world is never an ideal place, and sometimes students find themselves in need of a student loan in the middle of the semester. You should only apply for these types of student loans if you can’t find another source of financial aid to meet your needs.

You can apply for federal loans once you’ve completed FASFA at any point in the school year. This means that the earliest you can apply for a federal student loan is October 1st for the 2019 - 2020 school year. Most private lenders are available for students to borrow from as needed throughout the year.


One of the most common mistakes involved with student loans is how many students don’t fully explore their options first. Taking out student loans should be your last avenue of paying for college. Make sure you’re taking advantage of all the available financial aid you can receive before considering taking out a loan.

Other common mistakes include the following:

  • Not reading the full terms and conditions of your student loan agreement.
  • Not creating a realistic repayment plan tailored to your specific career path, cost of living, and financial situation.
  • Not having a solid plan for how to handle repayments once you’re out of school.
  • Not seeking help when you’re confused about any aspect of your student loans.

Other Ways To Pay For College

Financial aid and student loans can cover most college expenses, however some students may find that they need a bit more money to cover all of their costs. There are plenty of ways to cut costs or earn extra income during your college years. While working during college or attending a more cost-conscious school may not be the most glamorous solution to your financial worries, they are effective ways to make getting an education work for your budget.


Income-share agreements (ISA) are a relatively new option for paying for college costs. Several schools across the country are creating their own ISA programs to help students cover what financial aid can’t. Students sign an agreement to pay a fixed percentage of their total income for a set amount of time after college.

One reason that students are attracted to ISAs is because they don’t charge interest. Despite this, due to the fact that your payment is directly tied to how much you earn, some students may end up paying back more than they initially borrowed. ISAs may be beneficial to students going into careers that have low starting salaries while still requiring a high cost degree.


Students whose families have saved for their college education using a 529 Plan have access to a tax-free savings account to help pay for their expenses. While this option requires some forethought and planning on the part of your family, the funds can be used to pay for education related expenses such as tuition, books and supplies, and even off campus housing. Students with access to one of these plans should take care to ensure they only spend the funds on education related expenses and save all of their education related receipts for tax season.


Many colleges offer work study programs to help students pay for college. This form of financial aid for students involves working part time on campus to help pay for your expenses. Work study programs often also allow students to study during downtime rather than give them busywork.

Of course, some students may need a part time job outside of college in order to pay for school. Jobs that allow you to sharpen your social skills while working around your class schedule are ideal for college students.

Gig work has become more prevalent in recent years, and picking up gigs during lulls in the semester is a great way for students to earn a bit of extra money to pay for expenses. Driving for a service such as Uber or Lyft, tutoring high schoolers at the local library, or writing blog posts for local businesses can all easily fit into a hectic college schedule.


Attending community college may be the best cost saving option for some students. Many small, local community colleges offer an associate’s degree that is honored at four year institutions for a much lower price tag. This strategy can save a student thousands of dollars earning their associate’s degree, and can be put towards earning a bachelor's degree at a later date.

Students also usually have access to a vast network of free resources from their colleges, their cities, and their online communities. Many of these resources can be used to either supplement or replace expensive textbooks entirely.

Savvy students can even take advantage of college student discounts for a variety of services they already use such as Spotify and Amazon Prime. Many college towns are home to a vast array of local businesses that offer discounts to students as well. Keep your college ID on you at all times, and you never know when your lunch may come with a 15% discount!

Paying For College Doesn't Have To Be A Mystery

While there’s no one answer to how much college costs, it’s possible for students to pin down a good estimate of their costs before they even attend orientation.

Every student will find themselves with a different number and a different method of paying for school, so it’s important that every student does the research on how much college will cost for them.

There are a variety of ways for students to pay for college. Most students benefit from a variety of sources such as work study programs, federal grants, and student loans. Each student should create their own financial aid strategy with the help of their family, friends, and counselors.

Sometimes, however, the path to paying for college isn’t so clear. WeAdmit counselors are here to help you explore your financial aid options in order to make attending your dream college a reality. We know what it’s like to be hit with sticker shock over college costs, and we know how to guide you through the process of applying for every bit of financial aid possible.

Now That You’re Armed With The Knowledge You Need, It’s Time To Make A Plan To Pay For College!



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