Parents—wondering how to pay for college? Start here.

Tips to help your family pay for college

Maybe the paying-for-college process has changed a lot since your glory days. Or maybe your student will be the first in your family to go to college. Whatever the case, it can be tough to know where to start when it’s time to help your kids pay for college. Try breaking it into steps with this 1-2-3 approach.

1. Use savings, scholarships, and grants


According to Sallie Mae's national study, How America Pays for College, families spent $28,026 on college, on average. About one-fifth of these costs (22%) were covered by parent and student savings.  However much you’ve saved, it’s important to set clear expectations with your child before that tuition bill comes due.

Yes, your high school senior is busy (and you probably don’t want to burden them with finances), but if you have an honest conversation now, your student will thank you later. It’s important that students understand what their financial choices will mean for them after graduation.

Make sure you’re on the same page about the answers to these questions:

  • Is paying for college your responsibility or does your child have skin in the game?
  • How much money has your family saved for college?
  • How much savings can your child contribute to their own education?
  • Who will make student loan payments, if necessary?

One of the biggest missed opportunities in terms of paying for college is college scholarships, free money for college that your child won’t need to pay back. They’re offered by colleges, towns, states, religious organizations, companies, non-profits, and more. Scholarships can often range from $500 to more than $25,000.

Scholarships have come a long way—they’re not just for straight-A students and athletes. There are opportunities for kids with any skill or interest:

  • crafters
  • gamers
  • musicians
  • future politicians
  • volunteers
  • film buffs
  • lefties
  • and more

Your child will need to search and apply for scholarships using a tool like Scholarship Search by Sallie. Scholarship Search by Sallie is your new go-to for finding and applying for free money opportunities for school. Best part? You don’t have to register—and you can use filters to narrow down your search based on your background, major, the state you live in, and more.


Enter to win $2,000 for college

  • A new winner is drawn each month.
  • NO essay!
  • Takes less than 2 minutes to enter.

No purchase necessary. Void where prohibited. Odds of winning depend on number of entries received. Ends 12/31/2024. 
See Official Rules.

Pro tip:

Parents who have been through the process say applying for scholarships during senior year of high school almost seems late. Juniors can (and should) apply early and often. Think of scholarships as on ongoing item on your student’s to-do list.

College grants are another free money option for college. The difference with grants is that they’re usually given out based on financial need.

For your student to qualify for grants, your family needs to fill out the FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), a form that determines how much federal financial aid you’re eligible for.

2. Take advantage of federal student loans

If your family needs to borrow money for college, borrow from the federal government before exploring private student loans. Federal student loans usually have lower interest rates and more flexible repayment options than private student loans.

To qualify for federal student loans, again, your family needs to fill out the FAFSA®. The FAFSA® typically opens October 1.

Gather this info before starting the FAFSA®:

  • Student's Social Security number
  • Permission from the family member who completed a tax return if you'd like to import information directly from the IRS. If you prefer not to import it, then you'll need to provide other financial info
  • Bank statements
  • Information about your family's investments (real estate, money market funds, stocks, etc.)
  • An FSA ID for your student, and for yourself. FSA IDs can be obtained at

3. If you still need money, consider a private student loan

Private student loans are offered through banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions. Work with your child to find the lender that offers the lowest interest rates and loan repayment options that work for you.

Need money for college?

Consider a Sallie Mae® private student loan

  • Available for online or on-campus study
  • Competitive fixed and variable rates
  • No origination fee or prepayment penaltyfootnote 1
  • 95% of undergraduate students who’ve been approved were approved again when they returned with a cosigner the following yearfootnote 2
Photo webImage blog Cross Sell study Girl.

When cosigning a private student loan for your child, be sure you can both answer these questions:

  • When will the first loan payment be due?
  • How much will the monthly payment amount be? (This might depend on the repayment option you choose. See your options with a student loan calculator.)
  • What’s the interest rate?
  • Is the interest rate fixed or variable (meaning, is it always the same or can it change?)
Pro tip:

Cosigning a loan is more than just signing a piece of paper. Cosigners are equally responsible for making sure payments are made on time. Missed and late payments could trigger late fees. Plus, late payments might be reported to consumer reporting agencies, impacting your credit score.

You’re on the right track

By starting early, following the 1-2-3 approach, and having open conversations with your child, you can help them make a great investment in their future.

footnote FAFSA® is a registered service mark of U.S. Department of Education, Federal Student Aid.

footnote SLM Nitro College, LLC is a wholly owned subsidiary of SLM Corporation and Nitro by Sallie Mae is a service mark of Sallie Mae Bank. SLM Corporation and its subsidiaries, including Sallie Mae Bank and SLM Nitro College, LLC are not sponsored by or agencies of the United States.

footnote Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey, financial, tax, or legal advice. Consult your own financial advisor, tax advisor, or attorney about your specific circumstances.

footnote 1. Although we do not charge you a penalty or fee if you prepay your loan, any prepayment will be applied as provided in your promissory note: first to Unpaid Fees and costs, then to Unpaid Interest, and then to Current Principal.

footnote 2. Sallie Mae loans cover enrollment periods of up to 12 months. Students must apply for a new loan each school year. This approval percentage is based on students who were approved for a Sallie Mae undergraduate loan with a cosigner in the 2021/22 school year and were approved for another Sallie Mae undergraduate loan when they returned with the same or new cosigner in 2022/23. It does not include the denied applications of students who were ultimately approved in 2022/23.

StudentHub by