Students—here’s how to pay for college in 3 simple steps

Your 3-step checklist to pay for college

When it comes to deciding how to pay for college, there’s a lot of information out there. It can feel totally overwhelming—but it doesn’t have to. You’re already on the right track just by doing a little research. Here’s a high-level checklist to help you get started.

1. Start with money you won't have to pay back, like savings, scholarships, and grants


Maybe your family has money saved for college—or maybe not. That’s okay! Just have an honest conversation. Before you can decide how to pay for college, you need to know your family’s answers to these questions:

  • Is paying for college your responsibility only or will your family help?
  • How much money does your family have saved for college?
  • How much savings can you contribute to your own education?


College scholarships are free money for college—you don’t need to pay them 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. So yeah, scholarships are worth your time and effort. Your future self will thank you.

A few key facts about scholarships:

  • You need to search and apply for scholarships. Try a free tool like Scholarship Search by Sallie—it makes finding free money for school quicker and easier. 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.
  • Apply for scholarships early and often. Start during your junior year of high school and apply every year through college. Think of scholarships as an ongoing item on your checklist.
  • It’s okay if you’re not a straight-A student. There are tons of different types of scholarships out there.


Grants for college are another free money option. The difference with grants is that they’re usually given out based on financial need, while scholarships can be awarded based on your skills, hobbies, interests, ethnicity, religion, and more. For example, Federal Pell Grants are the largest source of federally funded grants. They’re awarded solely based on your financial need.

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. The FAFSA® typically opens October 1 every year, but due to new changes in the application, the opening date has been pushed to December 2023 for this year only. Federal aid is first come, first served, so don't put it off!

2. Explore federal student loans 

If you need to borrow money for college (and most students do), start with federal student loans. Federal student loans are money you borrow from the U.S. government. The benefits of federal student loans are that they usually have lower interest rates and more flexible repayment options than private student loans.

To qualify for federal student loans, again, you need to submit the FAFSA®.

FAFSA® quick tips:

  • Ask for a parent’s help (you’ll need some of their financial info)
  • Save time by gathering necessary documents in advance
  • Submit the FAFSA® each year you’re in college

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

Private student loans are offered through banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions. You’ll want to look for 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 taking out a private student loan, be sure you can answer these questions:

  • When will your first loan payment be due?
  • How much will your monthly payment amount be? (This might depend on the repayment option you choose. Try a student loan payment calculator to see your options.)
  • What’s your interest rate?
  • Is your interest rate fixed or variable? (meaning, is it always the same or can it change?)
You’ve got this

By talking to your parents about how to pay for college and by doing a little planning, you’ll feel confident and ready when it comes time to pay that tuition bill.

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.

footnote Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey financial, tax, or legal advice. We make no claims about the accuracy or adequacy of this information. These materials may not reflect our view or endorsement. Consult your own financial advisor, tax advisor, or attorney about your specific circumstances. Reproduction without explicit permission is prohibited.

footnote External links and third-party references are provided for informational purposes only. Sallie Mae cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information provided by any third parties and assumes no responsibility for any errors or omissions contained therein. Any copyrights, trademarks, and/or service marks used in these materials are the property of their respective owners.

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

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