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

College • September 26, 2018 • Rob Zodda

What you’ll learn

  • How to search for free money for college
  • What the heck FAFSA means
  • Questions to ask before taking out a private student loan

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. Applications might require an essay or other submission.
    • 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. You can submit the FAFSA as early as October of your senior year of high school. And 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

    • Competitive fixed and variable rates
    • 4 free months of Chegg Study®

    Apply now

    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.

Rob Zodda is a senior copywriter at Sallie Mae. When he’s not sharing info that helps consumers achieve their goals, he’s road tripping around New England or relaxing with an actual, physical book.

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Sallie Mae does not provide financial, tax, or legal advice and the information contained in this article does not constitute tax, legal, or financial advice. Sallie Mae does not make any claims, promises, or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained in this article. Readers should consult their own attorneys or other tax advisors regarding any financial strategies mentioned in this article. These materials are for informational purposes only and do not necessarily reflect the views or endorsement of Sallie Mae.