5. Apply for financial aid
Along with applying for scholarships, you’ll want to make sure you apply for grants and federal work study programs to help you cover college costs like tuition, room and board, and books and supplies. And to do that, you’ll need to complete the Free Application for Financial Student Aid, or FAFSA®.
The FAFSA® is the most important thing you can do to get money for college. Just as it sounds, it’s a free online application for financial aid. Based on the information you provide, colleges will pull together your federal financial aid offer, which can consist of grants, scholarships, federal student loans, and work-study opportunities.
To get started, create an FSA ID at studentaid.gov— this will be your personal code and will serve as your legal signature. You’ll need to gather essential documentation, which includes: your driver’s license and Social Security number, potentially your parents’ Social Security numbers and birthdates, your family’s latest federal income tax returns, W-2 forms, bank statements, as well as any information on your family’s investments (e.g., real estate, stocks, money market funds, etc.). Once you have those documents, get a move on completing the online application and hitting submit!
- Since the FAFSA® opens on October 1 each year and some federal financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, make sure that you complete your application as soon as possible.
- Track the specific financial aid deadlines for the schools you are interested in, as each deadline can vary.
- Finally, make sure that you continue to submit the FAFSA® every year you’re in school, so you can try to get financial aid as long as you need it.
6. Compare and evaluate your financial aid offers
So, you’ve submitted the FAFSA® and have been approved for financial aid…now what?
Fast-forward to springtime when you should start to receive financial aid offers from your schools. Depending on what you’re offered, you’ll want to evaluate and understand your different options.
When you receive your financial aid offer, look for the following types of aid:
- Scholarships: As previously discussed, this is money you won’t have to pay back. Score!
- Grants: Also free money that you won’t have to pay back; generally need-based.
- Work study programs: Money you earn by working a part-time job through your school, such as a tutor, researcher, or library assistant.
- Student loans: Loans are money that you borrow—and need to pay back.
Before you immediately select the largest financial aid offer, take a step back and review them to determine which is actually best for you. For example, a smaller offer with more free money (scholarships, grants, work-study programs) may be better than a larger financial aid offer with more loans (since these will ultimately have to be paid back with interest).
As you go about evaluating your financial aid offer, deduct your total financial aid received from the total cost of attendance (COA) for your college of choice. The remaining balance may have to be money you cover from your personal savings and income, and potentially student loans.
7. After savings and free money, consider student loans
AAfter you’ve reviewed your financial aid offer and determined that you will need additional funding for school, consider student loans to help you cover the difference. In general, there are two types of student loans: those offered by the government (federal student loans) and those offered by banks or credit unions (private student loans).
If you are paying for college without a parent, there are two main types of federal student loans to consider: Direct Subsidized Loans and Direct Unsubsidized Loans.
- Direct Subsidized Loans are federal student loans available to students with financial need. Interest doesn’t accrue (grow) while you’re in school, for the first six months after you graduate, or if your loans ever enter deferment (the postponement of payments) after college. Interest rates for these loans are fixed. For these loans, your school will determine how much you can borrow, which may not cover the full cost of tuition.
- Direct Unsubsidized Loans are federal student loans with a fixed interest rate. Financial need is not required to qualify for these loans, but you are responsible for paying all of the accrued interest on the loan until it is paid off in full. And, in times of deferment or forbearance, interest will continue to accrue on the loan and be capitalized (the interest will be added to the principal of the loan). Like Direct Subsidized Loans, your school will determine the amount you can borrow based on your cost of attendance and the other financial aid offered.
When you know which type of federal student loan you’ve qualified for, research the various repayment options and see which is the best fit for you.
Once you’ve explored federal student loans, you can turn to private student loans as another option to cover any remaining college costs.
Private student loans are offered by banks and financial institutions, so you’ll need to apply directly with the individual private lender and get approved for a loan. Unlike federal loans, they’re credit-based, so whether you’re approved for a loan depends on a number of factors which could include your credit score, income, any other debt, and whether or not you have a cosigner (a creditworthy individual to share responsibility with you for paying back the loan).
If you are approved for a private student loan, you’ll choose the type of interest rate and repayment option (like deferring till after school, or making in-school fixed or interest-only payments).
If you have trouble getting a private student loan, reach out to your school’s financial aid office to see what other assistance or recommendations they may be able to provide.
8. Get a part-time job or side hustle during college
If you have the time and are looking to keep a steady source of income while in school, consider getting a part-time job. If you can’t find a job that fits your schedule, look to side hustles (e.g., dog walking, babysitting, etc.) as potential income sources.
Not only can the steady income help you with day-to-day expenses, but also you can apply available income toward your tuition, books, or paying down student loans while you’re in school.
Ask for help
Paying for college without the help of a parent or guardian doesn’t mean you have to go on this journey alone. Thankfully, there are many in-person and online resources available that can help you make informed decisions when it comes to paying for college on your own.
Bring questions about paying for college to your high school’s career counselor. Email your college’s financial aid office for more insight into your different options. And keep researching your various financing options online to get exposed to all of your options.
Yes, paying for college on your own can be challenging, but it is not impossible. By planning ahead, taking advantage of financial aid options, and being proactive in the process, you can pay for college and get started on your journey with confidence!