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 FAFSA.
The Free Application for Financial Student Aid, or the FAFSA, is one of the best and most important steps to getting money for college. Just as it sounds, the FAFSA is a free online application for financial aid. Based on the information you provide when submitting the FAFSA, colleges will pull together your federal student aid package, which can consist of grants, scholarships, federal student loans, and work-study opportunities.
To get started, create a FSA ID at studentaid.gov – this will be your personal code, which will serve as your FSA ID and legal signature. Then you’ll need to gather essential documentation, which includes: your driver’s license and Social Security number, potentially your parents’ Social Security number 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 to students 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. Additionally, be mindful of the specific financial aid deadlines for the schools you are interested in, as each deadline can vary. Finally, make sure that you continue to apply for the FAFSA every year you are in school. The FAFSA is used by schools to build your financial aid package for one school year, and you’ll want to apply for financial aid each year that you are, or plan to be, a student.
6. Compare and evaluate your financial aid offers.
So, you’ve submitted the FAFSA and been approved for financial aid, now what?
Fast-forward to springtime when you should start to receive financial aid offers (also referred to as merit letters, award letters, or financial aid packages) 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.
- 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: Money you can borrow that you will need to pay back. Before you immediately select the largest financial aid offer, take a step back and review your offers to determine which is actually best for you. For example, a smaller financial aid 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 and usually 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. Consider student loans.
After 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 a 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. Direct subsidized loans do not accrue interest 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.
Similarly to federal student loans, private student loans can offer fixed or variable interest rates. However, as private student loans are offered by banks and financial institutions and are credit-based, you will need to apply directly with the individual private lender and get approved for a loan. In other words, the likelihood that you’ll be approved for a private student loan will depend 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 have the option to choose the type of interest rate and repayment option (like in-school fixed or interest 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 or side hustle started. Not only can the steady income help you with day-to-day expenses that you may encounter at school, but also you can apply available income towards your tuition, books, or paying down student loans while in school.
From working an on-campus job or finding a paid internship to tutoring fellow students or doing seasonal work, there can be many ways for college students to make money while in college.
9. 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 both 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!