how to pay for college

How to Pay for College: Introduction

Getting into the school of your dreams may feel like a huge relief. After all, you’ve worked hard on your college applications, crafted strong essays, and stayed organized throughout the process. However, once the excitement wears off, the reality of college enrollment sets in. For many families, the biggest and often most daunting factor is figuring out how to pay for college. 

In this guide, we’ll discuss different creative ways to pay for college. That way, you can build your college list with confidence. Remember, understanding how to pay for college is a critical part of the college application process. 

Here’s what we’ll cover in this How to Pay for College guide: 

  • Cost of college
  • College financial planning
  • College grants
  • College scholarships
  • Financial aid advice
  • College loans

All of those topics may seem stressful, but don’t let them overwhelm you. We’ll break down the details of how to find and acquire money for college. Then, you can craft your perfect how to pay for college plan. Hopefully, after reading this article, you’ll be able to start your college financial planning. 

Next, let’s dive right into how to pay for college by learning more about the actual cost of college. 

What does college cost?

How to pay* for college

Figuring out how to pay for college may seem like an impossible task when you look at the initial tuition costs of the schools on your college list. While the cost of college is high, it’s usually lower than it seems. In fact, most students receive some form of financial aid for college or scholarship funding to help them pay for college. 

The “sticker price” of college (before college scholarships, college grants, or financial aid for college) will look high. However, at most schools, what students and their families actually end up paying is much lower. So, you should explore the different “free money for college” options out there. Careful college financial planning can help you figure out how to pay for college and graduate with the least amount of debt possible. 

According to a recent CNN article, the sticker price for private colleges was an average of $45,370 with room and board. However—the average student actually paid $26,080. At public colleges, the average sticker price was $20,090, but the average in-state student paid just $14,210.

Logically, though, students who aren’t eligible for financial aid for college will have a harder time planning how to pay for college. However, there are other options when considering how to pay for college. This includes a myriad of college scholarships: first generation scholarships, community service scholarships, merit-based scholarships, and more. 

Rising cost of college

The cost of college is increasing each year. In fact, it is now at an all-time high, hence the current student loan debt crisis. You may have noticed that everything is getting more expensive lately. From groceries to rent, the cost of living is rapidly increasing due to inflation. This is a large reason for the rising college costs as many universities have raised the cost of college exponentially in recent years.  

In the 2021-22 year, higher education institutes saw tuition increases ranging from 1.3%-2.1%. The interest on college loans is also increasing. With these rising college costs, many students and parents are looking for new and creative ways to pay for college. 

Why it is important to plan for college

How to pay* for college

Ideally, you should think about money for college early. To set yourself up for success, try to do some college financial planning during your college application process. Some colleges are more expensive than others. So, compare college costs when creating your college list. You might also look at schools that offer merit scholarships and other kinds of free money for college. 

However, if you have your heart set on an expensive school, you’ll need to think critically about how to pay for college. There are many ways to acquire money for college. Many students take out college loans, which operate in a variety of ways. There are federal college loans, or you may take out a private student loan. However, you’ll want to do your research—the best college loans will be low interest loans. So, often, you’ll want to choose federal college loans over private student loans. 

While loans are a fine last-resort option in your “how to pay for college” plan, you’ve probably heard about the student loan debt crisis. Basically, students are graduating with an extreme amount of debt. This can make it difficult for recent graduates to remain financially secure. 

Since you don’t want to graduate with too much student debt (or any, if possible), there are other creative ways to pay for college. Finding and acquiring free money for college is a great goal. There are many types of scholarships available. Some of these include first generation scholarships or community service scholarships. Later in this article, we’ll look at the different merit scholarships for college available.

Understanding the FAFSA

Just as it’s important to start comparing colleges and completing your college applications early, it’s also important to plan ahead when it comes to college financial planning. You’ve probably heard of the FAFSA. Completing the FAFSA is a vital part of every student’s “how to pay for college” plan. Even if you think you don’t qualify for financial aid, you’ll still want to fill out the FAFSA. 

The federal deadline for completing a FAFSA form for the 2022-23 academic year is June 30, 2023. You must submit any corrections by September 9, 2023. However, different schools may have different deadlines. You should always double-check with the schools on your college list to confirm their deadlines for completing any financial aid applications. Unfortunately, if you miss these deadlines, you may not be eligible for aid at all. So, it’s important to think ahead when considering college financial planning. 

Pay close attention to deadlines

If searching for a merit-based scholarship, it’s important to understand that each scholarship will have its own deadline. Some merit scholarships are even limited to a certain number of applicants, so it’s important to apply early. You can even start investigating some merit scholarships before your senior year. 

From first generation scholarships to community service scholarships, there are scholarships for everyone. You just have to do some digging to find free money for college in the form of scholarships. Stay organized when applying for scholarships by keeping a list of requirements and deadlines so that you don’t miss any important dates. 

Since there are so many college scholarships out there, finding the right ones will take some research. Start your college financial planning early so that you aren’t scrambling to search for last-minute money for college. 

How do you pay for college?

There is no one-size-fits-all plan when it comes to how to pay for college. There are many different ways to acquire money for college. When thinking about acquiring financial aid from the government or your college, obtaining aid packages will depend greatly on your family’s financial status. 

Also, parental support is extremely helpful when it comes to how to pay for college. In the college process, schools assume that your parents will be primarily responsible for funding your education. This can be difficult if, for any reason, your family is unable or unwilling to do so. In fact, many financial aid offices use parental earnings to determine the amount of aid you are eligible to receive from any given school.

Different schools have different financial aid policies, so always do your research. You can find financial aid advice specific to your chosen college on their financial aid site. For example, you can learn all about the UCSD financial aid here. Remember that any financial aid advice will always start with filling out your FAFSA. From there, check your school’s page on financial aid for college in order to continue your college financial planning. 

You may use personal savings and earnings as a part of your how to pay for college plan. Some students start specific college savings funds early in their education. Additionally, parents and family can contribute to students’ college tuition costs when the time comes. Many students also work on-campus jobs during school to help earn money for college.

Our “How to Pay for College” graphic below displays some of the most common ways students fund their college educations.

how to pay for college

As you can see, there are plenty of ways to begin paying for college. However, not all of these methods are created equal. Throughout this guide, we’ll explore each of the ways to pay for college listed above.

Thinking Beyond Tuition Costs

College tuition costs are high, but when doing your college financial planning, consider that the cost of college usually involves more than just tuition. When figuring out how to pay for college, you should also factor in room and board, books, and general living costs as a part of your college financial planning. Working is a great way to offset these rising college costs. In fact, in a 2020 study from the Education Department more than 80% of students worked at least part-time while in college. 

Merit Scholarships

Acquiring a merit-based scholarship is another option to add to your “how to pay for college” plan. Some schools award their own merit scholarships to particular students. To win these scholarships, you’ll need a stellar academic record and, often, high test scores. These merit scholarships benefit both students and the colleges they attend. By attracting high-achieving students, schools increase their rankings and prestige. So, in providing robust merit scholarships, certain schools encourage talented students to enroll. 

Other merit scholarships are funded privately or run by external organizations. These scholarships will allow you to use your funding at any school, which can give students much more flexibility. While they can sometimes be hard to attain, gaining merit scholarships is advantageous because they are basically free money for college. Unlike college loans, you do not need to pay back scholarships. This can make merit scholarships a huge asset when considering how to pay for college. However, some may require you to maintain a certain GPA during your time at school. Be sure to understand the scholarship that you receive in order to maintain it. 

College Financial Aid

Financial aid for college is usually the most robust form of support when it comes to how to pay for college. However, financial aid is need-based. This means that your college financial aid award will depend on your family’s financial status. Different schools will offer students different amounts of aid based on their criteria. You can use school specific financial aid calculators to get a sense of award amounts. These estimates are especially helpful in your college financial planning in order to get an idea of your actual college tuition costs at different schools.  

Interested in a school like Cornell but not sure if you’d get financial aid? The Cornell financial aid page has a calculator available for students that will estimate your potential aid eligibility. 

Financial aid for college can take a variety of forms: grants, federal student loans, private student loans, and federal work-study program. Not all of these options are free money for college, though. Federal student loans and a private student loan need to be repaid. When considering college loans in your college financial planning, federal college loans are usually the best college loans. A private student loan often has a high interest rate.

Check out some federal grants for college offered by the U.S. Department of Education to see if you may qualify. 

How to pay for college without financial aid

how to pay for college

If you don’t qualify for financial aid for college, merit scholarships are great option when considering how to pay for college. Most merit scholarships don’t have application fees, so you can apply to as many of them as you’d like. The key to obtaining these types of college scholarships is to plan ahead. Beginning your junior year, research different merit scholarships. Then, find the ones that make sense for you. 

Remember that there are creative ways to pay for college if you don’t qualify for financial aid for college. While merit scholarships can help when planning how to pay for college, most award amounts won’t compare to the support you’d receive from a financial aid package. However, when you combine different scholarships, you can save a considerable amount of money. Basically, any free money for college received from scholarships can be helpful. 

One-time vs. renewable awards

Some merit scholarships are a one-time award while others are renewable over the course of four years. Make sure you understand exactly how much money you’ll receive from each scholarship so you can prepare for additional costs. You should also research merit scholarships specific to your school. For example, check out what Boston University offers in terms of merit scholarships. 

While there are traditional merit scholarships and first generation scholarships, there are also other types of scholarships that you may not have considered when thinking about how to pay for college. There are many creative ways to pay for college when considering the different types of scholarships out there. Imagine getting free money for college through a doodle competition. All to say, there are many unique scholarships available. Consider these creative ways to pay for college when doing your college financial planning. 

Work and paying for college

While there are many creative ways to pay for college, don’t forget about more traditional options when doing your college financial planning. Another “how to pay for college” option for students who don’t qualify for financial aid is to work during high school. Saving money in high school can be an important way to pay for college. If you get a summer or after-school job, it can be an important factor in your how to pay for college plan. Additionally, you can highlight your work experience on your college applications. 

Still, as a high school student, you won’t make much money. So, you want to spend it on things that offer more immediate gratification as opposed to a college education. However, if you know that you will have to figure out how to pay for college out of pocket, then it might be helpful to create a savings account. You can even set it up so that the majority of each paycheck goes directly to that account. 

Take advantage of this time when you are living at home and have access to meals in school. Most students won’t have to pay for the majority of their living expenses during high school. If you get a job, this is the perfect time to save. Once you’re in college, your personal finances will become more complex. 

On-campus jobs

Students should also consider work-study programs and on-campus jobs when doing their college financial planning. At most schools, students can receive jobs on campus through a campus career center or similar office. Some students work as student ambassadors, representing the school in a variety of settings and working in admin. 

When considering how to pay for college, another one of the creative ways to pay for college is becoming a Resident Advisor. RAs live cost-free in the dorms and oversee a group of students. However, you’ll need to live on campus for at least a semester before universities will considered you for this position. 

You may also want to look for teaching assistant or research assistant opportunities when doing your college financial planning. Students who excel in academics and enjoy teaching others may also consider tutoring. There are many popular on-campus jobs for to help students offset their tuition.  

As you consider your college financial planning, look at what different schools offer students in terms of campus employment. Some work-study jobs are part of a federal work-study program. Schools reserve these positions for students who qualify for financial aid. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t find a campus job if you don’t qualify for college financial aid. Research job opportunities for students who don’t qualify for financial aid at each school you’re considering. During your college years, you can also work full-time through the summers. You can also take on a paid internship to help make money for college. You’ll save even more if you are able to live at home during that time.

How to pay for college by yourself

how to pay for college

Figuring out how to pay for college is a difficult undertaking for most students. If you are funding your education independently, it will be even more challenging. Without parental support or financial aid, it can take a lot of creativity to figure out how to pay for college. 

When determining financial aid need, students are considered dependents. Your parents’ income is the deciding factor in need-based financial aid packages. However, in certain situations, students can apply for a dependency override and have their parental earnings removed from consideration in the financial aid process. 

So, discovering how to pay for college by yourself is a tricky but not impossible task. Scholarships are one of the best ways to gain money for college costs. Some scholarships are need-based, while others are solely merit-based. If you’re not applying for aid, you’ll want to focus on merit-based scholarships. 

Off-campus jobs

Working is the next viable option when planning how to pay for college by yourself. Students can start saving as early as high school with a part-time or summer job. When in college, students may want to consider working on campus. That way you’ll have reliable access to employment throughout your four years. You can also look for paid internships and fellowships that can help you save money over the summer. 

Another consideration when figuring out how to pay for college is college enrollment policies. Students should be mindful of Early Decision policies at different schools. If you apply to a school under a binding ED program, you must pay for that school if accepted. So, think carefully before you apply ED if you think you’ll need to compare scholarship funding and financial aid awards across different schools.

When considering how to pay for college by yourself, remember that the best college loans are no loans. However, if you’ve exhausted all the other creative ways to pay for college, then consider federal college loans first. These are the best college loans. Private student loans often have high interest rates and can leave students graduating with large amounts of debt.  

Creative ways to pay for college

How to pay* for college

When doing your college financial planning, you’ll want to consider creative ways to pay for college in order to get the most money for college. There are many options other than just financial aid. Consider room and board, for instance. At many schools, room and board is a huge cost. Think about off campus housing as a cheaper option. Do some research about the room and board of each school you’re considering and compare costs to the local rent prices. From there, you can make an informed and responsible decision based on the facts. 

Costs beyond tuition

Books are another cost to consider when thinking about how to pay for college. Creative ways to pay for college include looking for cheaper versions of your textbooks. You can often find more affordable online copies. You should also consider purchasing used books or other materials at a cheaper price. 

Finding employment

We’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again: Getting a job is one of the best ways to gain money for college. If you can start in high school, even better. If your extracurriculars and rigorous course load don’t allow you the time to take on a job during the school year, consider summer jobs. Working summers could help you to save hundreds to thousands of dollars. It can also count as an extracurricular on your college apps. Start thinking about college financial planning early in order to maximize your savings. 

Finding scholarships

Scholarship funding is another item to add to your “how to pay for college” list. Applying to various scholarships may seem like a time-consuming task. However, you may be surprised at how much information from your college apps you can recycle for your scholarship applications. You’ll be happy that you took the time to seek out and apply for scholarships when the funding starts coming in. 

It’s also important to start your scholarship applications early. After all, having money for college is just as important as earning acceptance to colleges. Just as you have a college list in order to stay organized when completing college applications, create a scholarship list. This will help you keep track of important deadlines and requirements. 

There are many scholarships out there such as the HOPE Scholarship, Gates Scholarship, UVA scholarships, and Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship. Consider all the requirements and give yourself plenty of time to prepare your applications if you are hoping to win scholarships. 

Check out some overlooked strategies when considering creative ways to pay for college. After all, every little bit counts when it comes to figuring out how to pay for college. 

What are 4 types of grants?

Finding grants for college should be a part of your how to pay for college plan. A grant, unlike a student loan, is basically free money for college. That means, in most cases, you don’t have to pay it back. When doing your college financial planning, you’ll want to factor in time to apply for college grants.  There are four different types of grants for college.

4 Types of Grants for College

Federal Grants

The first are federal grants. These college grants are provided by the federal government after you fill out the FAFSA. Most federal grants, such as the Pell Grant, are need-based. Check out more details on different federal grants available. 

State grants

Students can also apply for college grants from their state. State grants, like federal grants, are also usually need-based and determined by your family’s income. College grants will vary by state. Check with the Department of Education in your state to determine what grants for college are available to you. 

School grants

College grants can also come directly from the school. School grants can be through either a need-based or merit-based scholarship programs. The financial aid department at your school will explain how to apply to college grants there. For example, the UCSB financial aid and scholarships site page has a number of grants for college and college scholarships listed. 

Privately-funded grants

Grants for college can also be obtained through private institutions. These college grants are usually found through privately funded scholarships. They may be need- or merit-based. 

How do you get grants for college?

Now that you know that there are many available grants for college, it’s time to learn how to apply for college grants. The first step is to complete the FAFSA. Remember that even if you don’t think you qualify for financial aid for college, you should still complete the FAFSA. All federal grant funding requires students to complete the FAFSA. Remember to double-check deadlines for the schools on your list. For example, the Georgia Tech financial aid page states their deadline is January 31st

How to pay* for college

Do your research

A large part of how to apply for college grants or college scholarships comes down to finding them. Look to apply for college grants or scholarships at the national level, but also within your community. You may be surprised by the opportunities for college grants offered. Some of these college grants may be quite small. However, alongside other grants for college, they can have a major impact on your college financial planning. 

How to apply for college grants from schools will vary depending on the university. Some colleges will have particularly robust merit aid programs. When looking for college grants from a school, you’ll often apply to these particular scholarships during the college application process. Do your research on the available scholarships at each school. 

Grants for college and college scholarships offered by the school can have a huge impact on your college search. If you’re a strong academic student, look for schools with particularly strong merit aid programs and add them to your college list. After all, the cost of a school plays a large part in your college enrollment decision. 

How to apply for college grants

Now that you know that college grants are an important part of figuring out how to pay for college, let’s break down the application process into three simple steps. 

how to pay for college

1. Apply through the FAFSA

When filling out the FAFSA, you’ll need information about your family’s income. The form can be completed online. Check out these steps for completing your FAFSA form. Filling out the FAFSA is the most important step in obtaining grants for college. It’s responsible for the distribution of all federal grant funding. If you don’t fill it out, you won’t be considered for federal college grants. 

2. Apply to private grants

Take some initiative when doing your college financial planning and seek out private grants for college. Look for college scholarships and apply to them. Often, private scholarships will require you to write an essay and submit your transcript and/or test scores, along with other requirements. Deadlines and requirements will vary, so be sure to start your search for college scholarships and college grants early.

3. Apply for scholarships when you apply to college

At some schools, you’ll check an additional box on your college application to apply for merit aid. Other schools may automatically consider you for merit aid. Once again, do your research before starting your application. That way, you’ll know what you need to be eligible for college grants or scholarships. The stronger your application is, the more likely it is that you’ll receive merit funding. 

Five college scholarships to explore

There are many different places to find money for college. If you’re wondering how to pay for college, college scholarships are a great option. 

Scholarships are free money for college that, unlike federal college loans or private student loans, does not need to be repaid. Because of rising college costs, many students should look for college scholarships as they figure out how to pay for college. The CollegeAdvisor merit scholarships page has a list of the most prominent college grants and college scholarships that you can apply for. It’s a great place to begin college financial planning and to start thinking about how to pay for college.

how to pay for college

Different scholarships are targeted toward different students. So, college financial planning won’t involve the same steps for everyone. For example, there are many first generation scholarships available, which are aimed at students who would be the first in their families to attend college. You can also find many community service scholarships aimed at students who have helped their local communities in significant ways. All of these merit based scholarships can cover how to pay for college at any university in the country.

Let’s take a closer look at five merit based scholarships to help you find creative ways to pay for college. These college scholarships provide grants for college that do not need to be repaid. 

We hope the merit based scholarships below will help you as you build your “how to pay for college” strategy and begin your college financial planning process. That way, you can secure grants for college that will help your college financial planning process. 

Top Scholarships for College

College Board Scholarships

The College Board offers scholarships to students who use their website to build a college list, prepare for the SAT, or apply for financial aid for college. Students can earn grants for college of either $500 or $40,000 through random drawings every month. Students can earn entries by completing six different college prep tasks. Deadlines for entry and other information can be found on the College Board website or the CollegeAdvisor scholarships page. As you consider how to pay for college, these college scholarships can be a great place to start, with no application required. 

Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship

Both high school graduates and community college transfer students are eligible to apply for the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship. Students must possess at least a 3.5 unweighted GPA and must have sought financial aid for college. Students can earn up to $55,000 in free money for college along with membership in the Cooke Scholars community. While Cooke college scholarships are not exclusively first generation scholarships, first gen students are certainly eligible so long as they demonstrate financial need. For more information about how to apply for the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship and make it part of your “how to pay for college” plan, click here. These grants for college are competitive, but they also can provide a huge amount of free money for college. 

The Hope Scholarship

The HOPE Scholarship began in Georgia as a source of grants for college for the state’s residents. Since then, other states have created HOPE Scholarship programs to provide free money for college at participating public colleges. In order to qualify for the HOPE Scholarship, students must have at least a 3.0 GPA with a challenging high school curriculum. More information about the HOPE Scholarship, including how to apply and a list of participating schools, can be found at their website or on CollegeAdvisor.com.

The Equitable Excellence Scholarship

The Equitable Excellence Scholarship is an award sponsored by the Equitable Corporation, in partnership with  NCAN, the Common Application and Scholarship America. These sponsors award an annual merit scholarship of $5,000 to 100 recipients attending any college in the country. These grants for college are open to all US residents. To apply for these college scholarships, students must submit an official transcript, application, and supplemental essay. Find out more at the program website or on its scholarship page.

The Gates Scholarship

The Gates Scholarship is one of few merit based scholarships that also require students to demonstrate financial need. Although it is not exclusively a first-generation scholarship, students must be a member of a minority community and be eligible for a Pell Grant to be considered. These grants for college provide the full college tuition costs at the recipient’s school of choice, meaning the 300 recipients will not need to take out college loans to fund their education. The scholarship is extremely competitive and takes into account academic record, leadership, and personal character. You can learn more about the Gates Scholarship here or here.

First-generation scholarships

Many scholarship providers recognize that first generation students can have a difficult time figuring out how to pay for college. So, many organizations sponsor first generation scholarships to help these students secure money for college. These college scholarships can make a huge difference to many students

Students in this population often face the hardest road when it comes to financial aid for college, which is why these first generation scholarships are so important. They provide free money for college that students do not need to pay back. So, these scholarships can be very helpful when it comes to college financial planning. 

The following first generation scholarships are some of the most well-known ways for first-gen students to get money for college:

First-Generation Scholarships to Explore

Coca-Cola First Generation Scholarship

First generation students living in Alabama and wishing to attend the University of Alabama can apply for Coca-Cola First Generation scholarships. The scholarship is for $5,000 and is renewable for four years as long as the recipient maintains at least a 3.0 GPA. Eligible students must complete the UA Scholarship Application by January 15th and file the FAFSA by March 1st to demonstrate financial need. Learn more at the program website here.

Farash First in Family Scholarship

Students who live in Monroe or Ontario counties in upstate New York are eligible for the Farash First in Family Scholarship. The Farash Foundation covers the full cost of college at any of the nine local colleges. Any student who is the first in their family to attend college can apply. These are also community service scholarships; students must participate in community service activities throughout their time in college in order to retain the scholarship. Find out more about receiving money for college by visiting the Farash Foundation website

Florida First Generation Matching Grant Scholarship

This scholarship is available to Florida residents applying to any of the state’s public two year or four year colleges as a full-time, degree-seeking student. Students must file the FAFSA and have demonstrated financial need in order to qualify for these college grants. The amount awarded varies by institution. Each participating college sets its own application deadlines, so be sure to review the details of these scholarships on the website of the college you are applying to. Click here for more details.

Note that these are not the only first generation scholarships out there that provide money for college. You can find plenty of other grants for college out there. So, make sure to check for first generation scholarships in your state—remember, many scholarships are targeted toward specific geographic areas. 

Community service scholarships

How to pay* for college

Let’s take a look at another category of grants for college—community service scholarships. 

Like their name suggests, community service scholarships help students who have given back to the community in a meaningful way. If you’ve done a lot of service work, these community service scholarships can certainly help you learn how to pay for college. 

Some of these community service scholarships take academic achievement into consideration, while others focus solely on the applicant’s service record. Other community service scholarships require students to take part in ongoing service activities while in college to retain their funding.

Americorps Vista

The Americorps Vista program places interested students into community service organizations for one year periods. At the end of their year of service, participants are eligible to receive a Segal Education Award, which can be used to cover educational expenses. This award is equivalent to a federal Pell Grant (nearly $7,000) and can cover college tuition costs. It can also be used to cover repayment of private student loans or federal college loans. Learn more about the Vista program on the Americorps website.

LULAC National Scholarship

LULAC awards scholarships to students who attend high schools in any of 64 LULAC council locations across the country. Recipients of National Scholastic Achievement Awards must have a minimum GPA of 3.5, and Honors Award recipients must have a GPA of 3.0 or better. General Award recipients are chosen on a more holistic basis. The selection process takes into account financial need, service record, and a personal essay. Awards range from $250-$2,000, and the deadline to apply is March 31st. For more information, check out the LULAC scholarship website.

Prudential Spirit of Community Awards

The Prudential Spirit of Community Award recognizes a high school student who has made a difference in his or her community. One winner from each state will be selected to receive this $1,000 award, with the top 10 applicants receiving an additional $5,000 for themselves and their chosen charities. Students will be selected based on their history of community service, and applications must be approved by a principal or service organization representative. Find out more by visiting the program website.

GE-Reagan Foundation Scholarships

The GE-Reagan foundation offers grants for college of $10,000 per year for four years to ten high school students every year. Applicants must have a minimum GPA of 3.0 and demonstrate leadership and community service during their high school years. They must also submit a personal essay and, if they reach the semifinal stage, an additional personal statement and letter of recommendation. The deadline to apply is January 5th. See the Reagan Foundation website for more information.

Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes

The Gloria Barron Prize is rare among Community Service Scholarships because applicants can be as young as eight years old. Anyone between the ages of 8 and 18 who has spearheaded a major service project in their community is eligible to receive this award. Winners receive college grants of $10,000 toward their pursuit of higher education. Although applications for this year have closed, applications for 2023 will open in early January. See the foundation’s website for additional details.

Merit-based scholarships

how to pay for college

Community service scholarships and first-generation scholarships are both forms of merit-based scholarships. Merit-based scholarships are awarded solely based on a student’s achievement, whether academically or within their extracurriculars. These scholarships provide free money for college, but many are highly competitive and require multiple rounds of applications. 

Merit-based scholarships can come from national organizations, local community groups, and even individual colleges or universities. Looking for smaller scholarships or ones offered exclusively by schools on your college list is a good strategy. Your school counselor may even have a list of merit based scholarship providers in your area, so be sure to check with them about how to pay for college.

Some merit-based scholarships also take into account financial need. Students may need to file a FAFSA or be seeking financial aid for college in order to earn certain merit based scholarships. Be sure to check the application requirements in case you need to demonstrate financial need. For more information on merit-based scholarship programs, see our merit-based scholarship website or check out this webinar.

What are the top merit-based scholarships?

The merit-based scholarship awards we will highlight here are some of the most well-known college scholarships in the country. As such, they are also extremely competitive, with thousands of students applying to them every year. However, this does not mean you shouldn’t apply for them if you have a high GPA and a strong extracurricular resume. Here are the details of each of these scholarships, which can help you with how to pay for college.

National Merit Scholarship

The National Merit Scholarship is a competitive national scholarship offered to around 7,500 students each year. Students with high scores on the PSAT/NMSQT in their junior year are notified that they have reached the semifinal stage. Of the nearly 16,000 semifinalists, just under half become finalists where they receive a $2,500 scholarship and membership in an exclusive group of National Merit finalists. The application process begins in September, with the winners announced in early March of the following year. See the program website for more details.

Coca-Cola Scholarship

The Coca-Cola Scholarship is one of the most nationally recognized programs in the country for college scholarships. The foundation awards $20,000 merit-based scholarships to 150 high school seniors each year. The application process consists of several phases but students must submit their applications by the end of October in order to be considered. See the website or FAQ page for more information.

Gates Scholarship

As discussed, the Gates Scholarship is one of few merit based scholarships that also require students to demonstrate financial need. While it is not exclusively a first-generation scholarship, eligibility is limited to students with demonstrated need. This scholarship also covers the full college tuition costs at the recipient’s chosen school, meaning the 300 recipients will not need to take out college loans to fund their education. The scholarship takes into account academic record, leadership, and personal character. You can learn more about the highly competitive Gates Scholarship here or here.

Eagle Scout Scholarships

As the name suggests, students who win these scholarships must have earned the rank of Eagle Scout through the Boy Scouts of America. Applicants may be either high school seniors or students currently enrolled in a degree seeking program at a college or university. These scholarships can range anywhere from $3,500 to $48,000 and applications must be submitted by January 31st. See the NESA website for additional information.

Robertson Scholarship

The Robertson Scholarship covers the full college tuition costs at two of the most renowned universities in North Carolina: UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University. The program also includes funding for summer enrichment activities and study abroad opportunities. Students must submit a special Robertson application by November 15th in order to be considered for the program. Around 40 students each year are awarded this prestigious scholarship. See their website for more details, including admission criteria and application requirements.  

Jefferson Scholarship (UVA Scholarships)

The two flagship scholarships at the University of Virginia are the Jefferson and Walentas Scholarships. These scholarships cover the full cost of college attendance at UVA for both in-state and out-of-state students. Students must be nominated by their high school for these scholarships. Walentas Scholarships are also first generation scholarships, adding another criterion for selection. So, if you’re interested in UVA and wondering how to pay for college, make sure you ask your counselor about being nominated for these scholarships. You can find out more information here

Swarthmore Merit Scholarships

swarthmore scholarships

In 2019, Swarthmore awarded 45 million dollars in scholarship money to students, much of which came in the form of Swarthmore Merit Scholarships. These awards, which do not need to be repaid, are given to students whose academic performance merits these gifts. The two flagship awards, the McCabe and Philip Evans Scholarships, can cover up to the full cost of attendance based on a student’s financial need. No additional application is required, and students can see a full list of Swarthmore merit scholarships on their website.

Vanderbilt Scholarships

Top private colleges like Vanderbilt set aside merit scholarships for the highest achieving applicants in order to incentivize them to choose Vanderbilt. Some of these Vanderbilt Scholarships include the Ingram Scholarship, Chancellor’s Scholarship, and the Cornelius Vanderbilt Scholarship. Approximately 250 students each year will receive one of these Vanderbilt scholarships, and all of them include the full cost of attendance plus additional funding for summer enrichment experiences. Learn more by visiting the website here.

What does financial aid mean?

When thinking about how to pay for college, almost all students require some form of financial aid for college. Although there are many creative ways to pay for college, financial aid is often the most important part of college financial planning. Next, we’ll explain the different types of financial aid for college and go over some key pieces of financial aid advice. This can help you learn how to pay for college in the best way possible. 

what is financial aid?

Financial aid, in broad terms, represents money for college given to a student on the basis of financial need. Some forms of financial aid for college, like grants and the federal work-study programs, represent free money for college. This means that your cost of college does not need to be repaid. Other sources of aid, like federal college loans or private student loans, must be paid back with interest. Creative ways to pay for college can come from many sources. These include the government, private banks, and even the colleges themselves.

There are two main types of financial aid for college that can help students with how to pay for college: need-based aid and merit-based aid. Certain scholarships, college grants, the federal work-study program, and loans are examples of need-based aid, which is disbursed based on financial need. Merit-based scholarships, merit-based grants for college, and tuition assistance are examples of merit-based financial aid, which is disbursed based at least in part on student achievement. 

What qualifies you for financial aid?

As you begin your college financial planning, it’s important to understand the requirements to receive college financial aid. Every school in the country requires financial aid applicants to complete the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. So, if you’re wondering how to pay for college, the FAFSA is a great place to start. 

Many private colleges also require families to complete the CSS Profile when they apply for college grants. This allows students to qualify for institutional grants for college not covered by the FAFSA. Be sure to check and see whether the CSS Profile is required for how to pay for college.

The federal deadline for submitting the FAFSA is June 30th

The federal deadline for submitting the FAFSA is June 30th. However, filling out the FAFSA early can help with how to pay for college, as the earlier you file, the sooner you will be able to see what money for college you may qualify for. Most colleges have early application deadlines in November or December, so submitting your FAFSA then can prevent problems with college financial planning down the road.

Total household income, assets, and the number of siblings also attending college all come into play when applying for financial aid for college. However, after all the data is collected, the most important number for how to pay for college is the EFC, or Expected Family Contribution. This number indicates what your family would be expected to contribute to your college education. When thinking about college financial planning, your financial aid for college should help cover the difference between the EFC and the cost of college.    

What is the federal work-study program?

Some students will be offered the chance to enter the federal work-study program as part of how to pay for college. This can be a great thing to use in your college financial planning strategy. 

The federal work-study program places students in various jobs on campus where they can earn money for college by working instead of taking out federal student loans or private college loans. Approximately 3,400 colleges around the country participate in the federal work-study program, so be sure to check and see if the schools on your list offer it.

Qualifying for work-study

Only students with demonstrated financial need will qualify for the federal work-study program, meaning that students need to file a FAFSA in order to be considered. However, you do not need to be a part of the program to work in a job on campus. Most schools set aside certain positions exclusively for participants in the federal work-study program. However, other jobs are open to any qualified student. Some examples of jobs that can provide money for college include RA, cafeteria worker, front desk staff, tutor, and many more. So, as you consider how to pay for college, note that you can work on campus regardless of your financial need. 

Comparing financial aid at different colleges

The question of how to pay for college has different answers depending on the institution providing financial aid for college. The contents of a financial aid package depend not only on each individual family’s financial situation, but also on the resources available at the college itself. 

Given rising college costs, schools have employed different policies to help students with how to pay for college.  Even though financial aid advice is not “one size fits all,” we can still look at some case studies to see what college financial planning looks like at three very different schools.

Financial Aid Case Studies

UCSD Financial Aid

ucsd financial aid

UCSD is a public university in Southern California. The UCSD Financial Aid office has sections for grants, scholarships, loans, and work study. However, as with many public colleges, the grants are only available to California residents, and many of the scholarships are also exclusive to in-state students.

While tuition at a public college is often much lower than their private counterparts, their endowments for UCSD financial aid are often smaller. Work study is available, as are grants and scholarships which can cover up to the standard UC system wide tuition rate ($13,104 for the 2022-2023 academic year). Learn more about how to pay for college at the UCSD financial aid website.

Cornell Financial Aid

cornell financial aid

Cornell financial aid is far less consistent than UCSD financial aid because Cornell is a private school, whereas UCSD is a public institution. Eligibility is determined by financial need only, and the award amount can cover up to the total cost of attendance.

Keep in mind most of the award money comes from the university endowment, alumni gifts, and the general scholarship fund. Although work study and loans are also available, most students receive need based aid because merit or athletic scholarships are not offered at Cornell. See the Cornell financial aid website for more information about how to pay for college at Cornell.

Georgia Tech Financial Aid

georgia tech financial aid

Public and private colleges both offer creative ways to pay for college. Public schools like Georgia Tech have lower total costs of attendance compared to private schools but smaller endowments. This means that Georgia Tech offers more state and federal grants and fewer private scholarships.

The flagship Zell Miller and HOPE Scholarships are open to Georgia residents only. Work study and other scholarships are also available and can cover up to the total cost of attendance (28,536 for Georgia Residents). See the Georgia Tech Financial Aid website for more details on how to pay for college at Georgia Tech.

As you can see, college financial planning will look different at different schools. Keep your financial aid needs in mind as you build your college list. That way, you’ll have a clear sense of how to pay for college at your chosen school. 

Which loan is best for college?

With the student loan debt crisis getting worse every year, many students are hesitant to take out college loans to pay for school. Even the best college loans must be paid back with interest and are therefore not as good as free money for college from college grants and scholarships. But for many students, rising college costs mean that college loans are a necessary component of how to pay for college. This means that choosing the best college loans is important. 

As you think about how to pay for college, you should think about the different types of loans available. Loans for college typically fall into two categories: federal student loans and private college loans. Federal student loans are backed by the government and can be further divided into: direct subsidized loans, direct unsubsidized loans, and federal PLUS loans. Private college loans typically come from banks or other financial institutions. Let’s start by looking at the different kinds of federal student loans.

Direct loans

Direct subsidized loans are the best college loans you can get when it comes to how to pay for college. These loans are only available to those who demonstrate significant financial need, and they do not accrue interest until six months after graduation. Direct unsubsidized loans have a similar interest rate to their subsidized counterparts, but they also accrue interest while you are in school, meaning the loan amount will increase. Right now, the interest rate for federal student loans is 4.99%

PLUS loans

PLUS loans are issued to graduate students or the parents of undergraduate students looking at how to pay for college. These loans are not based on financial need, but require a credit check to get. For undergraduate students, these loans will be under the name of your parent or guardian and will have a higher interest rate of 7.54%. However, the only limit to federal PLUS loans is the cost of college attendance at the school you are attending. 

Private loans

Institutions like Sallie Mae, Credible, Ascent and others offer private college loans not backed by the federal government. These loans can cover up to the total cost of college attendance and interest begins to accrue as soon as students start school. While the interest rates for federal loans are fixed, private student loans can have interest rates as high as 15% depending on credit history and payment plan. In your college financial planning, private student loans should be seen as a last resort. The best financial aid advice would be to avoid them altogether. Try to avoid private loans in your “how to pay for college” plan. Instead, look for other creative ways to pay for college. 

How do I get a loan for college?

how to pay for college

In order to get the best college loans, you must complete the FAFSA as soon as possible. That is the only way to become eligible for Direct Subsidized or Unsubsidized loans. 

While you can also pursue private student loans, they are generally riskier because they are not backed by the government. These private student loans are also not eligible for most forgiveness programs, while federal loans may be forgiven as a result of public service or pending legislation from the current administration. 

How to pay for college: Five key takeaways

We have talked a lot about how to apply for college grants and how to pay for college in this article. Here are some of the most important takeaways when it comes to financial aid advice:

College Financial Planning Tips

1. File the FAFSA as soon as possible

When it comes to how to pay for college, the FAFSA is your key to all kinds of financial aid for college. Grants for college, scholarships, loans, and aid packages all require the FAFSA. The earlier you apply, the better your chances of getting aid. Plus, if there are issues with your application, filing early gives you more time to correct them and make sure you get the aid package you deserve.

2. Search for scholarships nationally and locally

It is tempting to only apply for full-ride scholarships with national selection pools, but it’s also important to cast a wide net. There are many creative ways to pay for college out there, and many organizations offer free money for college at the local level. When thinking about how to pay for college or how to apply for college grants, don’t overlook opportunities in your own school or community.

3. Earn strong grades in high school

Many college grants and scholarships use GPA as a factor in their selection process. Students who have a high GPA in difficult classes look more attractive to scholarship committees and are therefore more likely to get help with how to pay for college. Furthermore, individual schools may use grants as an incentive to convince high achieving students to attend.

4. Avoid private loans

Of the many options for how to pay for college, private loans are by far the worst. They have high interest rates, are not backed by the federal government, and have contributed heavily to the current student loan debt crisis. There are so many other creative ways to pay for college that you should explore before looking into private student loans. 

5. Seek help if you need it

College financial planning is a difficult topic and it is important for everyone involved in how to pay for college to be on the same page. Discuss your college list and how to pay for college with parents and ask for financial aid advice from the staff of the schools you apply to. If there are aspects of your aid package that you do not understand or agree with, don’t be afraid to ask questions before making any decisions. 

Whatever your scholarship or financial aid needs are, CollegeAdvisor.com is here to help. Our trained advisors and financial aid professionals can assist you with how to pay for college at every step of the process, from looking for scholarships to understanding your award letter. Register for an account and connect with one of our advisors today.


How to pay* for college

This article was written by Sarah Kaminski and Alex Baggott-Rowe. Looking for more admissions support? Click here to schedule a free meeting with one of our Admissions Specialists. During your meeting, our team will discuss your profile. We will help you increase your admissions odds at top schools. We’ll also answer any questions and discuss how CollegeAdvisor.com can support you in the college application process.