Aug 28, 2019

Paying for College – A Beginner’s Guide

College student with a lap top

Your high schooler’s early decision letter arrived last week. She’s over the moon with excitement, and so are you. The college she’s dreamed about since middle school accepted her into the most competitive music program in the country. There’s only one problem. The college savings fund you started a few years ago falls short of the total cost of attendance – by a significant amount. She’ll have to attend a less expensive “safety school” unless you can figure out a way to cover the difference.

Unfortunately, this scenario is a common experience for many high school students. The cost of a college education continues to rise with each passing academic year. But there are ways to pay for higher education that can ease the financial pressure and allow your student to attend their school of choice. Here’s how to cover tuition, fees, and other related educational expenses despite a low college savings fund balance.

Complete the Free Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA)

Regardless of your income, completing the FAFSA can open doors to low interest rate loans for you and your student. Data submitted in the application is used to determine financial need, aka Expected Family Contribution (EFC), from which a financial aid package is awarded. That money is meant to bridge the funding gap for your child’s education, not pay for it entirely. Federal financial aid awards might include grants, loans, and/or work-study.

  • Federal Pell Grants and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) are based solely on financial need and are not required to be repaid.
  • Federal Student or Parent Loans require repayment with interest. Not all loans are need-based. Credit history is not a factor in loan approval.
  • Federal Work-Study is an often underutilized form of need-based federal aid. Students are awarded a set dollar amount for the academic year.  To receive the award, a student must work at an approved work-study site. Payment is disbursed based on the hours worked and will not surpass the awarded amount. Colleges and universities administer the Federal Work-Study program, which is available on a first-come, first-served basis.  

The sooner the FAFSA is completed each year, the better chance your student has of receiving all the federal financial aid for which they are eligible. The application can be filled out online at

Apply for Institutional Aid

Colleges and universities often have internal grant, loan, and scholarship programs separate from federal aid programs. Minimum eligibility requirements vary by institution, so speak with the financial aid officer at your student’s school as soon as possible to obtain application details.  Similar to the FAFSA, most institutional financial aid programs are on a first-come, first-served basis.

Seek Out Scholarship Opportunities Online

Be wary of scholarship search companies that guarantee scholarship or grant dollars in exchange for a hefty fee. The same information is available for free online, with a little research. Scholarship databases like and offer students access to approximately $19 billion in free money for school. These freely assessible websites curate scholarship and grant opportunities from colleges, universities, foundations, corporations, etc. to help you find additional funding sources quickly.

Consider Private Student Lenders

Credit-based loans are available to cover the cost of college and often have borrowing limits higher than federal loans. While the best interest rates are reserved for students with good credit or those that apply with a creditworthy cosigner, there are other ways to reduce the cost of borrowing. For example, a Sallie Mae Smart Option Student Loan offers a 0.25 percentage point interest reduction when payments are made via automated electronic payment.

Money for college is available for those who know where to look. Apply early and often since many financial aid programs have annual first-come, first-served deadlines. Have a younger child in elementary or middle school? Start saving for college now to reduce financial stress later.