Financing College 101

The college conversation shouldn’t start with how much a particular school costs. For the full story on why not, read The Unbranded Student: Reclaiming Your College Search. The short version is that we’re trying to help students discover which options in the college search are tailored to their specific needs. Only after they’ve done that work should you start thinking about the financing piece. By starting with the question of cost, you close the door on potential opportunities. Realistically, though, we understand that we have to talk money at some point.

 Paying for college might feel like a daunting task. Sometimes it’s even hard to know what a school’s tuition rates are; university websites don’t always offer straightforward information about cost. But knowing your options can ease the stress. Here’s a quick primer to get you started thinking about how to pay for university.

  1.  Start a FAFSA. FAFSA is a free application that current or prospective students submit to determine their eligibility for federal grants, loans, and work-study funds. Start a FAFSA here.

  2. Get serious about scholarships. You want to start with the free money, right? Unlike loans, scholarships don’t have to be repaid, so prioritize scholarship funds. Here’s what students need to know:

    1. Start early. Finding and applying for scholarships is a time-consuming and demanding process. You have to search, apply, write essays, get reference letters, and allow time for the review process. So start early and give yourself plenty of time to avoid burnout. We’re helping with scholarships too!

    2. Search often. There’s no limit to the number of scholarships you can apply for, and databases are periodically updated with new offerings. By searching often and applying widely, you give yourself the best chance for earning those dollars.

    3. Sell your genuine self. Scholarships are competitive. Tell the truth, but don’t be afraid to brag. This is the perfect place to let your best qualities shine.

    4. Submit early. Each scholarship application has a deadline. Mark it down and aim to submit the application a couple days ahead of time so a spotty Internet connection or computer problems don’t ruin your submission.

  3. Check out grants. Whereas scholarships are merit-based, grants are need-based. But because grants are another source of free funds, you want to see if you qualify. Look to the federal government, your state, and your college for available grants. Try this grant and scholarship finder.

  4. Apply for work-study. Federal Work-Study provides part-time work through on- and off-campus jobs to students who qualify. Learn more about work-study options here.

  5. Take out loans. Because loans have to be repaid, we put them last on our list. After tapping into savings, grants, and scholarships, many students find they still need loans to cover college costs. Students should start with federal loans, as they offer benefits over private loans, and with subsidized over unsubsidized to avoid paying interest while in school. FAFSA is your starting point for taking out loans. You can also create a CSS profile to search for institutional aid. Remember, the average debt of graduating college students is around $30,000. (Read our post about whether college is worth it to see how $30k is a pretty cheap investment for the future earnings of a person with a degree.)


Don’t let the high cost of college get you down. Use this five-step process to review your options and make the best choice for you. Just remember, if you haven’t read The Unbranded Student and completed the companion online course, you’re starting out on the wrong foot. College is expensive—choosing the wrong college even more costly. That’s why the book and course start the college search by choosing the right major and university. Then, once you’ve narrowed your focus, you can trust that the time you put into figuring out how to finance it will be well-spent. Wouldn’t it be great if it wasn’t so complicated? Yes! Go to college and become the politician that fixes it for all of us. But in the meantime, get to work!