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How to Pay for College Without Building a Mountain of Debt

by Gerri Detweiler

How To Pay For College Without Building a Mountain of Debt

If trying to get accepted into the college or university you want to attend seems intimidating, wait until you try to figure out how to pay for it. With higher education costs skyrocketing during the past couple of decades, you’ll want to spend just as much time researching financial aid, scholarships and grants as you do deciding where you want to attend and what you want to study — maybe even more.

Apply for Scholarships

Some $3.4 billion scholarship money is available to students, according to Fastweb.com, a free database of scholarships. Not all require stellar grades or a winning essay. But pretty much all of them require that you apply.

So start searching early to find out whether scholarship money for college is available for you. (You don’t have to decide on a particular school before you start your research.) There are scholarships based on everything from ethnicity, honors earned in school, to unique situations such as those who are orphans, children of single parents or who have received foster care.

As Fastweb says, securing scholarships “is a numbers game. The more scholarships you apply for, the better your chances of winning.”

Check Out College Grants

College grants are similar to scholarships in that you generally don’t have to repay them. But they are usually based on need, rather than merit or other qualifications.

Most people have heard of Federal Pell Grants which are available to students who qualify based on need. They offer a maximum of $5,645 in aid for the 2013-2014 award year. (You can check the Department of Education website for current information.) In addition, though there are several other federal education grants including Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) for undergraduate students with exceptional financial need.

Schools themselves may offer grants, and there are organizations that offer grants for minorities, women and other groups.

Apply for Financial Aid

If you are a prospective student, complete the FAFSA – the Free Application for Federal Student Aid – even if you aren’t sure you will qualify for financial assistance. Just as the name suggests, it is completely free and it can help you find out how federal aid can help you pay for a college education. As the Department of Education points out, millions of students are awarded approximately $150 billion in aid in the form of grants, low-interest loans and work-study funds to help them pay for college.

But in order to be eligible, you must fill out the FAFSA. Most experts recommend you apply as close to Jan. 1 as possible. Some aid is on a first-come, first-served basis. In addition, schools, and federal and state agencies, also have deadlines.

Work While in School

If you have exhausted your options for scholarships and grants, consider working while you are in school to help cover expenses. This may mean taking fewer classes and delaying the day you graduate, but it may also allow you to graduate with less debt. You may also want to consider working for an employer that provides tuition reimbursement benefits. Some students are able to get their degrees paid for this way. It can be a particularly attractive option for those pursuing a graduate degree for which less financial aid is available.

Transfer Up

Some students save significant money by going to a community college for two years and then transferring to a four-year institution. You have to be careful if you take this route to ensure that the credits you earn initially will transfer, but if you do your homework, this can be an excellent way to get a diploma from your school of choice at a fraction of the cost.

To learn more about managing debt, read more from our experts by visiting our Debt Learning Center. You can also get tips about how to manage student loan debt by visiting our Student Loans Learning Center.


  • thomas

    Well, I am going to trade school. That means little to NO college debt, if any.

  • Ann

    Many of the skilled trades offer job security as well — something no longer true for supposed “white collar jobs.” They may also be an excellent option for smart young people who want hands on work and don’t want to be tied to an office. Jobs that fix things like clogged drains, electrical issues and car repairs can’t get outsourced because they need professionals here to fix the problem!


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  • Meet Our Expert

    gerri_detweiler GravatarGerri Detweiler is Credit.com's Director of Consumer Education. She focuses on helping people understand their credit and debt, and writes about those issues, as well as financial legislation, budgeting, debt recovery and savings strategies. She is also the co-author of Debt Collection Answers: How to Use Debt Collection Laws to Protect Your Rights, and Reduce Stress: Real-Life Solutions for Solving Your Credit Crisis as well as host of TalkCreditRadio.com.
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