In 2020-21, a public four-year college cost in-state families $9,687 on average, while a private university cost them approximately $35,087, according to the U.S. News & World Report’s data. These numbers are nearly doubled for those attending school out-of-state.
With these hefty price tags, saving enough money for college to avoid packing on tons of student loan debt may seem impossible. But rest assured, there are plenty of resources that many don’t take advantage of that can make higher education affordable.
1. Pay off existing debt before starting
The biggest barrier in the way of saving for you or your child’s college fund is existing debt. It’s going to be hard to pay off college loans when a big chunk of your income is already going to existing monthly payments. Plus, interest continues to add up if you don’t pay off debt, so the longer it takes, the more you’ll end up spending.
Having outstanding student loans already can also make filling out a FAFSA problematic. The federal Stafford loan program has a limit of $31,000 for dependent students, $57,500 for independent undergraduate students, and $138,500 for independent graduate or professional students, according to the Department of Education. If you’ve already reached those limits, you won’t be eligible to receive another Stafford loan until you pay off some of your existing balance.
Focus on getting rid of your former student loans, credit cards, and other debts first. Once those are paid down, then it’s time to start saving for college.
2. Take advantage of a 529 plan
More than two-thirds of Americans still don’t know there’s a tax-free way to save for college—even though it’s been around long enough that kids born when it debuted are now alumni.
State-sponsored 529 plans are one of the best, yet least likely options to be used by people considering higher education, according to a study from the financial services firm Edwards Jones.
A 529 plan is similar to a Roth Individual Retirement Account (IRA). Essentially, your money goes into an account after taxes and gets invested in mutual funds so it can grow. The funds, including earnings on the investments, can be withdrawn tax-free. However, the beneficiary of the account can only spend the money on “qualified” school-related expenses such as classes, dorms, books, or student fees.
The plan can be set up by parents, grandparents, or the student if you’re funding your own education. Investing for a child and you don’t know if they will pursue higher education? Start contributing to the account anyways. If your child doesn’t end up going to college, you can always change the beneficiary to another eligible family member.
“With the cost of college continuing to rise, having the growth and tax benefits of a 529 make these plans crucial—and complementary—to the additional strategies Americans are using to save for education,” said Steve Rueschhoff, a Principal at Edward Jones. “While there are a lot of unknowns, like the potential for scholarships, the permanence of hybrid online/in-person education, and any policies offering student debt forgiveness, it’s prudent to save for education to create certainty and confidence.”
To learn more and find a plan that works best for you visit www.collegesavings.org.
3. Apply for as many scholarships as possible
Scholarships can be a substantial source of free money. These awards can be given to students based on merit, area of study, special skills, and much more. Using scholarship money to help pay for school allows you to put more of your savings toward additional expenses like food, rent, and books.
According to Sallie Mae, scholarships will cover 16% of college costs this school year, and there are a few ways to make that money stretch further.
Apply for every scholarship you’re eligible for, which is probably that’s more than you think because quite a few have little to no qualifications. There are also some weird scholarships you can apply for and earn up to $30,000—if you’re talented or tall enough. Here are some of the most interesting scholarships:
- The Tall Club Scholarship: This offers $1,000 to female applicants more than 5 feet 10 inches tall and male applicants more than 6 feet 2 inches tall.
- The Chick and Sophie Major Memorial Duck Calling Contest: This awards $4,250 to four winners for the best duck calls.
- The Wholesale Halloween Costume Scholarship: This offers $500 to the best pumpkin carver
Be sure to stay ahead of deadlines and apply early!
4. Fill out the FAFSA
With student loan debt climbing every year, you’d think new undergrad and grad students would find more ways to cover growing college costs. But they don’t.
In fact, even fewer are looking for free money. According to a 2020 Sallie Mae report:
- 43% of families didn’t fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) because they didn’t believe they could qualify
- 16% simply missed the deadline
- 4% didn’t even know the FAFSA existed
This form gives recipients easy access to grant money and paid work-study programs for higher education, as well as federal student loans that offer far more flexibility in repayment than private loans.
Of the students that apply, 68% of applicants end up qualifying for financial aid, reports a Debt.com survey. With such a high rate, why don’t more people apply?
No matter the excuse, by not submitting the FAFSA you’re missing out on free money. This means paying more out-of-pocket and, in turn, taking on more debt in the long run.
A breakdown of what the FAFSA offers for both undergraduate AND graduate students:
- Loans: Among those seeking higher education, student loans are the most popular aid package. These can be given out by both the federal or state government as well as individual lenders. For undergrads, these loans can either be subsidized, where the government pays the accrued interest while you are in school, or unsubsidized, where you are responsible for paying the interest. Graduate students however can only receive unsubsidized loans because they file as an independent on FAFSA.
- Grants: Grants are essentially free money awarded based on your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). If you have a lower EFC, you will most likely have a better chance of qualifying for a Federal Pell Grant, or a Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOF).
- Work-study programs: Unlike free money, this is money you have to work for. The Federal Work-Study provides need-based undergraduate and graduate students with part-time jobs. This allows them to earn the money they need to pay off tuition, rent, and related expenses while working a job that relates to their field of study.
Be sure to fill out the application when it opens on January 1st to maximize your chances of receiving available aid. You can also submit a paper application at any college campus’ Financial Aid department.
5. What to do after the FAFSA:
Even after receiving financial aid, you still might not have the exact amount needed to cover tuition for undergrad. This is why you should look into PLUS loans after filling out the FAFSA. If eligible, you could receive a federal loan for what the FAFSA didn’t cover. Just remember that these loans have no grace period, meaning they will start accruing interest right away.
If you’re a graduate or professional student, request a “grad PLUS loan.” All you have to do is fill out the Direct PLUS Loan Application and wait for it to be approved. This one step is even easier if you already applied for a PLUS loan as an undergrad student. Simply request a change in the loan’s amount on your previously submitted application, and you’re good to go!
6. Look into emergency aid
In response to COVID-19, many universities have set up a fund for those facing financial pressure. If you are struggling to pay for higher education due to the pandemic, request emergency financial aid. Not only is there funding provided by individual colleges, but federal funds have been set up for students needing COVID-19 based aid.
7. Tuition reimbursement from your job
Tuition reimbursement can be immensely beneficial for students looking to go to grad school or workers looking to go back to school to advance their careers. An employer essentially covers the cost of tuition so you can attend classes while you work.
Each company’s program is different—some reimburse 100% of all school costs, some only cover a certain amount, and others only pay for tuition at a certain school or coursework related to a specific area of study. Many companies also might make you meet specific requirements, like being an employee for a full year, before you can start receiving reimbursements.
If you’re already working at a company that offers tuition reimbursement, talk to your HR department to make sure you understand how the program works. If you’re looking for a job that offers tuition reimbursement, make sure to do your research to ensure new employees are offered this money-saving perk before accepting a position.
8. Work for your school or become a graduate assistant
Calling all graduate students! Take what you’ve learned in undergrad and pass it onto the next generation, in exchange for some sweet benefits, of course. Many public colleges run graduate assistantship programs, where grad students can receive full tuition, or stipend paychecks, to teach or do research projects. By participating in one of these programs, you can cover the cost of higher education while earning quality resume-building experience.
If your school doesn’t offer an assistantship program, look into the benefits of on-campus jobs. If you work for your college, you might receive discounted tuition in addition to a weekly paycheck.
9. Rent, don’t buy, textbooks
Once you cover tuition, you’ll still have to spend a significant amount on resources like textbooks and other course-specific online platforms. The average full-time undergrad student pays $1,298 per year in books and class materials, according to the College Board.
To lessen the cost of books, try renting them instead of buying them. You’ll save a lot of money if you manage to keep the book intact and return it on time.
Digital textbooks can be even cheaper and easier to rent, as you don’t have to stress about remembering the return date. Many rental sites even include free learning tools like mini-quizzes and text-to-search for key terms.
The Amazon Textbook Store has a huge range of used and new books available for rent or purchase. Students can get free two-day shipping through Prime Student, and save up to 80% off the listing price for most etextbooks.
If your textbook isn’t available to rent, try to buy from companies that offer student discounts. After your semester is over, get some money back by selling your textbooks to rental sites like Chegg or Booksrun.
10. Find alternative housing options
Want to go to Stanford? You’ll be paying more to live in California than to actually attend school there. Zillow says many of the top-ranked colleges in the U.S. are in cities with some of the most expensive off-campus housing in the country. This is unfortunate, especially if you’ve already worked so hard to cover the cost of tuition. But rest assured, there are plenty of ways to completely cut the cost of rent or room and board.
If your parents live nearby, why not try making the commute to campus and spending a few extra years at home? You’ll save thousands every year and might even be able to afford your own place sooner post-graduation. You could also try living in a co-op, house, or complex that accommodates a group of people. The rent is typically cheaper than an apartment, but there’s a catch—you’ll have to work for your keep, according to Affordable Colleges Online.
Then there are less practical options—like tiny homes. You can build your own custom home for a fraction of the cost of a full-sized one. But there are still even more extreme cases that college students resort to when trying to save.
When in college, Andrew Fraieli, Florida Atlantic University alumnus and editor-in-chief of The Homeless Voice, camped on campus to avoid paying rent. He stayed in tents, hammocks, and stairwells—but he made sure they were out of sight.
“I spent almost a week in one particular stairwell that was quiet, dark, and most importantly out of the way. With my sleeping pad, it was quite comfortable actually,” Fraieli says. “As I drifted off to sleep in that stairwell, though, I thought of all the other students that may not be able to afford housing and how they could be doing what I’m doing, if only they knew how.”
But you don’t have to be as extreme as Fraeli to avoid expensive dorm or rent costs. For more tips on saving money, visit Debt.com’s save money section.
Joe Pye contributed to this report.