While the total cost of college depends on where you go, how you budget and if you receive financial aid, there are five standard expenses you have to consider:
This is the cost of your education and most often is the bulk of your college expenses. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, which tracks higher education trends, the average 2011-2012 cost for a public four-year college is $7,701 per year. The average 2011-2012 cost for a private four-year college is $23,479, and the average 2011-2012 cost for a two-year community or junior college is $2,647. And keep in mind, if you choose an out-of-state public four-year college the tuition will be slightly higher. The 2011-2012 average charge for out-of-state students at public four-year schools is $20,609.
Whether you are living on campus or off, your room and board is a substantial expense. It includes housing, meal plans, utilities, parking expenses and anything else included in the cost of living. The 2011-2012 average cost for room and board is $9,088 per year for a student attending a public four-year college and $10,237 for a student attending a private four-year college.
This is the cost of course materials. Prospective students usually overlook this cost category, but it is one that’s growing. The 2011-2012 average cost for books and supplies is $1,166 per year.
If you’re attending a college far from home, travel expenses can be high. Even if you’re attending a college close to home, if you plan on living off campus and commuting to school, you need to factor in transportation costs between home and classes.
This is the cost of that morning coffee, late-night pizza and monthly cell phone bill. Personal expenses can add up, especially in metropolitan areas. The 2011-2012 average cost for personal or miscellaneous expenses is $2,969 a year.
Financial aid is money given to students to help them pay for college. You can receive financial aid by way of merit or need. Merit-based financial aid is awarded to a student with good grades or who is good at sports, music or any other special skill. Need-based financial aid is given to a student who shows he or she cannot afford to pay the full cost of college on his or her own and needs financial help. The qualifications for both vary greatly so be sure to check if you qualify. Both kinds of financial aid can come from a variety of sources: the government, schools, charities or businesses. They also come in various different forms:
A loan is money that you’re expected to pay back later. Loans are widely used because they allow students to pay their own way through college, and they typically have no requirement that they be paid back until one year after graduation (this applies for undergraduate and graduate school). There are both federal and private loans available to students. Federal loans don’t require a credit check, and the government regulates the associated fees and interest rates, which usually means they’re lower. There is a limit to how much money a single student may receive. Private loans, however, can be taken in any amount, but they are credit-based and can be denied based on credit score. Either one can be a good choice depending on your circumstances. Two common types of college loans are the Federal PLUS Loan and the Perkins Loan.
A grant is money that you are not expected to pay back. For this reason, grants are a very sought-after form of financial aid. Four common types of college grants are the Pell Grant, the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG Grant), the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grant (TEACH Grant) and the Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant.
Scholarships are just like grants in that you’re not required to pay them back. While scholarships can be given based on either need or merit, they’re often awarded for academic performance. Organizations of all types and sizes sponsor scholarships, including colleges and universities themselves, and often all you have to do to be considered for one is submit an application.
Work-study is a program funded by the federal government that allows students to receive financial aid in exchange for working on campus. When available, work-study can be a convenient form of aid. Students in the program usually work a set number of hours per week on or around campus and are able to schedule their hours around classes.
To qualify for financial aid, a very important application is the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), and it’s what you should start with first. The FAFSA is a form that provides the federal government with all of your financial information and helps the government determine what kind of financial aid you qualify for. The FAFSA also requires information from your parents or guardian, so make sure you have access to their tax information before you apply. Another online financial-aid application that’s become popular with private colleges and scholarship programs is the PROFILE (CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE). The PROFILE is similar to the FAFSA in that it collects your financial information; only the PROFILE goes more in-depth and costs at least $25 to fill out. A limited amount of fee waivers, however, are available to low-income students.
Upon completing the FAFSA or PROFILE, start looking into specific financial-aid opportunities and corresponding payment plans. The different forms of financial aid described above can often be combined with whatever you receive through FAFSA for additional help. With a little determination and research, financial aid can allow students – no matter what their income level is – to meet the costs of college.
Applying for financial aid requires attention to detail. There are specific forms to be filled out, deadlines to meet and eligibility requirements to consider. Stay organized and informed by following a step-by-step Financial Aid Application Checklist.
There are several kinds of savings accounts that can help pay for college, the most popular being the 529 Plan. A 529 Plan is an education savings plan operated by a state or educational institution designed to help families set aside funds for future college costs. Check with your parents, grandparents or guardian to see whether they have a 529 set up for you and if you can make additional contributions for the remainder of high school.
Another option is serving in the Military for a set amount of time. For decades, Americans have enjoyed educational benefits in return for military service. There are numerous programs designed to help servicemembers receive an education before, during and after their service commitments. From officer training programs to the Post-9/11 GI Bill and on-base educational opportunities, the Military spends millions of dollars annually educating its troops.