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Paying for College

A big part of college preparation is knowing how you’ll afford tuition. Learn about your options, which include scholarships, financial aid and tuition savings plans. The Military also offers scholarship programs and plans for students to explore (e.g., the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps or ROTC). 

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The Cost of College

While the total cost of college depends on where you go, how you budget and whether you'll receive financial aid, there are five standard expenses you have to consider:

  1. Tuition and Fees
    This is the cost of your education and most often is the bulk of your college expenses. These costs vary depending on the type of school you attend.
    Type of school Average annual cost (2019–2020)
    Public four-year college (in state) $9,678
    Public four-year college (out of state) $27,091
    Private four-year college $38,768
    Two-year community or junior college (In State) $3,970

    Source: National Center for Education Statistics

  2. Room and Board
    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.
    Type of school Average annual cost (2019–2020)
    Public four-year college $11,520
    Private four-year college $13,028

    Source: National Center for Education Statistics

  3. Books and Supplies
    This is the cost of course materials. Prospective students usually overlook this cost category, but it is one that's growing.

    Average cost: $1,216.

  4. Travel

    If you're attending a college far from home, travel expenses can be high. If you're attending a college close to home, or if you plan on living off campus and commuting to school, you’ll still need to factor in transportation costs between home and classes.

  5. Miscellaneous Expenses

    This is the cost of that morning coffee, late-night pizza and monthly cell phone bill. Personal expenses can add up, especially in pricier metropolitan areas.
    Average cost: $4,551 per year (2016–2017).

Financial Aid

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 strong 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. 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 forms:

A loan is money 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.

Common types of college loans:

Direct PLUS Loan

A grant is money you're not expected to pay back. For this reason, grants are a very sought-after form of financial aid.

Common types of college grants:

Pell Grant

Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG Grant)

Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grant (TEACH Grant)

Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant

Scholarships are 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.

Scholarship search (FastWeb)

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.

Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
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 CSS PROFILE. The PROFILE is similar to the FAFSA in that it collects your financial information, but it goes more in-depth and costs at least $25 to fill out. However, a limited amount of fee waivers 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.

Other Ways to Pay

Tuition Savings Plans
There are several kinds of savings accounts that can help pay for college. The most popular are 529 plans, legally referred to as “qualified tuition programs.” A 529 plan is an education savings plan designed to help families set aside funds for future college costs. There are two kinds of 529 plans: prepaid tuition plans and education savings plans. All states and the District of Columbia sponsor at least one type of these plans. Check with a parent, grandparent or guardian to see whether they have a 529 plan set up for you and if you can make additional contributions for the remainder of high school.

Military Service
Another option to pay for college 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 service members 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.

Explore more ways to pay for college (Today’s Military) 

Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) Scholarship
The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program prepares young adults to become military officers while earning a college degree. By committing to a post-college career as an officer, ROTC students receive a scholarship while enrolled in a college or university. ROTC scholarship benefits can vary by college or university, but may include:

  • 100% tuition and fees coverage (dependent on merit and grades)
  • Room and board (for qualifying cases)
  • Personal expenses of $300 to $500 a month, per school year, depending on the cadet’s year in the ROTC program
  • $1,200 per year for books 

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