Did you know that there are ways to go to college for free, or at least drastically reduce the amount that you would have to pay? We hear so much about getting “free” college from politicians. I put the term “free” in quotation marks, because we all know that it isn’t truly free. There are costs associated with paying professors, maintaining a campus, etc… and someone must pay for it. I won’t get into the politics of the policy here, but just remember, there is no such thing as a free lunch.
There is a real concern though, because so many college graduates are getting their degrees and have accumulated tens-of-thousands of dollars of debt, if not hundreds-of-thousands, and aren’t able to find good-paying jobs after graduation in order to pay back those loans. So how can you get a college education without taking on the burden of debt? Sounds impossible? It’s not. The good news is, you don’t have to wait around for the promise of a “free” education in order to be able to afford to go to college.
Here are 10 steps that you can take today to put yourself on the path to an affordable college education (and maybe even graduate debt-free):
Fill out the FAFSA
Anyone who is thinking of going to college needs to fill out the FAFSA form, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The reason this application is so important is that it will determine your eligibility for federal grants and loans. Remember, you don’t have to accept all of the aid that you qualify for, this just determines qualification.
Visit the guidance office at your high school
If you are a high school junior or senior, the school guidance counselor should be your new best friend. The staff in the guidance office is well-equipped to help you when it comes to applying to colleges, applying for scholarships, and even helping you assess your strengths and potential career paths. Ask them about new scholarships to apply for. Even though you can apply for many scholarships online or through a college directly, there may be local businesses or foundations that offer scholarships through the school.
Search on scholarship websites
Make sure you utilize the internet for more than just social media. There are several websites which you can search for scholarships that you may qualify for, here a just a few to get you started:
Compare academic and athletic scholarships among colleges
Getting good grades and/or being a skilled athlete can also get you extra money for college… anywhere from a few thousand dollars to a full ride. While the scholarships awarded in these areas will differ from college to college, it can make a huge impact on your overall financial responsibility. Before deciding on which school to go to, take a look at the overall costs and overall scholarships that are being offered, you may find that you can save thousands of dollars by choosing one school over the other.
Compare private vs. public schools
According to Collegedata.com: “In its most recent survey of college pricing, the College Board reports that a “moderate” college budget for an in-state public college for the 2015–2016 academic year averaged $24,061. A moderate budget at a private college averaged $47,831. Of those total amounts, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2015–2016 school year was $32,405 at private colleges, $9,410 for state residents at public colleges.
I don’t think you need much explanation here, public is going to be more affordable than private. In fact, in total cost, you can save nearly 50% by going to a public, in-state college.
Commute to college
While the idea of living at home and commuting to college may not allow the freedom or independence that you were hoping for, it can help with your financial freedom in the long run… by making college even more affordable and saving on the cost of room and board. According to Collegedata.com, the College Board reports that the average cost of room and board in 2015–2016 ranged from $10,138 at four-year public schools to $11,516 at private schools. While these numbers do not differ that much between public and private, it can save you at least $40,000 over a four-year education to live at home and commute to class.
Just because you are a full-time student doesn’t mean that you cannot set aside a few hours a week to make some extra money. Of course, there may be times throughout the year that you won’t be able to work due to athletics or other activities that you are involved in while at college, but even working one night a week can help. Getting extra work during the summer or even while on spring break or between semesters, you can probably make enough money to pay for smaller costs associated with college, such as books, lab fees, transportation, etc. Paying for the smaller things as you go helps to cut down on the overall loans that you need overall. Who knows, you may even be able to save up some money during this time…
Know the difference between a loan, a grant, and a scholarship
So what is the difference between a loan, a grant, and a scholarship? Very simply, a loan is something that you will be required to pay back. Grants and scholarships are money that you do not need to pay back.
This is why filling out the FAFSA is so important, there are certain government loans, grants and scholarships that you will automatically know if you qualify for, based on your FAFSA. It also determines that amount you and your family are responsible for. This form is what the colleges that you are considering will look at as well.
Don’t take out the max loan amount
Just because you have filled out the FAFSA and qualify for a student loan does not mean that you are obligated to take it. Remember, a loan is money that you will be required to pay back. You cannot just look at it as free money for the next four years, you must look at it as a financial obligation. Even though there will be no interest until after you graduate, if there is a way to defer your college expenses otherwise, taking out a loan should be your absolute last option.
Serve your country
Serving your country by joining the Armed Forces is also a way to obtain money for a college education. The GI Bill, originally signed into law by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944 (and has since expanded), provides for college education benefits for those who choose to serve.