The soaring cost of college is enough to scare anyone away. The cost of a college degree has ballooned over 1,000 percent over the last 35 years according to U.S. Labor Department statistics. But don’t let the price tag frighten you. There are still plenty of ways to pay for your college education and, in some cases, even get your degree for free.
“Start thinking about college and financial aid early. Start thinking about it sooner rather than later,” Tiffany Kenner of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Advisors (NASFAA) says. “College is really important in today’s society, so don’t think you should avoid it because of the cost. Don’t just assume that you can’t do it.”
Chief Master Sergeant George Skender, Chief of Command Education and Training of Air Force Recruiting Services, agrees that students need to think about how they’ll finance college early in their college planning.
“Often students are not concerned with financial aid until late in their senior year. Or it’s after their senior year and they start to think, now, how am I going to pay for college?”
Kenner, a former financial aid advisor at University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC) who currently trains other financial aid advisors at NASFAA, offers some basic advice to guide students and their families through the college financial aid process:
Ask Questions and Do Your Homework
“Information gathering is important early on,” Kenner says. “Research scholarships that you may be eligible for, the schools that you may apply for and how much money they cost.”
You can start to get a sense of the cost of college by asking a financial advisor at a college in your local community. You should ask about the cost of tuition. If you are applying out of state, there could be a cost differential between in state and out of state costs. Find out the difference and find out the full cost of attending a school."
What is the cost to live on campus? Do you need to buy a computer? What costs may not be mentioned?
Fill Out the FAFSA ASAP
The Free Application for Federal Aid (FAFSA) helps you get federal grants and loans, state grants and loans as well as financial aid from your college of choice. You and your family will need current federal tax returns, a W-2 or 1099 to fill out the FAFSA. Kenner says you want to provide the most up-to-date tax information so that a school has a true representation of your financial situation and can offer the best financial aid for you.
And the earlier you start the process the better.
“I would really have hurt feelings when I saw students that I knew were eligible for money that they didn’t get because they applied for financial aid too late,” Kenner says of her time as a financial aid advisor for UMBC. “Meet all the deadlines and file on time. You could be cheating yourself out of thousands of dollars.”
In high school, usually in junior year, students can fill out the FAFSA Forecaster, which gives you an idea of your possible financial contribution for college. The information will be stored for when you are ready to actually fill out the FAFSA.
Apply for as Many Scholarships as Possible
“Don’t look at any scholarship as being too small. All money is good money,” Kenner says.
You can find scholarships through your church, any local or civic organization or even your parent’s job along with larger corporate scholarships like the Gates Millennium Scholarship aimed at minorities interested in science or the Coca-Cola Scholarship for students dedicated to community service.
Look at Alternate Ways of Getting Where You Want to Go
Consider going to a two-year community college and transferring to a four-year university. This strategy offers a lot of savings because credits are cheaper than at four-year colleges.
If you have any interest in serving your country, consider paying for college through the military. Several branches have academies to prepare undergraduates for careers in the military and beyond, while hundreds of college campuses have Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), where students can serve and go to school for next to nothing with the help of scholarships and tuition assistance.
“When you enter the Air Force you are automatically enrolled in the Community College of the Air Force where you earn credits toward an associate’s degree in your field of choice whether you are taking classes or not,” CMSgt George Skender says. “You get automatic advancement toward college.”
The Air Force and other branches offer a tuition assistance program that covers 100 percent of tuition (up to $250 per semester hour) for active duty personnel for use toward a two-year degree or advanced BS or BA degrees.
Get a Realistic Idea of What You and Your Family Can Afford
“Sometimes it’s hard for applicants to grasp. You’re 17 years old and all you know is that you want to go to school,” Kenner says. “But you need to know how much it will cost now and how much it will cost you later. You need to know how much it will cost to pay back the loans that you plan to take out. And don’t be discouraged about it; just be aware of it.”
Federal Student Aid
Find out what type of financial aid you can get from federal government, including Pell Grants, federal work-study and loans.
National Association of Student Financial Aid Advisors
The organization explains financial aid and who gives aid in your state and region.
Find out FAFSA deadlines and filing options, then apply.
Compiles information on paying for college along with a database of scholarship across the country. Search for scholarships related to your interests and ethnicity.
Learn about the Gates Millennium Scholars Program operated by the UNCF as well as sources of financial aid for students interested in Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
U.S. Air Force Enlisted Education
Learn about the educational opportunities in the U.S. Air Force and how to get money for school.