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Researching scholarship options
February 17, 2023

Paying for College: Your Guide to Saving, Working, Scholarships and Loans


Paying for a college education is a fantastic investment, but the dollar signs can be intimidating at first glance. For example, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average total cost for first-time, full-time undergraduate students living on campus in 2020–21 totaled $25,700 for public institutions and $54,500 for private nonprofit institutions. However, that’s not typical the price tag once you dig into research and understand the terms and costs.

For starters, understand the difference between a college’s sticker price (total cost of college attendance) and net price (the amount actually paid in tuition after factoring in scholarships, grants and financial aid). As you receive information from colleges and universities, don’t let the sticker price discourage you. Check on the percentage of students receiving merit-based awards.

Here’s why: In 2021, a study by the National Association of College and University Business Officers said that “359 private, nonprofit colleges and universities reported an estimated 54.5% average institutional tuition discount rate for first-time, full-time, first-year students in 2021–22 and 49% for all undergraduates.” These institutions provided grants, fellowships and scholarships — forgoing about half the revenue otherwise collected if they had charged all students the sticker price.

It’s a smart move to get started on the college application process between sophomore and junior years. It also pays to begin early when tackling how to finance college. But there’s no need to go it alone. Our financial aid experts have put together a guide and timeline for thinking through all the different sources for funding — scholarships, savings, work earnings and loans — to get you on the right track to making your college education a reality.

Let’s start with basics. Financial aid is a group of sources that you can draw on to help you pay for college. There are typically two areas: need-based aid and merit-based aid. Financial aid can come in the form of:

  • Grants
  • Scholarships
  • Federal or private loans
  • Work-study and other programs


Remember — don’t let the sticker price scare you. Explore the schools that really interest you and research their financial aid opportunities. Schools often include the percentage of students who receive funding in admissions facts. There are even some schools or scholarship programs that aim to meet a student’s full-demonstrated need so they do not have to take out loans. Being a financial match for a school can cut back stress and boost success in college!

Use the net price calculator. Students can use a school’s net price calculator to help figure out a personalized estimate of a college’s net price. It uses information like family income, grades and test scores, location, etc., to calculate an estimated cost. This number could still be higher or lower when a student applies. If the net price of a school is not in the ballpark of a cost your family can afford, you’ll need to weigh how badly you want to attend the school.

Understand Expected Family Contribution (EFC) vs. reality. Right before applying to colleges, students often fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). It projects an EFC in a dollar amount. However, many families do not agree that this is a realistic or possible contribution. Start the conversation early with your family about college and funding. Find out whether your guardians plan to support your education. This knowledge is important to have upfront. 

Questions for parents:

  • Have you made any plans for investing in or saving for my college career?
  • Do you plan to contribute financially out of your income?
  • What is your expectation for me and the role I play in investing in my college experience? (Are you expecting me to work? Receive scholarships? Explore loans?)
  • What is the plan if I lose my scholarships?

Questions for students:

  • How do you plan to get involved or spend your time in college?
  • How can you invest in your college experience? (Will you work to defray costs while attending college? Do you have a study strategy so you can maintain scholarships?)
  • How does your financial plan fit with your future goals? (Do you plan to work after you graduate or attend graduate school?)

Once you have these conversations, you will not only know what you can afford, but you will also have a better understanding of what you hope to contribute. Begin totaling what you know from the net price calculator — and keep testing as you discover more opportunities or scholarships.

Research scholarships. Think through the activities you are involved in and find out if any of those organizations offer local or national scholarships. Also, stay in touch with both high school counselors and college admissions counselors. High school counselors can alert you to local opportunities while admissions counselors can keep you up to date on scholarship competitions on campus. Here are common scholarship categories you might research:

  • Gender
  • Ethnicity
  • Financial need
  • Disability
  • Military affiliation
  • Religious affiliation
  • Standardized test scores
  • Grade point average
  • Activity involvement
  • Major      

Also, never underestimate hard work in the classroom. Getting your grades up or maintaining a strong GPA is an excellent way to show your persistence to admissions counselors.


By this point, you’ve probably narrowed down your school choices, with the FAFSA due by October 1. This application can be time-consuming. Before you begin, take the time to locate essential information noted on the FAFSA website:

  • Your social security number
  • Your parents’ social security numbers if you are a dependent student
  • Your driver’s license number if you have one
  • Your alien registration number if you are not a U.S. citizen
  • Federal tax information, tax documents or tax returns, including IRS W-2 information for you (and your spouse if you are married) and for your parents if you are a dependent student:
    • IRS Form1040
    • Foreign tax return or IRS Form 1040-NR
    • Tax return for Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia or Palau
  • Records of untaxed income, such as child support received, interest income and veterans non-education benefits for you and your parents if you are a dependent student
  • Information on cash — savings and checking account balances; investments, including stocks and bonds and real estate (but not including the home in which you live); and business and farm assets for you and your parents if you are a dependent student. 

You can also check that you have not input any mistakes into the FAFSA by reviewing the Student Aid Report that the government sends you after you have submitted it.


Congrats — you’re accepted! It’s likely you decided on your school and have a better understanding of all the financial pieces coming together. Many colleges and universities send the first financial aid award letters in December for students who applied early and turned in the FAFSA. Award letters will continue to arrive to students throughout the spring (based on when they submitted applications). Financial award letters can also often be found on the digital portals that colleges use to keep up with your application documents. Check for updates in this space!

Use this checklist to assess your resources before setting up your payment plan.

Your scholarship and grant aid – This is the financial aid from your school, local organizations, the state and the federal government.

Your savings and earnings – If you have put aside extra money or saved from a job, now is the time to invest! If you plan to work through college and/or during college summers, try to estimate the amount to put toward college tuition, then calculate how it impacts your total.

Parents’ savings – If your parents have been saving for college, consider how any special accounts impact your cost.

Work-study or assistantships – There might be campus jobs where salaries can be applied directly to your tuition. Find out more about these opportunities from your admissions counselors.

Federal loans – If you must borrow, federal loans are superior to private loans. They typically have lower interest rates, and they also have more benefits like hardship programs or sometimes loan forgiveness. Here’s the Federal Student Aid definition: “Student loans are made by the government, with terms and conditions that are set by law, and include many benefits (such as fixed interest rates and income-driven repayment plans) not typically offered with private loans.” 

Private loans – This option should be a last resort. These loans have higher interest rates and rarely have other benefits. In contrast to the previous loans, they are offered by private organizations such as banks, credit unions and state-based or state-affiliated organizations, with terms and conditions set by the lender. These student loans are generally more expensive than federal student loans in the long run.

Financial aid counselors – Finally, as you get involved in activities or your major, there may be more merit-based or need-based scholarships available. It’s likely you talked with a financial aid counselor during the application process. With their deep knowledge of financial aid awards, they’re a great resource when you talk with professors about subject-specific grants. Do not bank on money that has not been awarded to you when making your financial plan but know that this is not your final opportunity to receive college aid.

Some unusual circumstances could apply to you, though they might not apply to most new students. Here are a few situations to be aware of.

Financial aid appeals – If your circumstances have changed in the past year, you may have the opportunity to appeal your financial aid award letter. For example, the loss of a parent or a job or income could significantly alter your expected family contribution. Talk with your college admissions counselor.

Employer tuition assistance – If you already have a job and continue to work while enrolled, it may be worth asking your employer if they help fund enrichment or degrees. Certain employers will help employees pay for college.

Room and board – Are you planning to live on campus? Are there costs not included in tuition? Are there rules about books or meal plans? Make sure you account for all fees and decide how to address them.

College credit – Ask your admissions counselor to help determine how much college credit you may have already received. Students who take honors, AP and dual enrollment courses may have already been awarded college credit, or they may be able to take assessments that give credit for courses.

Sell your stuff – Got any unused or unwanted items? As you head to college, you might raise some extra spending cash by having a garage sale or selling items on Craigslist or eBay. Your parents or guardians will also thank you for decluttering their space.

As you walk through this complicated, and sometimes frustrating, process, remember that a college degree is one of the most important investments of your life. Recent research from Georgetown University on education and the workforce shows significant data pointing to the power of an undergraduate degree. Right now, those who hold a bachelor’s degree will earn 75% more than those with a high school diploma.

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