How to Fund College if You’re not Rich

For many students, paying for college can be a difficult task. However, you don’t need to be rich or have a healthy college fund at your disposal in order to finance your college career. There are several options available to students who don’t think that they can afford a college education.

(1) Consider your options. There are a great many very reputable universities that won’t have you paying back students loans for the rest of your life in order to attend. Remember that the most expensive school does not always equal the best school. Do your research and find a school that possesses all of the qualities, technologies and degree programs that you are interested in and decide whether tuition is reasonable considering your financial situation.

(2) Start saving for college as early as possible. Don’t count on your parents to start a college fund for you. Start your own by saving money received as birthday gifts or a percentage of your earnings at an after-school job. Even if you can only deposit a little money at a time, it will add up eventually. If you or your parents know anything about investing, you might want to consider putting the money in a low-risk fund.

(3) If your high school graduation is just days away and you haven’t saved a penny towards your college education, don’t panic. You still have the option of financial aid. Financial aid is awarded based on financial need, and in most cases both of your parents’ incomes will be factored in when need is assessed. This is one instance in which you can be thankful if your parents don’t make a lot of money.

However, even if you think your parents make too much money for you to qualify, apply anyways. It doesn’t take a lot of time or effort and it’s worth a shot, even if you are only awarded a few hundred dollars. Nowadays, you can conveniently fill out and sign your financial aid form (FAFSA) online, so there’s no excuse for not applying. There are several forms of financial aid available, including federal grants (which you are not required to pay back) and student loans (which you will be required to pay back after graduation). Pay attention to deadlines and make sure that you turn your application in with time to spare.

When you’re young and broke, it’s easy to look upon student loans as free money. The “real world” of the future seems so far off as a college student, but you will be wearing that cap and gown again before you know it. While nearly every college student needs to take out a few student loans, the less that you can borrow, the better off you will be. Even at a low interest rate of four to seven percent interest on a $20,000 loan will add up quickly.

You will be required to start making monthly payments towards your loan balance within six months to a year after you get your degree. With the job market the way it is, you are not likely to find your dream job (or any job for that matter), immediately after you set foot into the work world. This extra monthly payment, added to rent and other living expenses, can become overwhelming. The fewer loans you take out, the smaller your monthly payments will be and the sooner that you will be debt free.

(4) Apply for scholarships. Scholarships are basically gifts from people and organizations that believe in the importance of education. Scholarships are generally not based on financial need, but rather on academic and personal achievements and involvement in school and community programs.

I used to scoff at people who told me that I should be a more “active” student, but looking back I wish I had listened to their advice. Luckily, I studied hard and graduated near the top of my class, so at least I had that going for me. However, there are tons of other students applying for the same scholarships who have an excellent academic record as well. Community service, participation in clubs and other organizations, awards and public recognition, business ventures and other honorable activities are what scholarship committees want to see.

However, even if you think that your application will be passed over due to a lack of extracurricular activities or less-than-perfect grades, apply anyways. Many scholarship applications require letters of recommendation and answers to essay questions. Students who were weak in other areas have received significant scholarships based solely on an exceptional essay or convincing recommendation. I applied for a variety of scholarships my first two years of college and didn’t receive any of them. I was discouraged, but a professor persuaded me to give it one more try. The third time around I was awarded one of the largest scholarships available.

For lists of relevant scholarships, visit your high school guidance counselor or your college financial aid office. You can also search online for scholarships that are not affiliated with your school, but that you may still qualify for. I wouldn’t recommend utilizing any services that charge a fee to help you locate scholarships. These sites seem like scams to me and won’t get you any information that you can’t find yourself if you take a little time to look.

(5) Work-study is another form of financial aid that every student should take advantage of. Work-study programs are federally funded, so whether or not you qualify for a work-study job depends once again on your financial need. However, many universities have programs similar to work-study, which offer campus jobs for which any interested student can apply.

Work-study jobs are typically jobs located on campus, such as working in a mailroom, at the dining hall or library or as an office assistant to a professor or academic department. Work-study jobs generally pay just as well as other jobs that a college student might have and are typically much more convenient. These jobs are designed to work around your schedule and university employers will generally be more understanding if you need to take an afternoon off to study for an exam or finish a school-related project.

Because they are on or near campus, work study jobs often allow you to work a few hours here and there in between class sessions, which add up quickly, but still leave you with your evenings and weekends free for studying or socializing. Typically campus jobs are not very physically or mentally demanding, and may even allow you to get some homework done while you are being paid! Also, because you can often walk to and from a campus job, you don’t need to own a car and can avoid wasting gas money.

(6) Take advantage of your parents. Some high school graduates would prefer to attend a school across the country rather than one close to home, but there are obvious advantages to staying put. If you get along fairly well with your parents and they are in no hurry for you to leave the nest, why not take advantage and live at home? Even if your parents decide to charge you rent in an attempt to teach your responsibility, it will most likely cost you much less than living in a dorm or other college housing.

Many students live at home and commute to school for the first few years of college in order to save money. When they are better prepared to pay for their own housing, they move closer to campus or even transfer to a school that is considerably farther away from home. There are other advantages to living at home, such as free food and laundry facilities. However, you shouldn’t really “take advantage” of your parents. If you aren’t contributing to the household financially, you should be doing extra chores and respecting the rules of the house.

(7) Change your lifestyle. Even if you didn’t lead a wealthy lifestyle in high school, you probably had fewer bills to pay. Most high school students don’t have to worry about rent payments, medical and car insurance premiums or the cost of food and other necessities. They can spend their earnings on things that they want but don’t necessarily need, such as entertainment, high-tech. gadgets and trendy clothing. Some teens are even lucky enough to receive a weekly allowance or have their clothing and entertainment paid for by their parents.

However, students who have everything handed to them can actually be at a disadvantage when the time comes to head off to college. The cost of tuition, room and board, books, school supplies, auto and medical insurance, gas, food and other necessities is overwhelming for someone who isn’t used to paying bills.

Your new role of impoverished college student may require you to make some lifestyle changes. For example, if you are used to spending $100 a week on entertainment (concerts, movies, etc.) and eating out, you are going to need to seriously change your habits. Eating out should be a rare treat for a college student, with the exception of any restaurant that has a dollar menu (but beware of the freshman fifteen!)

Clip coupons and watch for sales when grocery shopping or save by buying in bulk at places like Sam’s Club. Buy foods that are nutritious, filling and have a long shelf life so that you aren’t wasting money on spoiled food. Take advantage of cheap campus entertainment. Many universities have rec rooms and other facilities that students can use for free or for very little money. Colleges also put on concerts, art shows, comedy shows and open-mic nights that are very inexpensive for students to attend.

If you’re used to driving everywhere you go, put down your keys and strap on your walking shoes. The great thing about living on or near campus is that everything is generally within walking distance. You’ll save money on gas and avoid wear and tear on your vehicle. Many students make it through their entire college career without owning a car. When going shopping or on other excursions for which driving is required, consider carpooling.

There are a million little things you can do to save money while going to college, so I won’t go into them all here. A simple rule that every college student should live by is “If you don’t need it, then you can’ afford it”!

As you can see, nearly anyone can afford to pay for college, but it may mean accumulating debt, which makes some people uncomfortable. Students can limit the amount of debt that they accumulate by making smart financial decisions, applying for scholarships and financial aid and making an effort to live within their means. Good luck and happy learning!