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Have you ever gone to bed worrying about college money? Paralyzed, gripped by the all-consuming question: “How will I pay for this?”
I can help you.
What you might not realize is that the ways to get college paid for doesn’t just involve one approach.
Often, paying for college is like a puzzle. Or a pizza.
You pay for college using lots of different sources — need-based aid, merit-based aid, outside scholarships, etc.
Well. Let’s not list it all out here. Let’s dive in and go over the puzzle pieces, one by one.
- 1. File the FAFSA.
- 2. File the CSS Profile.
- 3. Explore your options for merit aid.
- 4. Apply for outside scholarships.
- 5. Ask department heads about scholarships.
- 6. Pay for it on your own.
- 7. Use a tuition payment plan.
- 8. Get creative.
- 9. Have your child take out loans.
- 10. Use life insurance.
- Get a Quote!
- 11. Use your Roth IRA.
- Ways to Get College Paid for in Action
1. File the FAFSA.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) gives you major access to scholarships and aid. You can file the FAFSA starting on October 1 of your child’s senior year. The first thing you need to do is get an FSA ID for both you and your student.
You can choose any of these methods to file a FAFSA form:
- Apply online.
- Fill out the form in the myStudentAid mobile app, available on the App Store (iOS) or Google Play (Android).
- Complete a 2021–22 FAFSA PDF.
- Get a print-out of the FAFSA PDF by calling us at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) or 334-523-2691 (TTY for the deaf or hard of hearing 1-800-730-8913). You can mail it in instead.
The FAFSA qualifies you for not only federal student aid, the FAFSA is used to determine your eligibility for certain state and college and university financial aid. Your FAFSA information is shared with the colleges and/or career schools you list on the FAFSA.
2. File the CSS Profile.
What’s the CSS Profile?
It’s one of the best ways you can get aid for college. The College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile is a private independent survey you fill out through a nonprofit organization, the College Board. Nearly 400 universities rely on the CSS Profile to award your kid scholarships and other non-federal financial aid.
What does your child get from filing the CSS Profile? The application could help your child secure institutional scholarships as well as grants or student loans from the federal government.
What colleges accept the CSS Profile?
Great question. Check out the list of participating colleges and universities. The list includes colleges and universities that use CSS Profile as part of their financial aid processes for some or all of their financial aid applicants. Check schools’ websites or contact the institution’s financial aid office for more information.
Unlike the FAFSA, which is free, It costs $25 for the application and one report to a school. You’ll pay $16 for each additional report.
The CSS Profile gathers information about your family’s annual income as well as medical expenses and anything else that could affect your ability to pay for college — it takes a deeper dive into families’ finances than the FAFSA.
Note: Divorced parents must complete the CSS profile separately.
3. Explore your options for merit aid.
You’ll run into a lot of myths about aid. Let’s take a machete to these harmful myths:
- My kid has to be a genius to get money from a college or university.
- Students must be incredible athletes to receive money.
- It takes an exhaustive search of scholarships don’t have to look any further than the college or university your child is looking into.
Did you know that there’s unlimited merit aid from schools around the country? Merit-based aid is aid not based on financial need. Instead, it’s based on items like grade point average, test scores and specific talents.
Let’s look at one school for an example. I’m going to adopt my cousin’s alma mater, St. Olaf, for a second, and show you the merit-based scholarships available there:
- The Buntrock Scholarship (a renewable award of $25,000 per year) recognizes students with outstanding academic accomplishment and exemplary achievement across many facets of the high school experience.
- The Presidential Scholarship (a renewable award of $23,000 per year) recognizes salutary academic achievement.
- The Dean’s Scholarship (a renewable award of $21,000 per year) recognizes a strong and sustained academic achievement.
- The Faculty Scholarship (a renewable award of $19,000 per year) recognizes a balanced record of consistent academic achievement.
- The St. Olaf Scholarship (a renewable award of $17,000 per year) recognizes academic achievement.
What would your child have to do to get these scholarships? Fill out the Common Application and include test scores, high school transcripts and letters of recommendation.
As you can imagine, the highest scholarship amounts get offered to top students, but the lower-tier GPA and scores still get merit scholarships. As you can see, the “lower” tier totals $17,000 per year for four years.
That’s still a whopping $68,000 over four years for the lower-tier scholarships.
My point? Find out what your child can get for merit-based aid. Merit-based aid is also awarded to students who qualify for need-based financial aid.
4. Apply for outside scholarships.
Outside scholarships include private scholarships and cash awards. Encourage your child to go for those $100 scholarships — they add up.
What can you do besides ask the guidance counselor at your child’s school for insight?
- Ask area high schools for graduation programs dating back up to four years ago. You can find the names of scholarships, Google them and ta-dah! Your kid’s got an abundance of choices.
- Contact various civic organizations. Is your next-door neighbor a Kiwanis member? Your co-worker’s husband on the zoo board?
- Talk to the company you work for. What types of scholarships does your company offer? Your partner’s? Your sister’s?
- Scour emails from the guidance office. Gone are the days when a printed-out list of scholarships came from the guidance office. Unfortunately, it’s much more fleeting than that. Your child could see it on an email — then, blip — it’s gone. Ask for an email copy of these announcements, if possible.
- Check social media. Social media is a great place to search for scholarships. You might join any number of Facebook groups or other social media groups that post scholarships. You can do a simple search and find scholarship groups.
- Look at scholarship search engines. (I know, groan. When I was an admission counselor and offered this idea to parents, they always groaned, “There’s so many, they’re all competitive, they’re all national scholarships open to thousands of kids.”)
Don’t hastily dismiss! I suggest Googling “scholarships for writers,” for example. Use keywords to your advantage! And if your child doesn’t look like a match for a specific scholarship, reach out to the scholarship committee and ask if your child can apply anyway. Maybe he’s just missing one tiny requirement.
Also, encourage your child to continue to apply for outside scholarships throughout college. You can find so many scholarships even while your student’s knee-deep in scholarships.
Check out the Scholarship System’s free webinar. It details absolutely everything you need to know about how to track down scholarships — and win them. Jocelyn of the Scholarship System totally impresses me because she’s turned getting scholarships into a complete system. She knows how to streamline the process and get rid of waste completely. She’s the bomb!
5. Ask department heads about scholarships.
Yes! Don’t shy away from asking academic departments at schools about scholarships. Here’s how this can work:
“Dr. Fletcher, you’ve been a biology professor here at X College since 1975. You’ve got to know about some excellent scholarships in your department.”
“Why, as a matter of fact, we have three options for incoming freshmen.”
“One that would apply to my child’s deepening interest in European water voles?”
“Yes! How marvelous is this? My graduate research dabbled in voles.”
“What can we do to apply?”
“Here’s what you need to do…”
So, how can you do this if you’re not able to meet with professors in person?
Email is splendid. Communicate with these people! Build relationships! Do your best to communicate with these influential individuals ahead of time so you start to build relationships.
6. Pay for it on your own.
Remember how I mentioned that paying for college is a giant jigsaw puzzle? It’s also a subtraction problem.
Take the total cost and subtract small bits at a time to get your out-of-pocket cost at the end. It could look like this. (Note: these numbers are completely made up and geared more toward private college costs):
Total cost: $60,000
Merit-based Scholarships: $20,000
Federal subsidized loan: $3,500
Federal unsubsidized loan: $2,000
Total out-of-pocket cost: $30,500
Outside scholarships: $10,000
New out-of-pocket cost: $20,500
See how we subtracted, subtracted, subtracted from that total cost to arrive at an out-of-pocket cost?
Check out the next part to see how you can further take that $20,500 and break it down.
7. Use a tuition payment plan.
Many people underestimate a tuition payment plan — or don’t know about it in the first place. You pay for college using your own money, but break it up into monthly payments.
Let’s take that $20,500 from above and break it into a 10-month payment plan.
Breaking it into a 10-month payment plan means you’ll pay $2,050 per month.
Check out the beauty of the next section!
8. Get creative.
Next, how can you get creative to pay for that $2,050 per month? Can you ask other people to pitch in — both sets of grandparents, your child (think work-study, summer earnings) and maybe an aunt or uncle want to help.
See, what usually happens is most people fixate on the $20,050 and can’t get beyond it. (Trust me, I saw it happen all the time in the admission office.)
Or, figure out what one person will pay you to do for $10. Then, do that 10 more times.
Am I advocating for a side hustle? Maybe! But this really could be an idea for more than a side hustle. It could be your full-time job, if that’s your passion. Save for college by making more money (it’s how I save for my own kids’ 529 plans). Ask yourself this question: What would someone pay you $10 to do?
What do you do better than everyone else? Cook fried chicken? Babysit? Walk chihuahuas? Write goofy ad copy?
Do that one thing for that person, then do it 10 more times. Then do it again 10 more times. Maybe you’ll need to get help from others to help you! To be honest, it doesn’t matter what it is as long as it generates recurring income.
In general, it’s a simple way to think about how you could leverage your passions and talents to save for college. Then stuff the money you make into an ESA, 529 or custodial account.
Instead, take the break-it-down approach!
9. Have your child take out loans.
Okay, this may not be what you had in mind when you Googled “ways to get college paid for”… but you know what? It’s still a way to pay for college.
Loans have their place, and while you probably don’t want your child to take out loans for the full cost of his entire four (or more!) years of college, you can still strategize to figure out how loans fit into the jigsaw puzzle of the full financial aid picture.
In other words, if your child must take out loans, do it as conservatively as possible, in this order:
- Take out federal loans.
- Round out as much as you can with your own money.
- Take out private loans as necessary.
10. Use life insurance.
This is a slightly more morbid way to handle paying for college because you and your spouse must die in order to get it. I know. I hesitated to stick this in here but today is the second anniversary of my father-in-law’s death and I decided to mention it.
If his kids had been in college when he died, my mother-in-law could have relied on his life insurance to pay for college.
I sincerely believed that during COVID-19, I’d avoid the crowds and opt for a no-exam life insurance policy. You can get a quote from Bestow and get coverage from $50,000 to $1,000,000. Choose from 10- and 20-year terms built to suit your needs.
11. Use your Roth IRA.
The busy-as-a-squirrel retirement saver in me squeaks just a little bit when I suggest this option. It kind of feels like trying to say something while having my finger smashed in a drawer.
Because I really, really believe you must take care of your own retirement first before you worry about paying for college.
However, there’s no denying it: You can use your Roth IRA for both retirement and college tuition. You won’t pay withdrawal penalties with IRAs, including Roth IRAs, if the funds are used for qualified educational expenses — tuition, fees, books and room and board.
For most folks who are sending their kids off to college, only the contribution portions of their Roth IRA balances can be withdrawn tax-free. (Any earnings in the account will be taxable for those people under 59, as well as for those over 59½ who haven’t held the Roth for at least five years.)
But Roth IRAs enjoy a somewhat unique tax treatment. Withdrawals are treated as a “return of contribution” first and as earnings second.
Uh… English, please.
No problem. So, what this means is that if you’ve been contributing $4,000 per year for the past five years, you can withdraw $20,000 tax-free (as long as you use the money for tuition, fees, room, board, etc.)
What happens if your withdrawals exceed your total contributions?
They’ll be taxable for those under age 59½.
Just remember, always take care of yourself first. You can always borrow for college but you can’t borrow for retirement. If you’re a little thin on the retirement funds, be a busy squirrel and keep contributing to your Roth IRA!
Ways to Get College Paid for in Action
Don’t limit yourself or your child. So much goes into the process of learning how to pay for college.
Also — one more thing. Don’t stop figuring it out. Ever. This isn’t a process you quit as soon as your child is safely secured in his or her residence hall room on the first day of college. Keep looking for scholarships, keep side hustling, keep finding ways to make college work.
It’s doable — and you can do it!