How to Pay for College: Funding U’s Ultimate Checklist

We’re not going to beat around the bush: Figuring out how you’re going to pay for college is a daunting task for just about everyone. Every year the price tag goes up, and even if you’re lucky enough to have a college fund, most people face some type of funding gap that needs to be filled.

Having spoken to thousands of students, we know that a vast majority end up cobbling together funds from numerous sources. Keeping all of those sources in your head can be both anxiety- and headache-inducing.

… which is why we created this checklist, a step-by-step guide to help you wrap your arms around funding education. Unlike many other guides out there, these aren’t gimmicky “tips” or “lifehacks.” This is the real-deal framework to identify, minimize, and fill your funding gap.

1. Find the free money: Scholarships and grants

At the top of the list, every student – regardless of their family situation – should look for scholarships and grants. Any amount of money you don’t have to spend or borrow is worth seeking out. Luckily, there are more tools now than ever to help you find scholarships.

Watch out for this super-common misconception: that scholarships and grants are only for low-income families or specific ethnic background. It’s simply not true – there there are plenty of offers that include students of all backgrounds.

❏ Submit your FAFSA (on time!)

It may seem like common sense, but according to a 2018 Nerdwallet study, U.S. students missed out on $2.7 billion in free federal aid by not filling out their FAFSAs on time.

Before you spend a second researching scholarships and grants, check off the single most important step: filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) on time. Your FAFSA will determine what federal aid and federal loans you qualify for. It’s also required by nearly every school, scholarship program, and lender.

❏ Check if your school also requires a CSS Profile (also on time!)

Many private universities require the College Scholarship Service Profile (CSS Profile), so make sure to check your school’s financial aid office website.

❏ Get in touch with your financial aid office

Colleges and universities all have different scholarship and grant opportunities. Check your school’s website for information about their scholarships and grants. 

Better yet, outdo nearly all of your fellow students by making contact with the financial aid office, who can provide you with a comprehensive list of programs the school offers. Many times, the financial aid office will let you know of opportunities that are specific to the individual program you’re enrolled in or the community the school is in.

❏ Get resourceful (and find your niche!)

There are thousands upon thousands of scholarships available nationwide. Some are merit-based, some require essays and some are simple sweepstakes. A shocking amount are for extremely niche activities or communities (don’t let anyone tell you that it doesn’t pay to be an excellent duck-caller).

First, check your local connections. What about your parents’ employers? Your church, mosque, temple, local community organizations – you might be shocked to learn what kind of local programs are out there, looking to support community students. 

After you’ve exhausted your personal and community networks, head to the “aggregators” – Scholarships.com, Fastweb, and College Board are three of the biggest around.

❏ Apply, rinse, repeat.

When it comes to these scholarships, more than half the battle is putting in the work. Just by ticking your way through this process, you’ll be ahead of your typical college student.

In fact, you’ll do even better if you look for scholarships that require a little effort, like writing an essay. Just by doing the work, you’ll be heads and shoulders above your peers. What’s even better, once you’ve written one or two essays, the content can often be repurposed for other scholarships. Just watch out for those pesky details, like putting the correct scholarship names in a copied version.

2. With your parents, figure out what you can really pay

The second part of the process is an honest conversation (that probably needs to happen yearly) about what you and your family can reasonably afford to contribute to your education expenses. You’d be surprised how many families skip this step. Talking about money is always difficult, especially when the truth is that there’s a gap between what the family can afford and what the true costs of college are. But that’s the whole point! You have to define the problem, as a family, before you can be expected to solve it.

❏ Tally up your savings

Ideally, you have a college fund (but maybe not!). If you do, it’s important to know the hard facts:

  • How much is set aside?
  • Will the same amount be available every year? 
  • What factors could change things (like a sibling entering school, a downturn in the economy, not graduating in four years, etc.)?

❏ Figure out what your family can contribute this year

Many parents or even grandparents try to chip in what they can. As you know, it will depend on their current income and job situation.

Every bit helps. Maybe family members can cover expenses such as plane or bus tickets for coming home during holidays, purchasing school supplies, or sending a small monthly allowance. 

❏ Add in what you can (realistically) earn while studying

By earning some income while you are studying, you can decrease the amount of money you have to borrow. At the same time, gaining work experience while studying is often beneficial to your future career prospects.

But here’s the problem: College is intense. It’s very difficult to work while studying. You’re unlikely to have the bandwidth for a full-time job – but don’t rule out working altogether. 

Part-time jobs on campus are one option. Most colleges offer some kind of work-related aid programs. Students that apply for financial aid at the college they are attending might even have to complete a certain number of work hours on campus. Most of these campus jobs are related to college services and pay minimum wage, but they are extraordinarily flexible compared to regular jobs off-campus.

Plus, it has never been easier to earn some “side-hustle” dollars, with numerous freelance platforms that offer remote jobs you could do from your computer in the dorm. If you excel in academics, you could offer paid tutoring to other students that might need help. 

Though a lot of internships are unpaid, there are paid options out there, too. An internship could significantly improve your career prospects while helping you cover your college expenses.

❏ Review the big picture with you family and keep brainstorming

Bring all of this info to your parents and enlist their perspective and ideas. Not only will you have a real picture of what you can afford, together you may find a way to tweak this or change that, helping you manage the money stuff and focus on your studies.

3. Borrow to bridge the gap (but only what you need!)

Finally, we are entering the zone of last resort. If you have exhausted all of the funding options above and are still unable to pay for college, student loans might be inevitable. 

❏ Figure out how much debt is reasonable, for you

Since student loans are borrowed money that has to be paid back with interest, it is important to consider this an investment in your future. Take an honest look at what you expect to make once you graduate college. One common rule of thumb is that your total borrowing amount through college should not be bigger than the starting salary you expect at graduation.

❏ Borrow what you can through federal student loans

If you have to take the plunge and borrow money for school, then federal student loans are the best deal you are going to find. Start by borrowing here, which you will do through your college’s financial aid office.

What is the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans?

Subsidized loans are cheaper for the borrower, because the federal government covers the interest on your loans while you’re in school. With unsubsidized loans, you’ll end up paying more interest. However, anyone can qualify and the amount you can borrow is higher.

To find out more, check out our Guide to Unsubsidized vs. Subsidized Student Loans

❏ Consider “parent PLUS” loans carefully

Federal PLUS loans are government loans that your parents take out to pay for a child’s college education. Because they show up on your Financial Aid Award Letter, many families assume that PLUS loans are always a better option than private loans, but this is not always the case. PLUS loans have higher interest rates and fees than federal direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans for students. In some cases, your parents may not be able to financially take on a loan.

❏ Take out private loans 

The final funding option, even though it’s the one we provide, is a private student loan. Banks and other private lenders, like Funding U, issue student loans to all kinds of students. Private loans typically carry higher interest than the government-subsidized federal loans.

If you are out of options and private student loans are the only way to fund your college education, it is essential to analyze the financial impact of your decision before you take out a private student loan. Your potential future earnings from that college degree needs to offer a decent return on investment compared to the cost of borrowing money through private student loans. If not, it might make more sense to look into more affordable education options, like community colleges and trade schools.

Co-signed vs. No Co-signed loans

The vast majority of private student loans are “co-signed student loans,” meaning that you will need a parent or other creditworthy co-signer to enter into the loan agreement. The co-signer – your parent – is then liable along with you for the loan. If it goes unpaid, it will hurt their credit record, too.

“No Co-Signer Loans” are loans that the student enters into independently.

4. Study hard, knowing you took a responsible approach

Congratulations! You made it to the end of the checklist. You have exhausted your options and taken a reasonable, responsible approach to college. Now study hard!

Why Funding U makes no co-signer loans to students

At Funding U, we specialize in no-cosigner loans because we want to support students who don’t have access to a co-signer. But also, we believe that traditional private loans are taking the wrong approach. We think it’s possible to judge a student’s creditworthiness based on their performance and potential, and that our approach makes more sense than judging students based on their parent’s credit score.

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