4 Must-Know Ways to Get Help Paying for College

Jar full of gold coins wearing a graduation cap

Yes, you have options. Here are four of the best.

For many students, college simply isn’t affordable. At least not without a little outside help.

But that’s what financial aid is for.

Financial aid can come in many forms. And while different kinds of financial aid may work differently from one another, they all serve the same purpose: to help students afford the cost of college. 

So what are some of the ways to get financial assistance for college? Here are four options available to all types of students — even you.

No. 1: Grants

The U.S. government offers grants to help students fund their education. Students can apply their grants to tuition and other educational costs, without repaying the money. That’s right. Free money with few, if any, strings attached!

You’ve likely heard of the Federal Pell Grant, one of the most recognized educational grants currently available. Grants like this one are a good option for low-income students with demonstrated financial need.

To apply for most grants, students should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. If this process is new to you, or just plain overwhelming, check out our guide to the FAFSA application process.

No. 2: Work-study

Federal work-study is an employment program that matches students who have demonstrated financial need with part-time jobs during the school year. Students earn at least minimum wage and keep the money they make to spend on their educational costs or other needs. 

Work-study jobs can be on campus or off campus, and focus on pairing students with a position that relates to their major or focuses on community engagement. For example, students may be employed at an on-campus college library or local nonprofit in their community.

Not every college participates in the Federal Work-Study Program, so make sure to confirm your eligibility by contacting your financial aid office, and then filling out the FAFSA. 

No. 3: Scholarships

Much like grants, scholarships are a way to score free money. Yes, you heard that right.

Scholarships are financial gifts intended to pay for a student’s educational costs. They are largely funded by educational institutions, companies, nonprofits, and individuals. Oftentimes, scholarships are awarded based on applicant criteria that best align with the values or mission of the founder of the award.

It’s common for scholarships to require an essay as part of the application. Here are some examples of winning scholarship essays, complete with tips for how to write your own. 

No. 4: Student loans

Student loans are a reliable option to fund college, as they are offered by a variety of lenders with a wide range of terms and conditions. Like loans, these are borrowed financial assistance; however, they can only be used toward educational costs. Also, they must be repaid after a student either graduates, drops below half-time enrollment, or drops out.

There are two types of student loans, federal and private. The main difference is the funding source, which also plays a role in determining the interest rates, repayment terms, and so on.

Federal student loans come from the U.S. Department of Education. These loans include terms and conditions set by law to favor the borrower, in this case the student. Federal student loans often have a fixed interest rate and repayment plans that benefit students.

Private student loans come from lenders that set their own unique terms and conditions. As such, these tend to be more expensive based on interest rates than federal student loans. Sallie Mae is a well-known example of a private student loan lender, originating the greatest number of student loans in the U.S.

For more information on the different types of student aid, check out our comprehensive guide here.

Tips for Scoring Financial Aid

Venkates Swaminathan, founder and CEO of Lifelaunchr.com

“[M]any parents and students have some false assumptions about scholarships,” Swaminathan said. “This causes them to overlook scholarships as a feasible means to get financial aid that can reduce the cost of college by thousands of dollars.”

Swaminathan dispelled a few misconceptions about scholarships that both parents and students hold.

No. 1: Only the brightest and most athletic students win scholarships 

In reality, there are many areas of interest that offer scholarships to students, including skills and accomplishments that may not be related to their major. Other considerations are given to ethnicity and race, just to name a few.

No. 2: Students must demonstrate financial need to win scholarships

Not all scholarships are awarded based on financial need. You may be able to attend a more selective college through obtaining a scholarship, even if you can afford to go there.

No. 3: Only seniors can apply for scholarships

Students can apply for a scholarship much earlier than what most people think. A high school freshman or even junior high school student can apply. You may miss out on a debt free college education by waiting.

Akeiva M. Thomas, founder of The Bemused

Ready to fill out the FAFSA? According to Thomas, there are three tips that every college student needs to know in order to maximize financial aid.

No. 1: Fill out the FAFSA

This might seem obvious, but you would be surprised at the number of students who make misguided excuses for not filling out the FAFSA. One common belief I hear is that the student believes they or their parents make too much money, so they don’t qualify for aid. Filling out the FAFSA never hurts. In fact, some schools require you to fill out the FAFSA in order to qualify for institutional aid. 

Also, if you or your family experience a significant change to your financial situation, such as a job loss or unusual circumstance, financial aid administrators have the ability to make what’s called a professional judgment on a case-by-case basis, whereby they can manually adjust your need, sometimes resulting in more financial aid for the student.

Filling out the FAFSA helps to keep your funding options open.

No. 2: Fill out the FAFSA early

Technically, the deadline to fill out the FAFSA is the earlier of the last day of enrollment for your university’s school year or June 30th. However, many states also offer financial aid to qualifying students and these states have their own deadlines. So, if you’re going to a school in the state that you live in, it’s even more important for you to pay attention to these deadlines. In addition, some colleges have their institutional deadlines. When it comes to the FAFSA, the early bird gets the worm.

No. 3: Fill out the FAFSA accurately

Avoid common pitfalls when filling out the FAFSA. Make sure you don’t mix up student and parent financial information, as that can make a huge difference in your financial aid package. Where possible, use the IRS’s Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) to seamlessly import your tax return information and help eliminate errors.

Bottom Line

College is expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. Thanks to financial aid, students can get help paying for college, and then secure a degree to pursue greater career options.


Venkates SwaminathanVenkates Swaminathan “Swami” is the founder and CEO of LifeLaunchr, which is a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. An executive in the education and technology industries for more than 25 years, Swami created LifeLaunchr to be the world’s first virtual college admissions coaching platform. LifeLaunchr provides expert, personalized college admissions coaching to help students find their best-fit college or career.
Akeiva ThomasAkeiva M. Thomas is one of the youngest certified financial planner professionals and Certified Public Accountants in the nation. She also holds a master’s degree in financial planning. Thomas has a passion for helping young people like herself build wealth and has a particular interest in college funding and student loan planning. She spreads financial literacy through her YouTube channel and brand, The Bemused. She also helps college students and recent graduates make a confident entry into the workforce and attain positions in industries they love through her career coaching company, Snatch My Career.

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