8 Ways to Pay for College

Figuring out how you’ll be able to afford college can feel like a huge challenge. Everyone’s lives and situations are different, and with so many financial aid options and financial guides out there, creating a plan that works for you can be quite the process.

The best course of action starts with understanding all of your options, so let’s take a deep dive into 8 ways you can pay for your college education.

1. Fill out the FAFSA

Filling out and submitting a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) might be the most important step you can take toward paying for college. By completing this form, you can learn which types of federal aid you’re eligible for.

The FAFSA will ask you to provide financial information about yourself and your family or guardians, including factors like income, assets, and household size. Based on the information you provide, the US Department of Education will:

  • Calculate your expected family contribution (EFC), or the amount of money that your family will be expected to contribute towards your education expenses.
  • Determine whether you’re eligible for need-based grants, work-study opportunities, federal student loans, and more.

Completing the FAFSA accurately and promptly — as soon as possible after October 1st each year — is essential to maximize eligibility for all types of federal aid.

2. Apply for grants

Student grants are another valuable form of financial aid that can help you pay for college. Unlike loans, grants don’t need to be repaid, so they should be one of the first options you pursue.

Grants are offered at the federal, local, and institutional levels, and are often awarded based on financial need (though for some specific grants, race, gender, or other demographic characteristics may also be considered). Some grants are renewable (meaning you can apply for them each school year), while others offer a one-time disbursement.

Unfortunately, billions of dollarsin grant money get left on the table by students who qualify — don’t be one of them! Ensure you fill out your FAFSA to discover what grants you’re eligible for.

Financial aid at Woodbury

More than 96% of Woodbury University undergraduate students receive some form of financial aid, and the average student financial aid grants during the 2022-2023 year totaled over $21k.

Examples of financial aid available at Woodbury include:

Learn more about our scholarships and grants

3. Apply for scholarships

Similar to grants, scholarships do not need to be repaid and should be one of your top options for paying for college.

Merit-based scholarships take into account academic performance factors, like GPA or standardized test scores, while need-based scholarships require you to demonstrate financial need by submitting the FAFSA. Some scholarships are awarded based on a combination of both merit and financial need.

It’s best to begin your search for scholarships before your senior year of high school. Many scholarship opportunities have early application deadlines, limited funds available, and/or award funds to eligible students on a first-come, first-served basis, so getting your applications in early may increase your chances of securing aid.

Additionally, while some scholarships only require a completed FAFSA to determine eligibility, others request additional applications or essays, which take some extra time to complete.

4. Enroll in the Federal Work-Study program

The Federal Work-Study (FWS) program provides students with part-time jobs to partially cover educational expenses.

Work-study jobs are typically located either on or near campus and cover various interests and career paths. Common FWS roles include tutor, library assistant, and research assistant. To be approved for FWS, you’ll need to complete the FAFSA application process. Once approved for work-study funding, you’ll need to find a qualifying job opportunity.

These roles offer not just financial assistance, but networking possibilities and valuable work experience you can add to your resume.

5. Work a part-time job

Many students partially cover their educational expenses — and gain valuable, resume-enhancing work experience — by working a part-time job while they attend college.

When exploring part-time job opportunities, consider whether the job will fit within your class schedule and study time. Do they offer flexible hours? Will you have enough time to study and complete assignments? Will you be able to keep the job if your class schedule changes next semester/quarter?

You’ll also need to think about getting to and from work. While an off-campus job can provide a change of scenery, a commute will take time away from studying and extracurricular activities. For that reason, many students find on-campus jobs more convenient.

6. Get tuition assistance from an employer

Nearly half of employers offer undergraduate or graduate tuition assistance, according to a 2022 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. This can take the form of tuition reimbursement, where your employer reimburses you for the cost of tuition you’ve already paid, or direct payment to your school on your behalf.

These programs vary widely by employer — some cover a certain percentage of tuition costs, others provide a flat amount towards education expenses, and a few even offer to cover 100% of tuition fees. Keep in mind that some employers may require a minimum number of weekly hours worked to qualify for tuition assistance.

7. Set up a 529 plan early

A 529 plan is a state-sponsored investment plan that allows you and/or your family members to save for your education costs while benefiting from tax advantages and flexibility. These accounts are often started by parents years in advance to give the funds time to grow from continual deposits and investment gains, but you can also open one yourself if you’re over 18. There are two types of 529 plans: education savings plans and prepaid tuition plans.

Education savings plans allow you to contribute after-tax dollars (money you’ve already paid taxes on, like from a summer job, for example) into an investment account. The funds can be used for education expenses such as tuition, books, and housing. The money in an education savings account grows tax-free, so you won’t owe taxes on investment gains when you make withdrawals, as long as they’re for qualified expenses.

Prepaid tuition plans allow you to prepay for an in-state public college education, essentially locking in today’s tuition rates. These usually do not cover out-of-state or private tuition, however.

While you can technically use the funds from a 529 plan for non-education-related expenses, it’s best to avoid doing so, as it will incur fees and taxes on those funds.

Three students walking in front of a purple patchwork ceramic sculpture.

8. Take out student loans

While loans shouldn’t be your first option, they can be a valuable tool if you still need assistance after applying for grants and scholarships. There are two main types of student loans: federal and private.

Federal student loans, including subsidized and unsubsidized loans, are offered by the US Department of Education. Subsidized loans are based on financial need, and don’t accrue interest while you’re in school or during deferment periods. Unsubsidized loans are not based on financial need and do accrue interest while you’re in school. It’s best to select subsidized loans when possible, as they’ll require you to pay less interest overall.

Private student loans are offered by banks, credit unions, and online lenders. Credit score typically plays a role in determining eligibility and interest rates, so you may need a cosigner with good credit to secure a private loan with a reasonable interest rate.

No matter what type of loan you choose, it’s essential to carefully read the terms and conditions. Pay close attention to factors like repayment options, borrower benefits, grace periods, interest rates, fees, and penalties for early repayment.

Bonus: additional tips

In addition to the options above, here are a few other ways to make college more affordable for you:

  • Earn college credits while in high school through dual enrollment programs.
  • Complete a term of service in an AmeriCorps program to earn an education award.
  • Buy used books and sell them after the semester ends, either directly to another student or through your school’s buyback program.
  • Compare on-campus vs. off-campus housing prices and live with roommates to help split the cost of housing.
  • When possible, walk, bike, or use public transportation to save on gas.

Find the strategies that work for you

Paying for college can be stressful, but luckily, there are numerous aid options available. The key is to explore and apply for as many of these as possible. By maximizing your savings, you can stress less about payments and focus more on learning.

If you’re seeking a college with generous financial aid options, consider Woodbury University. We coordinate a comprehensive financial aid program that includes scholarships, grants, loans, and part-time employment opportunities.


Learn more about how affordable Woodbury may be for you. Explore our financial aid options.

Last Updated February 9, 2024

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