Many or all companies we feature compensate us. Compensation and editorial research influence how products appear on a page. Financial Aid How to Pay for College: The Steps You Should Take Updated Jun 14, 2023   |   7-min read Written by Jeff Gitlen, CEPF® Written by Jeff Gitlen, CEPF® Expertise: Student loans, personal loans, home loans, insurance, credit cards Jeff Gitlen, CEPF®, is the director of content operations at LendEDU. He graduated from the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics at the University of Delaware. Learn more about Jeff Gitlen, CEPF® Figuring out how to pay for college can be one of the most stressful parts of family financial planning. It’s no easy task figuring out how much college will cost and determining how to pay for it. This guide will cover the steps you should take to pay for college and highlight resources you can use to help along the way. It’s always a good idea to start planning as early as possible so that you don’t miss any deadlines and can make the best decisions for you and your family. On this page: Steps to Paying for CollegePaying for College ResourcesState-Specific Financial Aid Resources Steps to Paying for College 1. Calculate the Estimated Cost of College Whether you’re taking a one-year vocational course, getting started with a two-year degree at a community college, or jumping right into a university program, you need to sit down and realistically figure out what your college options are going to cost you. Colleges vary a lot when it comes to the cost of yearly tuition, books, housing, parking, and other fees. Fortunately, every school provides those costs on their website. Simply go to each of your prospective schools’ websites and take note of how much each of these things is expected to cost. Then factor in things like: Costs for commuting, parking, and trips to visit homeEntertainment expensesExtracurricular activitiesAnything else you can think of that you will need to pre-plan for There are online calculators available, but the best and most accurate way to sort this all out is to do it yourself and include as many details as possible in your budget. Having at least a rough understanding of how much you’d have to pay for each of the schools you want to go to is a necessary first step in planning for college costs. There are also some different strategies you can consider if you’re looking for help with paying for grad school. 2. Fill Out the FAFSA If you’ve filled out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) before, then you already know what a headache it is to complete. If you’ve never heard of it before, the FAFSA is simply the application that each college student in the country needs to fill out in order to be eligible for federal financial aid – like grants that don’t need to be repaid, work-study funding, and low-interest loans for both parents and students. If the FAFSA isn’t filed, your only loan options for the next academic year will be in the private sector – which typically comes with much higher interest rates than federal student loans. The FAFSA is also necessary for a lot of other purposes, like university-specific scholarships and grants. Completing the FAFSA is one of the most important parts of this process because it helps provide students with the most options. The application period opens in October of each year and closes June 30 of the academic year (although states and schools also have their own deadlines). And students need to re-do the application every year that they’re in college. 3. Figure Out How Much Free Aid You Have Available Throughout high school and college, you should be regularly applying for scholarships and grants that you are eligible for, outside of what becomes available to you when you fill out the FAFSA the year you are applying to colleges. These will often have their own eligibility requirements and application procedures – often involving some sort of essay or final project/presentation. Around the time that you start hearing back from colleges as to whether you’ve been accepted, they will also send you the information on the results of your financial aid applications – detailing what you will or won’t be awarded. Remember that some schools have their own application, outside of the FAFSA, so pay attention to each individual college’s requirements and deadlines. Once you know how much free aid you’re getting, you’ll have a much better idea of how much more you’ll be paying for college. But that doesn’t mean that you should stop applying for scholarships. Keep searching around for that free money just sitting there for the taking, even as the end of the academic year approaches. Scholarship deadlines go throughout the year. >> Read More: Best Colleges for Financial Aid 4. Think About How Much Savings Are Available Here’s where your past saving habits will come to light: sorting out exactly how much cash you or your family has stacked up specifically to put toward college. How much of your savings can you dedicate to college expenses? Have you contributed to a 529 plan? Determine how much you need to pay upfront and where that money will come from – then figure out when the next payments will be due for the remainder of the first academic year. 5. Figure Out How Much Income is Available Every Year Understanding your short-term costs are essential, but it’s also important to get a full-length blueprint for all two to four years of your costs. Can any income be set aside right now for next year? Will you work during college? Will your parents be able to contribute additional money each year? Wrapping your mind around what you’ll need for the next four years may not be a pleasant experience, but you will thank yourself later if you plan well early on. 6. Decide How Much in Federal Student Loans You Will Need After you have scrounged up as much savings and free money (government-backed or from the private sector) to pay for college, you can determine if you will need to take out one or more loans to cover the difference. Taking out a loan isn’t anyone’s first choice – but it may mean the difference between going or not going to school at all. Just be sure to know how student loans work before you get yourself thousands of dollars into debt. Luckily, for families with financial need, the government provides student loans with low rates and great repayment terms and benefits. The easiest way to get started is to check out our Federal Student Loans Guide. This guide talks about all of the different types of federal student loans –including Direct Stafford Loans, Parent PLUS Loans, and Grad PLUS Loans – and the order in which you should use them. 7. Explore Private Student Loan Options Every student and their families’ situation is different – so if federal student loans, grants, scholarships, and savings can’t cover all of your costs – then you might have to turn to a private student loan. Private student loans typically have higher interest rates and less forgiving repayment terms than federal loans, so it’s always a good idea to know what your monthly payments will be after graduation so you can judge if you’ll be able to handle them or not. The easiest way to start your private student loan search is to check out our Private Student Loans Guide. In this guide, we cover how private student loans work and review our picks for the top lenders based on our Editorial Ratings. It’s worth noting that most private student loan lenders require a cosigner as most high schoolers haven’t had a chance to build up a credit history yet. There are, however, pros and cons of cosigning student loans to be aware of. If you don’t have a cosigner, there a few student loan options for those without a cosigner. Paying for College Resources If you’d like to focus on paying for a specific school, degree, or purpose, check out the resources below: How to pay for room and boardHow to pay for college booksHow to pay for a PhD Find resources that can help you along your journey of paying for college. How to get financial aid when your parents make too muchHow to pay for college if you don’t qualify for federal aidHow to pay for college if you have a disabilityWhat to do when you run out of financial aidStudent loan alternativesHow to pay for college without parents’ helpDoes the military pay for college?Do hospitals help pay for nursing school?