12 Savvy Ways to Pay for College in 2024

Applying for grants, loans, or scholarships can be a daunting process. Here are some creative ways to pay your college bills.

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Updated May 28, 2024
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The idea of paying for a college education for yourself or your child can seem daunting. In the U.S. we’re constantly hearing stories about people finishing school with mountains of student debt and struggling to make monthly payments.

There are plenty of options to help you pay for school while you attend but unfortunately, many people aren’t taking advantage of these options. A National College Attainment Network (NCAN) study found that in 2021, students missed out on an estimated $3.75 billion in grants simply because they did not fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.

Read on for ideas on paying for college without racking up your debt.

Apply for federal aid

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The first thing is to fill out the FAFSA, even if you don’t think you qualify for any assistance. Filling out this form gives you access to federal grants, work-study opportunities, student loans, and other aid that may be available from your school or your state of residence.

Many young people faced with their first college bills are confused about how to get a loan. Filling out the FAFSA will show you which Federal loans are available from the U.S. Department of Education. You may also be eligible for other types of student loans like private loans from a bank, credit union, or online lender.

Look for scholarships

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You’d be surprised at the number of scholarships that are available. These can range from full tuition to just the cost of books for one semester. But every little bit helps when it comes to paying for college.

Even if you think you don’t have the background to qualify, it’s worth taking to the internet and doing a sweep for any scholarships you think you could apply for. Websites like Scholarships.com and Chegg allow you to sort through scholarships in your area or your field of study. You can continue looking for scholarships while you’re in school as well.

Go to an in-state college

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You may have a romanticized idea about traveling across the country or even the world to attend college. But for many of us, choosing an in-state school with in-state tuition is a much smarter option. Depending on where you end up going, you could be cutting your tuition costs in half.

Some states even offer students the opportunity to attend the first two years of school at a local community college and then transfer in junior year and graduate from a state school to save even more cash.

Apply for grants

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Filling out the FAFSA will also let you know if you are eligible to receive Pell Grant money. As long as you fill out the forms every year, you’ll be given this grant money as long as you are eligible.

The federal government offers other types of grants as well, as do many states across the U.S. Check out the U.S. Department of Education website for more information on grants available in each state.

Start a 529 plan

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If you’re currently trying to save up for college, it’s worth it to look into how 529 plans work. These plans are a solid saving option since they are not taxable as long as the money is used for qualifying higher education expenses or tuition for elementary or secondary schools.

You could also pay for college with a Roth IRA. Although this is technically a retirement account, it does have a rule that lets you use funds for qualifying education expenses.

Test out of classes

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You may be able to reduce the number of classes you have to take in college (and the number of credits you have to pay for) by either taking classes for credit in high school or testing out of college courses.

You may be able to reduce the number of classes you need by taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes in high school. If you’re on the fence about a college, it’s worth looking into whether you can test out or transfer classes already taken.

Apply for a work-study job

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Not everyone is eligible for work-study. You will need to submit the FAFSA to see if you qualify, and then find a work-study job on campus.

If you are eligible, a work-study job can provide benefits far beyond the steady income, like valuable work experience and connections on campus.

Look into tuition reimbursement

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If you already have a job, it’s worth looking into whether your company offers any type of tuition reimbursement. You might be surprised at how many companies offer some sort of aid.

Apple, Home Depot, McDonald’s, Chipotle, and many other big names offer reimbursement in some form, so definitely check with your HR department.

Set up a payment plan

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Some schools offer students the opportunity to set up payment plans while they are enrolled. Instead of paying one lump sum or taking out loans for the entirety of your tuition, you could make monthly payments to chip away at the balance, that way you end up owing less in the end.

Contact your school’s financial aid office to see if payment plans are an option and what sort of administration fee they charge to do it.

Get a part-time job or internship

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It’s tough to work and go to school at the same time, but if you can work part-time and make a few extra bucks every week, it can go a long way when paying for school. You may be able to use the cash to cover living expenses or even set up a payment plan for your tuition.

Internships are also a great way to get valuable work experience and make connections in the field you hope to enter, but keep in mind that many internships offer college credit and no cash. You can certainly find a paid internship, but it may be more difficult depending on your field.

Check out these great side hustles for college students.

Use parent PLUS loans

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If your parents are willing to take out a loan to pay for your education, they might consider a parent PLUS loan. This is a loan offered by the federal government that your parents will be responsible for paying back. However, they will have to go through a credit check to qualify.

If you want to take over the loan from your parents after you graduate and are considering refinancing your student loans, you may be able to move the remaining balance to your name.

Attend school part-time

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While this option will take you longer to graduate, it could save you a lot in the long run, especially if you can pay for your credits as you go.

Federal loans are often still available to students who are enrolled in school part-time. Keep in mind, it’s generally a good idea to take federal loans over private loans since government loans may become eligible for benefits like income-driven repayment plans or loan forgiveness programs.

Bottom line

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While the whole college application process can be stressful — particularly the part where you’re thinking about how to pay for it — it’s important to remember that there are plenty of ways to cover tuition.

Even if you end up having to take loans, there are ways to chip away at the balance while you are in school and refinancing afterward. Just make sure that you are getting all of the aid you are eligible for by filling out the FAFSA and searching for scholarships regularly.

Don’t forget to read our guide on boosting your credit before refinancing your student loans.

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Author Details

Laura Gesualdi-Gilmore

Laura Gesualdi-Gilmore is a seasoned freelance writer who also teaches writing courses at Rutgers University. She's based in Jersey City and enjoys travel, live music and, of course, spending quality time with her pup.