How to Afford College

“Can I afford college?” “I don’t want a lot of debt.” “Is this too much to take on?”

Paying for college is a big question for many students who are getting ready to start their higher education journey. While looking at the dollar signs of your top college choices can be intimidating, it doesn’t need to stop you from getting an education. There are several steps you can take to lessen the hit on your wallet, without sacrificing academic integrity.

How Much Does Your College Cost?

When someone says ‘college cost’ what do you think of? Like most students, you probably think about things like tuition, housing, meal plans, books, materials – the things you pay the college or university for directly. It’s important, however, to not forget about the indirect costs of college like gas, eating out, attending events, traveling, clothes, and other bills. Make sure to calculate these other costs into your budget, too.

Tuition at colleges and universities varies widely, so it’s important to have a ballpark idea of your school of choice’s cost. Both the type of institution and your designated residency will influence the tuition rate you will pay. When you are admitted to a college, they will provide you your residency classification which is based on the state where you have been living and a few other factors. Being designated as an in-state student for a public college or university provides you a lower rate of tuition since your taxes assist in funding the university. A Wisconsin resident student attending UW-Green Bay would receive the lowest tuition rate.

If you are looking at out-of-state colleges or universities, it’s important to review your residency as a part of your research. You can also explore tuition agreements that a college or university may have with other states. For example, some Wisconsin schools have tuition agreements with certain states that could provide out-of-state students a lower tuition rate. This includes Minnesota-Wisconsin Reciprocity and the Midwest Student Exchange Program. Private colleges and universities tend to have a higher tuition rate but may have additional options for scholarship funding.

When deciding on a school, weighing the best educational value and the best economic value should occur at the same time. This way, you’re considering several of the most important factors up-front, and avoiding disappointment later. Being money smart from the beginning pays off in the long run. Trust us.

Will You Have Help?

Once you have a school (or a few) in mind, a great place to start on your education-funding journey is with those who know you best – family. Money questions can be hard to ask, but you can’t budget properly if you don’t know the whole picture. The two basic questions to start with are:

      • Is family able to contribute to college? If so, how much?
      • Are they willing to be a co-signer if you choose to take out a loan?

No matter how much or little assistance you receive from your family, there are plenty of other ways to help mitigate the cost of college.

How to Pay for College Without Loans

Loans may seem like a formidable challenge, and so students may look to other options for funding their education. The good news is the options are endless! The tricky part is differentiating yourself from everyone else that is trying to secure the same funding. If you’re looking for ways to pay for college without loans, here are four good places to start.


Grants are like scholarships; you don’t have to pay them back, and they don’t collect interest! Grants can come from a wide number of sources, but the U.S. Department of Education is the place to start. These grants are applied for by filling out the FAFSA. There are four types of federal grants: Pell grants, supplemental educational opportunity grants, grants for children who lost a parent during military service in Iraq or Afghanistan, and grants for those who want to be teachers. The most common of these is the Pell Grant, which awards based on financial need.

Along with federal grants, students can check for grants with applications separate from the FAFSA, like any state government or non-governmental grants. Most government grants operate on financial need as the main criterion that needs to be met. Non-governmental grants, however, can be varying in their criteria. Students should look for grants that fit their demographic. Common grant awardee demographics are gender, minority or disadvantaged groups, non-traditional students, low-income families, and military families. Grants also exist for specific subject areas, such as STEM fields or healthcare.

There are even more types of grants to be found. You just have to do a little digging!


Scholarships – they’re a great way to bring down your cost. And. There. Are. So. Many! Just like grants, some scholarships can be renewable for multiple school years. Both grants and scholarships don’t need to be repaid and can have a wide range of criteria on their applications. Unlike grants, however, many scholarships are merit-based with only one or a few applying students receiving financial aid. This means your grades, community service, and extracurricular activities may all be considered during the scholarship review process.

So where do you look? Everywhere and anywhere! Many counselors have a list of local scholarships available to students at their high school, as do colleges for their prospective students. There are even entire websites dedicated to scholarships!

Working Part-Time

Ah yes, a job. Working is a way to offset the cost of college, but there’s more than one way to do so. Summer jobs or local employment are both good ways to beef up that savings account but be aware that balancing work and school can get tricky. If you’re looking for a little extra flexibility, consider looking for jobs on campus.

On-campus employment is not only great for chipping away at tuition or paying for indirect college costs, but also for gaining experience in your career interest areas. Colleges and universities employ students in nearly every department of the institution, combining real-world job skills with understanding supervisors who know what’s on their students’ plates academically. On-campus jobs may be more flexible with your scheduling than a job elsewhere in the community – which could come in handy during midterms and finals.

Federal Work-Study

The Federal Work-Study Program provides jobs for students with financial needs, allowing them to earn money to help pay for educational expenses. Many on-campus employers look for students who have been awarded Work-Study because it comes from government funding, rather than the department’s funds. Students can apply for Federal Work-Study by completing the FAFSA.

Start at a Technical College

The easiest money-saving option is to start at a two-year school or a technical college. If your four-year college of choice is transfer-friendly, technical and community colleges are a great way to bring down the cost significantly while staying on track for your bachelor’s degree.

At a local technical or community college, you can fulfill your general education credits before declaring a major and getting into more specialized coursework. When you’re ready to transfer colleges, the four-year institution that you’ve chosen can evaluate the classes you’ve taken and tell you exactly how they’ll transfer in.


Once you narrow your list of colleges, your admissions counselor and the financial aid office will be your two best resources – use them. They’ll have the best idea of how to achieve your specific educational and financial goals, and readily point you toward any loan options should you need to fill any gaps. So, take a deep breath, you got this!

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Alexandra Campion answers common college questions for students learning about higher education. She breaks down industry jargon. As a Marketing and Communications Recruitment Coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, her goals include eliminating barriers for first-generation and/or minority students as they embark on their higher education journey.