How to pay for college

If you are unsure how to pay for your own college education, start by choosing an affordable school, applying for grants and scholarships and then working your way through college. It is possible to avoid or minimize student loans.

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  • So you’re on your own and you need to pay for your own college education now. While it may seem difficult — in fact it may appear impossible — you can pay for a college education without taking out a pile of student loans.

  • I was lucky to have lots of parental help to get through college — though I did pay for most of my tuition on my own. When I got to graduate school at Cornell, I was so optimistic about my future (I honestly felt like I’d won the lottery) that I borrowed most of the cost of my MBA. Those loans hung like a noose around my neck for 15 years. Despite my Ivy League graduate degree, the debt was almost overwhelming at times.

  • So here is a plan to help you pay for your college education without borrowing too much:

  • School

  • The first consideration when choosing a college should be the cost. Right in your city there are likely to be a variety of options. Generally, public universities offer a better education relative to private schools with the same prices because the government is kicking in money to help pay for your education.

  • Pell Grants

  • Apply for a Federal Pell Grant that will provide up to $5,500 per year in cash for up to 12 semesters of undergraduate education. The grants are strictly need-based.

  • Scholarships

  • There are hundreds of scholarships available at most colleges and universities and hundreds more available to students regardless of the school they choose to attend. Your goal should be to apply for at least 12 to 15 scholarships. Many are small, but in total, your awards could add up.

  • Work

  • Most students can make time to work part time while in school (I worked full-time during my undergraduate years and by attending school year-round, I still finished in four years). Your education should be your top priority, but paying for it should be a close second. If nothing else, you should be able to land a good, paid internship over the summer.

  • Tax credits

  • The American Opportunity Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit allow students to recover some of their qualified educational expenses on their tax returns. These tax credits can potentially provide you with $4,500 per year.

  • Spouse

  • If you have a spouse who will support you, you may be able to let him or her worry about covering living expenses while you finish school. That can make life easier for you as a student.

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  • Student loans

  • Once you have exhausted all of the other options, if you still have not covered all of the costs of your education, a student loan may be necessary to close the funding gap. Student loans can’t be discharged in bankruptcy. If your career doesn’t develop as you’d hoped, paying off your student loan may become excruciating.

  • By following this plan, you can complete your college education and pay for it without help from your parents.

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Devin Thorpe, husband, father, author of Your Mark On The World and a popular guest speaker, is a Forbes Contributor. Building on a twenty-five year career in finance and entrepreneurship that included $500 million in completed transactions, he now champions social good full time, seeking to help others succeed in their efforts to make the world a better place.


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