When it comes to planning for college, the biggest thing on the minds of parents and students is “How much does it cost?” The next biggest thing is “How am I going to pay for it all?” Figuring out the financials is one of the most important steps in the college search process.

So, what am I paying for?

“College costs can vary,” said Bridget Curl, director of financial aid at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. “Most universities will list their costs for their current year on their website, which are generally pretty close to what they're going to be. It might go up slightly each year. Then, you can estimate the direct costs to the university such as tuition and room and board and the indirect costs, such as books, groceries, eating out, laundry, and other personal expenses.”

Breaking it down, here are most of the costs you can expect:

Tuition: Tuition is the cost of teaching you at the college. “It can be a flat rate or a per-credit-hour rate,” said Curl. “There are also in-state rates versus out-of-state rates.”

Fees: Besides tuition, many colleges charge fees to use facilities on campus. “There are also fees such as a student health insurance fee or an activities fee,” said Curl.

Rooms and meals: Students need to sleep and eat, so there will be room and board expenses as well. “Students living on campus will pay these fees to their university, and even if students live off campus, they might have a campus meal plan,” said Curl. “Or they may just allocate their own funds to cover groceries.”

Books and supplies: New classes start at the beginning of every semester, and with them come new books and supplies. “Students need to have a little money saved up to purchase books and supplies because even if they are getting financial aid, it may not come in time to purchase books before classes start,” said Curl.

Now that you know most of the costs associated with attending college, how do you pay for it all?

FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid)

“The first thing we tell families is to apply for federal student aid, which means completing the FAFSA,” said Curl. “It’s one of the most important pieces of getting financial aid for college, whether applying for assistance through the college, applying for federal help, or even applying for private scholarships or loans.”

The information from the FAFSA determines the aid for which that student might qualify. On the FAFSA, students can list up to 10 schools where they want their information sent. “When the schools receive that information, they calculate how much the students may qualify for in grants, such as Illinois’ MAP Grant and other aid,” said Curl. “Most institutions also have need-based grant programs in addition to some of their merit programs.”

Alternative Funding Sources

If you need additional funding, there are loans to help you with any balances you may have, but you must pay these back. “Look into the Federal Parent Plus Loan or student private alternative loans,” said Curl. “If the parent is denied, the student can request additional unsubsidized loans. Then, we always encourage students to search for scholarships. There are some scholarships that students are considered for just based on their admission to universities.”

For example, Illinois State University offers qualifying students a Redbird Scholarship based on academic criteria.  Some students may also have a chance to compete for the Presidential or University Scholarships. “If they meet the criteria, we send out an application and they go through an interview process. From there we select the winners,” said Curl. There are minimum GPA and other requirements, depending on the scholarship, but if you’re chosen as the winner, it can knock down your out-of-pocket cost significantly. There are many free scholarship search engines, but Curl urges students and parents to be leery about any that require you to pay.

Finally, Curl encourages students to apply for FAFSA because it can also open up opportunities for federal work-study programs and on-campus employment. “These jobs might be 10 to 12 hours a week, so it's not a large commitment of time, but it is a way to manage their personal expenses. They can also save up so that when they start the following semester, they have money for books and supplies.”

The bottom line to reducing the bottom line for college costs is to start early and weigh all of your options. Search for college scholarships and keep your eyes open for FAFSA deadlines. Every bit helps so you aren’t left with a huge amount of debt following graduation.

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