ULTIMATE GUIDE

Helping you graduate with less student loan debt by giving you the tools you need to:

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Receive and compare financial aid offers from multiple schools

Track down "gift aid" like grants and scholarships that doesn't have to be repaid

Compare your student loan options if you have to borrow for school

How to Pay for College

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Time is money, so let's get started. Select an option below to bring you to the appropriate section on the timeline.

College Funding Roadmap

Start Saving Early

Build your savings

  • 529 plans
    • The most common college savings plan is a 529. There are a couple of 529 plans you can use to pay for college tuition and expenses. A 529 savings plan, for example, can provide tax advantages on investments.
  • Other savings plans
    • An Education Savings Account (ESA) gives you more investment options than a 529 plan, but annual contribution limits are lower and income limits apply.
    • A custodial account is a trust fund anyone can open as a benefit to another person (like a child). It might not provide all of the tax advantages of a 529 or ESA, but withdrawals can be used by the beneficiary for any purpose.
    • With U.S. Savings Bonds, all or part of the interest you earn on Series EE and I Bonds might be tax-free when used for qualified educational expenses, but income limits apply.
  • How much should you save?
    • The total cost of your degree will depend on your family’s finances, how much aid you qualify for, whether you attend a public or private school, and whether you stay close to home or attend school in another state. For example, many schools offer discounted tuition to in-state residents. You can use a college savings calculator to stay on track.
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Sophomore and Junior Year of High School

Research colleges

  • Academic quality
  • Cost
    • The cost of a degree can depend on whether you choose a public or private school, and whether you stay close to home or attend school in another state. But your financial situation can also have a big impact on your expected family contribution (EFC).
    • A school might offer you grants and other aid options that result in a “net price” that’s considerably lower than a school’s published tuition and room and board. The U.S. Department of Education offers a tool that helps you find any school’s net price calculator.
  • Personal Fit
    • You’ll also want to visit schools to get a feel for campus life by visiting classrooms, living facilities, and the surrounding community. Ask financial aid officers and current students lots of questions to see if it’s a good fit for you.

Start researching grants and scholarships

  • What are grants and scholarships?
  • How to find scholarships and grants
    • There are many great sources for federal, campus-based, state-based, and grants and scholarships. Here’s everything you need to know about finding the right grants and scholarships for you.
    • Sign up for an account with RaiseMe to earn micro-scholarships for your achievements (course grades, club participation, sports, volunteering, and more).

Senior Year of High School

Start applying for scholarships

  • When are scholarship applications due?
    • Scholarships are self-serve — it’s up to you to research and apply for individual awards with different deadlines. Although many scholarship applications are due in January, deadlines can fall in any month of the year.
    • Some scholarships require that you apply at least a year before the start of the academic year, so it’s a good idea to start looking while you’re still a junior. Here’s a good place to start looking for scholarships.
  • What can you use scholarship awards for?
    • This is up to the government, school, or organization that provides it. Some scholarship awards will be provided to your school to help you pay tuition, fees, and other expenses.
    • Other scholarships will be paid directly to you, and you might be able to use the money for living expenses.
Oct
1

Apply for aid by filling out the FAFSA

  • What is the FAFSA?
    • The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) provides details about your family’s financial situation to the U.S. Department of Education. The information is then shared with the colleges you intend to apply to and state agencies where those schools are located.
  • Why you should fill out the FAFSA
    • The FAFSA is your gateway to federal, state, and school-based student aid. That includes federal student loans (money you have to pay back), grants (money you don’t have to pay back), and work-study positions (money you have to work for).
    • Even if you don’t think you’ll qualify for need-based grant aid, you should fill out the FAFSA because it’s used by many states and schools to evaluate your eligibility for grants and scholarships.
  • Tips for filling out the FAFSA

Apply for state-based aid

  • What's the difference between state and federal aid?
    • Just as the federal government offers grants and loans to students in all 50 states, most states have at least one grant or scholarship available to residents — particularly those attending a college in their own state.
  • How to apply for state-based aid
    • State deadlines can be as early as February or March and money for these programs can run out, so apply as soon as possible.
    • Filling out the FAFSA is often the first step for qualifying for these programs, but you still have to apply directly to the agency administering the financial aid program in your state. Use this map to find your agency.

Apply to colleges

  • College application deadlines
    • After filing your FAFSA, it’s time to fill out college applications. Each school has its own deadline for applying, typically around January 1 of your senior year.
    • Many selective schools allow students to apply in October or November for an “early action” or “early decision” admission plan. Check with the admissions office of each school you’re interested in attending for specifics. The College Board and Peterson’s have good overviews of factors to consider if you’re thinking of applying early.
  • Tips for applying to college
    • It’s important to apply to more than one college, so you can compare several schools that are willing to admit you. Keep in mind that each application will cost you time and money — around $50, on average.
    • Here are some more tips for applying to college, and the pros and cons of applying for an early decision admission.
  • What happens if you miss an application deadline?
    • If you procrastinated or were just unsure about whether you wanted to go to college in the fall, there are plenty of colleges that accept applications after Jan. 1. Check with any schools that you’re interested in attending as some schools might have openings that they’re eager to fill, and will accept late applications.

Review your financial aid award letters

  • What is a financial aid award letter?
    • Financial aid award letters arrive around the same time as admission offer letters. Assuming that you remembered to list them on your FAFSA, every college that offers to admit you should send you a financial aid award letter.
    • The letter should provide all the information you need to compare the net price of attendance (total cost of attendance minus any gift aid like grants or scholarships) at all the schools you’re considering.
  • How to compare financial aid award letters
    • Financial aid award letters can be difficult to compare because some schools don’t provide a total cost of attendance or make clear that loans are aid you have to repay. Here are some examples of how the letters might look and how you can compare financial aid award letters.
    • RaiseMe makes it easy to determine your net cost of attendance (the total amount you’ll be responsible for paying after factoring in scholarships, grants, and loans) for college with their Interactive Financial Aid Award Letter tool.
May
1

Final decision deadline and tuition deposits due

  • What is the deadline for accepting offers?
    • The deadline for accepting a college’s offer for fall admission and putting down a tuition deposit of $50 to $500 is typically May 1.
    • If you’ve applied for early decision admission, you can expect to hear whether you’ve been accepted in December. Tuition deposits for students applying for early decision admission are often due before May 1, but check with your school first.
  • Why you need to put down a tuition deposit
    • A tuition deposit secures your place at your school of choice and demonstrates your commitment to showing up. Schools need to plan ahead so that they can provide the teaching staff and accommodations each incoming class will need.
    • Some students will put off their final decision by paying tuition deposits to more than one school, which is considered unethical unless you’ve been waitlisted at a school.

Summer Before Starting College

Register for classes

  • Sign up as soon as possible
    • Register for classes as soon as you can after putting down your tuition deposit. Many campuses offer early registration for fall classes in the spring.
  • Plan ahead to graduate on time
    • Before registering for classes, consult with an adviser to make sure you’re taking the right courses for your major, in the right sequence.
    • Taking classes that aren’t required for your major or falling behind on prerequisites can keep you from graduating in 4 years, potentially adding thousands of dollars to the cost of a degree.

Pay for classes

  • When will the bill arrive?
    • You can expect to get your first tuition bill for fall classes in July or August, with payment due in the fall.
  • What are the different payment options?
    • You’ll usually have the option to pay by check or electronic funds transfer from a bank account or 529 plan. If you can’t pay all at once, most schools offer tuition installment plans that let you make monthly payments over the rest of the academic year.
  • What if you can’t pay your bill?
    • Expect to pay interest charges on any past due balances on your tuition bill, which must be paid in full before you can register for future classes or obtain transcripts of your grades.
    • Most families take out student loans to pay for college. If you’re not seeing credits for federal student loans that you’re counting on to pay your bill, make sure you’ve completed the required entrance counseling and signed a promissory note.
  • How to take out student loans

First Year of College

Find a job or work-study opportunity

  • Job opportunities
    • To help cover college costs, you have many choices like work-study programs, on-campus jobs, paid internships, and other off-campus options. Here are some of your best options for jobs while in school.

Submit the FAFSA for next year

  • Why you need to continue to submit the FAFSA
    • If you’re relying on federal student loans, grants, or work-study programs, you have to submit the FAFSA every year you’re in college. This is because your financial situation changes from year to year.
  • How to take the work out of reapplying
    • Fortunately, if you filled out the FAFSA the year before, you might be eligible to complete a Renewal FAFSA, an online form that pre-fills much of the information you provided the year before.
    • To reapply, log in as a returning user to FAFSA on the Web and click FAFSA Renewal.
Sophomore and Junior Year of College

Register for classes

  • Plan ahead to graduate on time
    • Register for classes as soon as possible before the classes you need fill up. Before registering for classes, check in with your adviser to make sure you’re on track to fulfill the requirements for your major, in the right sequence.

Find a job or work-study opportunity

  • Job opportunities
    • To help cover college costs, you have many choices like work-study programs, on-campus jobs, paid internships, and other off-campus options. Here are some of your best options for jobs while in school.

Submit the FAFSA for next year

  • Why you need to continue to submit the FAFSA
    • If you’re relying on federal student loans, grants, or work-study programs, you have to submit the FAFSA every year you’re in college. This is because your financial situation changes from year to year.
  • How to take the work out of reapplying
    • Fortunately, if you filled out the FAFSA the year before, you might be eligible to complete a Renewal FAFSA, an online form that pre-fills much of the information you provided the year before.
    • To reapply, log in as a returning user to FAFSA on the Web and click FAFSA Renewal.
Senior Year of College

Register for classes

  • Plan ahead to graduate on time
    • Register for classes as soon as possible before the classes you need fill up. Before registering for classes, check in with your adviser to make sure you’re on track to fulfill the requirements for major, in the right sequence.

Find a job or work-study opportunity

  • Job opportunities
    • To help cover college costs, you have many choices like work-study programs, on-campus jobs, paid internships, and other off-campus options. Here are some of your best options for jobs while in school.

Research loan repayment plans

  • When do you have to start repaying your loans?
    • Most federal student loans and private loans provide a 6-month “grace period” after you leave school before you have to start making monthly payments.
    • If you have federal direct subsidized loans, interest doesn’t start racking up until after your grace period has ended.
    • With any other type of loan, interest starts accruing as soon as you take your loans out. So starting repayment as soon as you can will help you pay off your student loans faster.
    • You can use our student loan repayment calculator to figure out how long it will take you to pay off your total student loan balance.
  • What are the different repayment options?
    • There are many options for repaying federal student loans, ranging from the standard 10-year repayment plan to extended or income-driven repayment plans.
    • If you have private student loans, you picked a repayment plan when you took out your loan. If you decided to defer or make partial payments while in school, your monthly payment might increase.
    • Many borrowers choose to refinance their student loans at lower rates after graduation.
  • What if you can’t afford your monthly payments?
    • If you’re having trouble making the monthly payments on federal student loans, income-driven repayment plans can make your payments more manageable by stretching them out over a longer period of time. Income-driven repayment plans might provide loan forgiveness if you haven’t paid off your loan after 10, 20, or 25 years.
    • You might be able to lower your monthly payments on your student loans by extending your repayment term. Just remember that any repayment plan that stretches out your monthly payments over a longer period of time without an interest rate reduction might increase your total repayment costs.

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