7 Smart Ways to Pay for College

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It’s no secret that college expenses are on the rise. Between soaring tuition costs, higher living expenses like room and board, and often outrageous prices for textbooks and other classroom necessities, it’s never been pricier to pick up a degree.

Regardless of whether you or someone you know is thinking about attending a university like Stanford or a community college, expenses are sure to be a sticking point. While some are lucky enough to have the money to go to college or have their family cover the lion’s share of the costs, more students find themselves having to pick up student debt in order to pay their way through university. Even while taking on part-time work, it is challenging to have the money to pay for post-secondary education today.

However, looking to federal or private loans isn’t the only way to get extra money for college. There are actually many ways to obtain funding for prospective university students, many of which are well or not-so-well kept secrets. Let’s take a look at seven out-of-the-box but effective ways to pay for college.

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1. Find compatible scholarships

Everyone knows that scholarships exist to help students cover tuition, but what most people don’t know is that there are a huge variety of options out there for all different types of students. It isn’t just valedictorians that are picking up scholarships these days: Approximately two-thirds of college students are receiving some sort of help that is classified as a scholarship, with average aid totaling several thousands of dollars. Look for scholarships that are seeking specific characteristics, such as people with a certain socioeconomic background, gender, ethnicity, area of study, or hobby. The Internet can prove its worth in searching for scholarships, though it is best used in tandem with a counselor or adviser from an academic institution.

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2. Look for contests

It isn’t just scholarships that are out there to help college students — there are lots of contests available, as well. A classic example is the essay contest. Within that category alone, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of options to try and pick up some money. There are contest subjects sure to interest every prospective student, from academic topics to political issues to cultural questions. If writing isn’t really a student’s strong point, that’s nothing to worry about, either. There are plenty of contests where the submissions are videos or other visual media.

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3. Negotiate tuition rates

It may seem a little silly to say that a prospective student can just walk into an admissions office and ask for a better deal on tuition, but many do, and some are actually successful. If an incoming student is considering several options, it can’t hurt to ask around to see if a college is willing to pony up some extra money to influence the decision. Though the approach is oftentimes met with more success in graduate school programs — such as with law schools — than for undergraduate or community college admissions, it’s an idea that frequently has little downside but a huge potential upside. It also can pay to wait on a decision; sometimes colleges will come through at the last minute with additional support if they see that a student is waffling between several choices and they want to the student to attend their institution.

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4. Have a 529 plan or a Coverdell

If college is still a ways in the future, starting a 529 plan can be a great way to set aside money for those expensive university days. These plans were born in a section of the tax code that allows savings to be set aside, sidestepping several different types of levies. One thing to make certain of when establishing a 529 plan is to consult with a professional source, because the details of the plans can vary from state to state. Another option is a so-called Coverdell plan, which allows money to accrue, tax-free, for use in college-related expenses. Be sure that university is going to be in the future, however, because both types of plans can incur penalties if the money is used for other purposes.

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5. Have an employer cover the cost

There are many ways in which an employer can help a student cover the costs of college. A well-known example is the military, wherein members of the ROTC can have their college costs paid for them. Another example is when companies will pay for employees to obtain an MBA if the employee is dedicated to the firm. While such deals often require commitment on the part of the potential student to their employer, it doesn’t work out as such a bad deal on either end; the student has a college degree paid for, and the employer gets to benefit from having an employee with a higher level of education. Even if an employer is not known for its aid to college students, it can never hurt to ask.

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6. Prepay tuition

Though for many, prepaying tuition is not a practical option due to financial constraints, it can be a very powerful tool for saving money on college costs when used properly. Many institutions allow students to prepay tuition, in essence letting students lock in current tuition rates in exchange for money on an immediate time frame. The benefit to the student is that prepayment locks in a percentage, not a fixed amount; if tuition rises, the student is shielded from the increase to the degree that the tuition was prepaid. In some cases, it can even be worth it to borrow more heavily in early years of college in order to completely prepay tuition, though a thorough analysis of the rates and costs involved is needed to make that approach a recommendation, rather than simply a consideration.

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7. Have student debt forgiven

If you’ve already graduated from college, you might think that it’s too late to apply any of these methods; while that might be true, the last tip on this list is intended for those who already have their diplomas in hand. Many jobs — especially those associated with charitable organizations and governments — allow their workers to apply for forgiveness toward outstanding balances on student loans. For example, those hired by Teach for America are eligible for up to $11,000 that can be used to cover student loans or future college expenses. There is also a program available for government workers, provided that they have been making payments for a certain period of time. Even if you aren’t in such a position, all hope is not lost: Some companies are happy to pay a lump sum in exchange for a reduced salary to help their employees with student loans. Because the cost of borrowing for companies is lower than the rates on the student loans, scenarios exist where everyone can win.

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