How Are You Going to Pay for College? By Enrique G. Murillo, Jr, Ph.D. & Patricia A. Aguilera

Congratulations if you’re reading this! It’s important to dream big and have a plan on what you’re going to do with your life after high school.  Taking the appropriate steps and action to achieve your educational and career goals will be most beneficial to you as you pursue your college education. Everyone can go to college – but you have to be persistent and persevere in your journey across higher education and onto your career plans.

It’s normal if you don’t know exactly everything when you first start out, but you do know that you have to go to class and get good grades to establish your GPA goal and take the necessary college preparatory classes for college admission. Attend your school’s college-planning night. You should also get involved in your school and community by joining clubs, sports, and volunteer organizations. You have to study and prepare in advance for college entrance exams by taking the SAT or ACT and any other placement exams in order to achieve high scores. High test scores will open many opportunities for you when applying to various colleges and universities, and when you eventually enroll. There are usually deadlines associated with the various tests.  Check with your high school counselor or testing agency for these important dates as well as other important deadlines.

While your first priority is getting accepted and enrolling in a college or university of your choice, financial planning and paying for college are very important steps to take into consideration to avoid student loan debt.  It is just as important and requires the same serious effort in planning. There’s some work and steps involved, and the sooner you start, the more resources you will have to potentially save on college costs.  Something to keep in mind is that tuition costs and college/university fees will almost undoubtedly continue to increase over the next few years.

For starters, begin by creating an expenses budget, determining what personal and family resources you have to pay for college, attending a financial aid workshop, and keeping a calendar of important deadlines. Look for ways to start saving costs in your daily life and have a clear understanding of your finances. There are additional costs that include:  tuition/fees, housing, books, supplies, and transportation to consider in your budget.  So figure out what college will really cost you and all the expenses that are included. Next, complete a FAFSA, which stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. By completing the FAFSA it allows the U.S. Department of Education to properly determine the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) amount you and your family are able to contribute to your educational expenses. It allows higher education institutions to determine how much financial aid you may qualify for and the amounts they can award you. The principal source of funding for college/university is the federal government, and the FAFSA should be considered your first step to securing grants, scholarships, work-study, and student loans.  The priority deadline for submitting a FAFSA is March 2nd.  To apply on-line or for additional information visit Depending on the state you live in, there may be additional state financial aid.  Contact your high school counselor or financial aid office for more information on state aid.

Many of the goals you set for yourself while attending high school, like getting good grades, will also pay off when you’re applying for grants and scholarships. You could also jump ahead and obtain some college credits while still attending high school. Make the most of your summer as well, both in high school and for the years you’re in college. You can seek employment through a part-time summer job or paid internship.  You can also save that gift money you received at graduation.  Most importantly, compare college expenses and financial aid award letters before you decide where to enroll and attend. You may want to consider starting college at a community college, or live at or close to home and attend your local institution at first to save money and also avoid out-of-state tuition costs. Also, once you’ve started college it is necessary to renew your FAFSA by March 2nd for the following academic year.

Apply for national, local, and any private scholarships you learn of, and for which you are eligible. Most colleges and universities also offer both merit and need-based scholarships. Check with your institution.  Colleges and universities may have scholarship information and/or on-line applications on their website. If you’re an undocumented student, find out if the particular state you reside in can offer you in-state tuition rates, and you may also qualify for institutional or privately-funded scholarships.
You should always exhaust all grant opportunities and scholarships, because these funds are free and do not have to be repaid, before borrowing money with student loans. Apply for the federal work-study program to offset a portion of your educational expenses with part-time employment rather than accepting student loans that you may have been offered. Student loans should be your last option in financing your education and it’s important to keep loan balances as low as possible, and be careful with credit cards.

If student loans are your only option to finance your education, there are low interest loans.  Repayment on subsidized loans begin six months after a student graduates or stops attending school at least half-time. Unsubsidized loans are low interest loans that you pay as you go.  For additional information on federal student loans, visit Regularly visit your institution’s financial aid office as well as campus websites, bulletin boards and e-newsletters, as scholarships, grants and fellowship offers are often routinely posted.

Overall it’s important to be practical, knowledgeable, and resourceful. For example, it’s encouraged to find out if your bookstore carries used textbooks, and don’t forget to always use your student discounts. Be sure to present yourself with honesty and professionalism in all your communications, encounters and applications, and talk to your academic advisors and financial aid counselors about any questions you don’t understand, and by all means stick to your budget!

About the Authors:

Dr. Enrique Murillo is Executive Director of the Latino Education & Advocacy Days (LEAD) Organization and Professor in the College of Education at California State University, San Bernardino. He served four years as Commissioner of the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC), the principal state agency responsible for administering financial aid programs for students attending public and private universities, colleges, and vocational schools in California.  

Patricia Aguilera is Financial Aid Advisor and Student Employment Coordinator in the Financial Aid Office at California State University, San Bernardino.  She is a member of the National Student Employment Association (NSEA) where she is a national trainer for student employment.  Patricia also serves on the executive board of LEAD, the CSAC Strategic Planning team for California Cash for College, and the CSU Segmental Committee for the California Association of Student Financial Aid Administers (CASFAA).