It’s springtime, which means the weather is warming and high school seniors are trying to figure out where — and if — to go to college in the fall. With higher education tuition costs steadily climbing each year, many high school seniors and their parents wonder if a college education is financially possible, especially with the current up-and-down economy.
U.S. News data shows that in-state tuition costs among public universities grew by 72% from 2008 to 2021. Rising tuition costs at public universities, private colleges and community colleges show no signs of slowing down. If you are considering college, you might be wondering how to pay for college — and if it’s worth it.
First things first: for most students, getting your college degree is worth it and can significantly impact your future earning potential. According to a recent article in Forbes, a college degree continues to be the most direct path to a well-paying career. Studies consistently show that college graduates have a significantly higher income than those with a high school degree.
If you want to go to college but you’re not sure how to afford it, check out the ideas below. With a little bit of creativity — and a willingness to fill out scholarship packets and financial aid applications — you’ll be on your way with some unique ideas to help make your college dream a reality.
9 Creative Ways to Afford College
1. Monetize your talents
You spent days, weeks, months and years practicing and perfecting your extracurricular skills — now use those skills to make money while helping the next generation of kids. Are you a star violinist? A great dancer or singer? The best golfer on the varsity team? Consider offering one-on-one or small group classes to parents with interested children.
2. Cut costs with community college
Have you considered community college for a year or two? Many students choose to live at home for their freshman and sophomore year, attend community college while saving money and then transfer to a larger college or university for their junior and senior years. According to CNBC, community colleges offer lower-cost tuition, significant grant opportunities and tax benefits to full-time community college students. It’s a great way to save money and get your undergrad prerequisites checked off your transcript, paving the way for higher-level classes during junior and senior year at a larger university.
Programs like AmeriCorps or Teach for America are designed to help pay for college in exchange for service or employment following your degree. If you’ve had your eye on a military career, check out if there are available Army ROTC scholarship opportunities in your area.
If you enjoy spending time with kids and have a strength in specific school subjects, a tutoring service is an excellent opportunity to bring in some extra money. There are many ways to tutor — in-person at the library or over a Zoom video call. One client might need consistent help with their Language Arts homework, while another might benefit from math flashcard challenges. Tutoring is also a great resume builder for careers in fields like education and business.
5. Take a gap year
Taking a gap year means that you postpone school for typically up to 12 months. Gap years have become increasingly popular — especially in light of the pandemic, which has shifted the typical college experience from in-person to virtual classes. Many young people use their gap year to work and save as much as possible before heading to college.
6. Apply for scholarships
Your college or university should offer scholarship opportunities — both need and merit-based — but make sure to investigate local scholarship opportunities. Many community organizations and corporations also award scholarships to students as part of their yearly philanthropy. Check out your high school alumni association, religious organizations, local sports teams, even your elementary school. Your guidance counselor should have a list of organizations that offer scholarships to help get you started.
7. Check out the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC)
If you are filing your own taxes — and many working college students do —make sure to check if you qualify for the American opportunity tax credit (AOTC), an annual maximum $2,500 credit for your first four years of higher education. You will need to request a Form 1098-T from your college or university to determine if you are eligible for the tax credit. If you qualify, complete Form 8863 and include it with your tax returns. You can find the most up-to-date forms on the IRS page.
8. Ask for support
If friends or family ask for graduation or birthday gift ideas, request financial support to put toward tuition, room and board, or textbooks. These gestures of support can significantly add up and make a positive impact on your college savings.
9. Apply for financial aid
The U.S. Department of Education Office of Federal Student Aid provides students with financial aid to help pay for college. The program grants more than $120 billion in financial assistance each year to help students pay for college.
To qualify for federal student aid, you’ll need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). The application can be complex, so filling out FAFSA should be a team effort between parents and students. Parents will need to supply information like yearly income and deductions. It’s a labor-intensive job, but an essential one: FAFSA gives you a comprehensive overview of financial aid options and tuition costs for potential colleges.
Federal financial aid can come in a few forms: scholarships, grants, loans and work-study jobs. Loans must be repaid with interest, but scholarships and grants do not need to be repaid. Federal work-study programs connect you with an on-campus job and are awarded for a set number of hours each week. Your class schedule and grades can impact your work-study agreement.
Getting creative to afford college
There isn’t a one size fits way to save and pay for college. In fact, it’s best to apply more than one method. Getting creative with how you make extra money and reduce the cost of college will increase the chances you’ll be able to afford it — and eventually reap the benefits of being a college grad.