Listen you lazy, entitled whiners: it’s easy to pay for college. Just get a summer job! Why, in my day I worked weekends as a fry cook down at the diner on Main, graduated without debt, and now I’m sixty-five years old and completely delusional about the inflated costs of higher education! Ask me more about the house I bought for $60,000 and how much I resent the respectful empathy of the children I raised!
Sorry, y’all. Probably should’ve started that with a trigger warning.
Whenever we write about student loans, we get at least one comment like this. Except with more caps lock. We delete them. We never silence interesting criticism, but come on, this ain’t a public square for every old man who wants to yell at a cloud! We pay good money for this web hosting!
At least where the cost of college is concerned, things aren’t what they used to be. Thirty years ago, it cost the modern equivalent of $8K per year to attend a public college and $18K per year to attend a private college.
Today, the same year of school would cost $21K and $48K. And you’re supposed to buy FOUR of them!
If the cost of regular goods and services grows at a steady walking pace, the cost of higher education is galloping away like a Triple Crown winner whose ass just met a hornet. I didn’t even mention the cost of textbooks, room and board, and other academic fees, which are all even worse. Can’t be giving you nightmares!
Meanwhile, average hourly wages have barely increased 11% (adjusted for inflation), making the wage-to-college-cost-ratio just fucking laughable. Yet college is still a barrier to entry into not only white collar jobs, but an ever-increasing number of blue collar jobs.
My purpose here is not to unpack the absurd inflation of higher education costs in recent years (I’d need another 2,500 words, and I can only hold your attention through so many gifs). Nor is it to debate the relative value of a college degree (another 3,000 words).
Instead, I want to focus on practical solutions for people who’ve already weighed their options and decided that college is right for them. Yes, a traditional four-year undergraduate degree is heckin’ expensive as fuck. Short of The Deep Magic, how do we mere mortals even attempt to pay for it?
Over $2.9 billion in federal college grants went unclaimed in 2014. That’s $2.9 billion that could’ve been used to lessen the debt burden of recent graduates all over the country. Wasted.
And it’s all for want of a completed FAFSA form.
Grants, like scholarships, are free money for school. Whether they’re from the federal government, state governments, or private college aid programs, grants are given out on a first-come-first-served, need-dependent basis. And you nab ’em by filling out the FAFSA.
The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is the one and only form you fill out to qualify for financial aid for college. Filling it out should be inextricably linked in your mind with the college application process. You need to fill it out between October 1st and June 30th the year before you start college, but the sooner the better. Because remember: most of the grants and financial aid doled out because of the FAFSA are on a first-come-first-served basis, honey. Get it before it runs out!
There is literally no catch: just complete the form and send it in. And because we believe in gently guiding our beloved readers by the hand into the warm embrace of financial freedom, here’s a handy link:
One of the most lauded ways of paying for college is through scholarships.
Scholarships are basically free money. You don’t have to save it up yourself, you don’t have to pay it back, and in many cases you barely have to earn it. It’s just pure-as-the-driven-snow, no-strings-attached cash for college, full stop.
And lest you think scholarships are only for the smartest of kids who skipped homecoming to study for midterms, allow me to disabuse you of that notion! There are scholarships for everything. There are left-handed scholarships. A scholarship for making your prom dress out of duct tape. This scholarship awarded to the student who applies for the most scholarships. A scholarship for living in a mobile home (at last, a truly valid reason to love the tiny house movement). Scholarships for being tall! Scholarships for being vegetarian! And my personal favorite: the Zombie Apocalypse Scholarship.
And yes, there are also plenty of merit-based scholarships, so don’t think you can coast through senior year without doing your homework just because you’re a tall, left-handed vegetarian who lives in a mobile home and practices their crossbow headshots on the weekend. (Though if you are, boy howdy do I want to meet you!)
You might notice, in clicking the examples above, that many scholarships don’t offer much money—a few grand here and there. And while there are hefty scholarships that’ll pay for a whole year or more of college, the competition for these bad boys is fiercer than a drag queen in a Ru Paul’s audition tape.
Which is why we recommend the tactic of applying for as many of the smaller, less competitive scholarships as you can. For there’s no limit to how much scholarship money you can collect. And the little ones add up quick.
Here are some of the best places to start looking for scholarships:
- Financial Aid Finder Scholarship Announcement Blog
- The College Board
- Scholarship Monkey
- U.S. Department of Labor
- Your high school guidance counselor
- Your college department of student aid
- Local community groups like the Key Club, VFW, American Legion, Elk’s Lodge, and Rotary Club I shit you not
Many colleges offer a federal work study program, which allows students who need financial help to work a part-time job on campus.
The jobs available vary from food service to bookstore clerk to custodian to person-who-sits-at-the-door-of-the-dorm-and-checks-in-residents. (Or my favorite: the campus convenience store clerk too busy munching on stolen Parmesan Goldfish to scold you for stealing Parmesan Goldfish.) The compensation comes in the form of actual money, not just tuition forgiveness or reimbursement.
In many ways, it’s the same as getting a part-time job off-campus, but with a few more advantages. For one thing, the applicant pool is smaller, so you have a better chance of getting a work study than an off-campus gig. And for another, if you apply for federal work study and qualify, the school has to give you a job. And the job security is pretty legit too, as the school is unlikely to go out of business mid-semester and lay you off, unlike the Earth’s last Blockbuster Video.
You’ll earn at least the federal minimum wage, which (see above) is generally not enough to cover the full cost of a four-year undergraduate program plus living expenses. So those who can get a higher-paying job off campus might be better off that way.
Working and saving
As the triggering fictional Baby Boomer of the introduction is fond of reminding us, you can get a job and pay for college yourself!
Not that anyone needs this reminder, of course. It’s the four-piece jigsaw puzzle of how-to-pay-for college advice.
Lots of people work throughout high school to save money for college. And still more keep working through their university years! Personally, I’m grateful for the time I spent balancing a job and classes. As hard and stressful as it was at times, it still taught me shit like time management and the value of money. And it gave me the perfect ammunition for firing back at assholes who insult me for using student loans “instead of just getting a job.”
I worked as a part-time nanny during college, earning $20 an hour. Cash. Under the table. And while minding the spoiled children of the uber-wealthy is its own unique form of punishment, I’m not gonna lie: it was a pretty sweet gig! But it still wasn’t enough to pay for my tuition, rent, food, commute, and other living costs and college-related expenses.
The advantage of earning money through working is, of course, that you neither need to pay it back, compete for it with other students, nor rely on the generosity of others. Trading your time for money is the kind of red-blooded, salt-of-the-earth shit you can feel proud of.
It’s also fucking hard. Scheduling a job around classes is its own sort of logistical nightmare, and choosing between studying for a major exam and taking a shift to pay for said exam is a cruel joke. Yes, you should get a job during college if you can. But it’s not the one-size-fits-all solution some make it out to be.
Go to an elite university
Super elite universities are also super expensive. But here’s the thing: they’re also super desperate to dispel their reputations as classist gatekeepers unfairly filled with legacy students. Which means they’re somewhat more likely than state schools to dispense financial aid to low-income students.
Put plainly: if you’re from a low-income family, you are more likely to get a full ride from Cornell than you are from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
On the surface, it makes no sense. Elite private school tuition is magnitudes more expensive than that of your average state college!
And yet elite colleges also have more money than God. (Listen to the excellent Revisionist History episode on why you shouldn’t donate to fucking Stanford.) So it follows that if they want to extend a generous financial aid package to a needy student… they can. Easily.
So if you’re limiting your college search to modest state schools and less expensive institutions because you’re worried about paying for college, think again. Your reach school might be just as eager to have you as you are to get that swanky degree.
At last we come to it: student loans.
I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, but I need you to hear the truth. You could spend hundreds of hours pursuing grants and scholarships and never get even one.
Do you know how many hours I spent answering soul-baring personal essay prompts in pursuit of money that would never, ever materialize? Many. Admittedly, many of the tactics covered here work best for great students with compelling personal stories. And while that may not be you, it also shouldn’t disqualify you from furthering your education.
And unfortunately, there are some things you can’t control that may negatively impact your eligibility for aid. For example, Kitty’s tuition bill shot up when her father remarried because on paper, his household’s income suddenly doubled. Does anyone at the FAFSA office care that it’s gauche af to expect a new stepparent to pay for her adult stepchild’s schooling? Nope! That’s firmly in the category of “shit happens.”
So if you’ve tried everything, and you haven’t found success, don’t beat yourself up.
Student loans are the great equalizer. But oh, how we despise them.
Student loans work like any other debt: the lender gives you money up front to pay for school, and you pay it back later on… with interest. For exactly why this bargain with the Devil sucks rabid monkey balls, we wrote all of this:
- What We Talk About When We Talk About Student Loans
- Ask the Bitches: I Want to Move Out, but I Can’t Afford It. How Bad Would It Be to Take out Student Loans to Cover It?
- Ask the Bitches: “The Government Put My Student Loans in Forbearance. Can I Really Stop Paying—or Is This a Trap?”
- I Paid off My Student Loans Ahead of Schedule. Here’s How.
- I Paid off My Student Loans. Now What?
There are basically two kinds of student loans…
Federal student loans
If you must get a student loan or three, try to only get federal student loans.
Federal loans are provided by the federal government, rather than a private lender, and they come with a few distinct advantages. Mind you, they’re still loans, which means you’re still taking on debt, but they’re almost always preferable to private student loans. Here’s a summary of the differences:
- Federal student loans aren’t due until after you graduate or leave school.
- Interest rates are fixed and generally lower than private loans.
- Often the government subsidizes the interest, paying it while you’re still in school.
- You don’t have to pass a credit check to qualify for a federal loan.
- They can be consolidated into a Direct Consolidation Loan.
- The repayments can be postponed or lowered through a number of options including deferral, Income Based Repayment, or forbearance.
- There’s no penalty for prepaying the loan or paying it off early.
- Some federal loans qualify for loan forgiveness if you work in public service.
- In times of extreme financial turbulence (see: right the fuck now) the federal government may pass legislation like the CARES Act to give borrowers a little relief.
Private student loans
Private student loans are provided by a bank, credit union, state agency, or school. They should be your college tuition payment of last resort.
They truly are the Devil at the Crossroads of college payment plans. You accept that sweet, sweet tuition money up-front… and four years down the line the Devil comes to collect with
a lethal dose of strychnine in your moonshine devastating interest rates and an ironclad repayment schedule.
- Private student loans often require you to pay them back while you’re still enrolled in school, or only offer deferment with full interest during this time.
- Interest rates are generally higher than federal student loans… and they can be fixed or variable, meaning they can “raise your rent” whenever they feel like it. And trust us: they will feel like it.
- They’re not subsidized. You’re responsible for paying all of the interest.
- You need to be able to pass a credit check or have a co-signer with good credit.
- They can’t be consolidated, though they can be refinanced.
- Postponing your payments usually comes with a hefty penalty.
- There is often a penalty fee for prepayment.
- Loan forgiveness? Bitch please.
This isn’t a “choose your fighter” scenario. You should be doing some combination of all of the above to pay for college. Don’t rely solely on the FAFSA (unless they give you a really, really good financial aid package) or apply for a handful of scholarships and call it good. And definitely don’t think you’ll be able to pay your room and board through a federal work study alone. Eggs! Baskets! Combine them wisely!
Elder members of Bitch Nation—how did you pay for college? And what did it cost? Share with the whole class in a comment. Bonus points for actionable tips to the wee baby bitches on their way to college.