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5 essentials on paying for college

University of California financial aid tips

Credit: Elena Zhukova

Getting admitted to college — especially if it’s one of your top choices — can be a thrilling moment. Make it even better by making sure that you get as much financial help with college costs as you can.  

The best way to do that? Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) before the March 2 deadline.

If you’re concerned about paying for college, filling out the FAFSA is the single most important step you can take. UC financial aid expert Jamal Collins emphasized this and more in today's Facebook Live, in which he answered your questions about paying for college — from scholarship and grant programs, to loans, work-study and other financial aid options at UC. 

Here are a few other tips for making college more affordable.

No. 1: Apply for financial aid, regardless of whether you think you are eligible

Lots of students assume they won’t qualify for financial aid and don’t bother to fill out the FAFSA. The result: Students forego roughly $2.9 billion in financial aid each year.

Roughly half of students who don’t apply for aid would actually qualify for help. Family income is only one of the factors that affect eligibility for aid. Other factors include things like how many people live at home, and whether other siblings are also in college.

By filling out the FAFSA, students are automatically considered for other forms of financial assistance, such California’s Middle Class Scholarship and student loans, which have lower interest rates and more manageable repayment terms.

No. 2. The cost of tuition is less important than what YOU will pay

Tuition is just one component that makes up the cost of attendance, sometimes known as the “sticker price.” The cost of attendance is often different than what a student ends up paying, and financial aid can significantly reduce costs. Once you’ve been admitted to a particular college, evaluate how much financial aid you will receive. Look in particular at your award letter for gift aid — grants and scholarships that don't have to be paid back and go directly toward reducing the cost of attendance.

Colleges and universities vary widely in how much of this aid they give out. The bottom line: Schools that have higher tuition but more generous gift aid can sometimes be more affordable, while those with lower tuition can actually cost more.

At UC, for example, more than half of California resident undergraduates have their tuition and fees fully covered, and also receive some help with other costs, such as housing and books. About 70 percent of California undergraduates at UC receive some gift aid.

Many schools offer online calculators that can help you compare how various schools stack up against one another. You can find UC calculators here.

No. 3: Develop a budget that reflects all your living expenses

As you think about paying for college, remember to account for costs beyond tuition — books and supplies, housing, meals, transportation and other living expenses.

Every college and university estimates what these total costs of attendance are for their students, and they take them into account when calculating your financial aid.

At UC, for example, total cost of attendance will vary depending on whether a student plans to live on campus, off campus, or at home with their parents. Once you find out your financial aid award — including student loans or work-study — you can adjust accordingly.

No 4. College is an investment that can pay big dividends

As you assess where to attend college, compare graduation rates and how long it takes, on average, for students to earn a degree.

One of the biggest ways to hold down the cost of college is to graduate within four years. Not only do students save on tuition and other living costs, but they enter the workforce sooner and can start earning.   

The U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard offers a tool that lets students compare graduation rates, average salary after attending, average debt and more.

“College isn’t an expense but an investment in your future, and you want to be sure you’re investing wisely,” said UC Director of Student Financial Support Chris Carter. “That means taking the time to choose a college that has a strong track record of student success.”

No 5. Search for scholarships

More than 1.5 million organizations across the country give out scholarships to help with college costs. These are monetary awards that never need to be paid back. Many scholarships are geared toward specific populations or objectives such as promoting diversity and economic mobility, advancing study in specific fields, supporting students of particular ethnic groups or religious affiliations, or helping students from a certain school or community reach college.

At UC, students who apply for admission are automatically entered into consideration for both need- and merit-based scholarships. In general, scholarships reduce a student’s need to work or borrow, but don’t affect their eligibility for need-based financial aid.

Be cautious, however, about paying for scholarship search services and be wary of scams. Free tools such as Fastweb! can be useful to help students find opportunities best suited for them.