Where to find money for college: four places to start looking

College is an investment. Translation: college is EXPENSIVE! Even though the expectation is that your future career opportunities will help you recoup the cost, there is no reason you should pay full sticker price.

There are many ways to get money for college, from federal work-study programs to private scholarships. You may even be able to combine funding from several sources so can get a higher education for a lower price tag.

But you don’t want to end up missing out on money for college because you flaked on a deadline, or because you didn’t even know what kind of help was available.

You might know of some sources of moolah closer to home—like your community, youth group, or a club. That's fantastic! But if you're lost at sea, wondering how the bills will get paid, don't worry. You can start here with four straightforward ways to find the money you need.  

1. Straight from the Source: Financial Aid from Schools

Many colleges and universities offer need-based and merit-based financial aid. As soon as you know you want to apply to a school, get on its website and look for the financial aid forms they want from you. Start filling those out pronto! There is only so much money to go around, and you don’t want to miss out on this free source of funding.

Remember, colleges want amazing, talented students. If you have mad skills in any category, you should be pro-active about looking for money from your potential schools. Athletic scholarships are perhaps the most well-known type, but don’t forget about music, fine art, dance, writing, or other myriad academic subjects.

Can’t find the information you need on the school’s website? Contact the admissions office and do independent research. This is too important not to work hard at!

2. Private Money

There is a fair amount of private money available for students, but the trick is finding the funding that you can get!

So where should you start? The most time efficient way is to use a service that submits your information to multiple sources, or that searches existing scholarships for those that are a good match for you.

You can take advantage of the College Board’s CSS Financial PROFILE system, which submits your financial information to determine eligibility from private funding sources. 

There are also a handful of services that will find your best match for sources of money, based on your income, academic record, interests, family circumstance, and even ethnic background.

Please be aware that these services will ask you to submit a lot of personal information, and ultimately you need to be the judge of which sites you trust and how much you’re willing to share for the convenience of having the service search the database for you! Make sure to read the Privacy Policy of any service you use!

Scholarship Matching Services

Scholarship Searches

3. Federal Money

The federal government offers money for college in three main ways: grants, loans, and work-study programs.  For any of these types of funding, you’ll need to fill out a FAFSA application

Grants are not paid back. You get the money you need for school without going into debt. Grants are often need-based and require you to meet some basic eligibility requirements, such as being a US citizen (or eligible non-citizen) and having a high school diploma.

Grants are linked to your academic performance, so you have to be able to maintain a minimum GPA, and if you don’t complete your degree, you have to pay back the grant money, or some portion of it! Grants are available according to both need and merit, so it is worth applying to see what options are out there for you.

Loans must be paid back with interest. Current interest rates for federal student loans are between 4.29% and 6.8%, depending on the loan type.  That is pretty steep, when you consider that the national average for a 15-year mortgage on a home is currently 4.125%. (And you can’t live at your college once you graduate!)

Taking out a loan may be necessary to pay for college. But, it shouldn’t be your first stop on the find-money journey. Look for funding in other ways first. Remember, a student loan is for-profit and is never forgiven, even if you declare bankruptcy!

Federal work-study programs let you earn money for school with the sweat of your brow. Jobs are assigned to you and can be either on campus or at businesses or non-profits nearby.

Pros: since the job is through your school, you’re guaranteed to have reasonable hours that fit with your class schedule; there is an attempt to match you with a job related to your major; you won’t be incurring student loan debt.

Cons: your salary will be federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25 per hour; you are not guaranteed to get a job related to your course of study; not all schools participate in the federal work-study program.

Work-study jobs are part-time, and the number of hours you can work is capped by the total amount of money you’re awarded through your FAFSA application. They are also awarded on a first come, first served basis. So if you think this is the right option for you, get cracking on your application! 

4. State Money

Simple math says that there are more students in the nation than in your state, so you may have a better chance of receiving state funds than federal funds.

Many states also offer grants (translation: free money!). They are tied to student performance and have GPA requirements, but if you are a dedicated student, you may be eligible to receive money that you don’t have to pay back, as long as you finish your degree. If you live in California, check out the Cal Grant. (If you have a specific question, try their FAQ page.)

Some states also offer funding for students in really specific circumstances. For example California has funds set aside for programs such as the California Dream Act and the Middle Class Scholarship. You can find more funding options by visiting your state’s higher education agency.  In California, that is the California Student Aid Commission.  For other states, check out the U.S. Department of Education's interactive map. 

Final Thoughts

Wherever you look for money—from your college, private scholarship funds, the federal government or your state—start looking early! Application deadlines vary, and your college may require you to submit financial aid forms on a different timeline than the rest of your application.

The bad news is that college costs a lot of money. But the good news is that because it is so unaffordable, many institutions, both public and private, are stepping up to fill the gap and provide more students with the opportunity of a higher education.

Join the conversation in the comments below!

  • How did you get money for school?
  • Did you / do you have student loan debt? What is your advice about getting a student loan?
  • Do you work for an organization that offers student scholarships? How can students apply?

Important Note: This post contained a lot of links to both government agencies and for-profit businesses. Here are some disclaimers:

  • I am in no way affiliated with any of the products or services mentioned, and I have offered them based on their reputations and my perception of their quality alone.
  • I included these links so that you could have good information all in one handy-dandy place. But the inclusion of these links does not constitute my endorsement of the websites, the services they offer, or their parent or affiliate companies. You must do your own research!
  • I offer no explicit or implied guarantee about any of these resources, or about your individual results in using them.  
  • You should always use your best judgment when submitting any personal information to a business or service-provider, especially online.