Rising college tuition and student loan debt has been a hot topic within the White House and Congress. What’s a family to do when faced with the sticker shock of paying for college? While scholarships and financial aid are common strategies, they don’t work for all students or families. But there are a number of simple and creative ways to finance a college education that students and families may not know about.

Here are a few ideas:

1. Grants

Grants, unlike student loans, are money that does not have to be paid back. They are usually awarded on the basis of financial need and most often provided by federal or state programs. Some special groups or populations may have access to grant programs, such as those with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)/Tribal Funding or Military Service Scholarships/Veteran Benefits.

2. Service that Pays

I served in Americorps while attending college full time. It paid an hourly wage plus an education grant upon completion. The financial benefits were great, but the professional and personal experience was priceless. I served in a large inner-city high school career advisement office, but there are many ways to serve and earn. AmeriCorps places thousands of young adults into service positions where they learn valuable work skills, earn money for education, and develop an appreciation for citizenship. Some positions are part time, some are full time and used as a “Gap Year” program. Participants in AmeriCorps can:

  • mentor and tutor at-risk youth
  • rebuild communities struck by natural disasters
  • help seniors live independently
  • support veterans and military families
  • restore natural habitats

Since AmeriCorps’ inception in 1994, more than 800,000 alumni have earned more than $2.4 billion in education awards through the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award. Some colleges even match education awards!

3. Student Employment

Working part-time during college not only provides you with a paycheck but with some unexpected benefits. Working part time is positively correlated to improved college completion rates. It may be that the structure of a job helps you stay focused. My favorite student jobs are those that build your resume and or help you build community. On campus jobs can be especially beneficial in that regard. But be careful, working more than part time while attending classes full time is not recommended if you can help it. Full-time work can start to affect your school performance.

4. Federal Work Study

One way to stretch your financial aid dollars and get a decent student job is through the Federal Work Study Program (FWS). FWS funds part-time employment to assist students with the cost of postsecondary education. You may automatically be offered FWS in your financial aid package or you might be able to request that some types of aid, like student loans be shifted to FWS dollars.

According to the Department of Education, students can receive FWS funds at approximately 3,400 participating postsecondary institutions. Hourly wages must not be less than the federal minimum wage. The government subsidizes wages for students in Federal Work Study programs or student jobs. In addition to college tuition, students can gain related experience in their course of study and future career. Compensation may be in the form of credit for tuition, a paycheck or non-monetary compensation, such as room and board.

5. Cost Saving Strategies

Do consider cost savings measures such as starting your education at a community college, living at home, or purchasing campus meal plan. Consider employment that includes food and housing such as Residential Assistance positions whereby you work in the dorm and in exchange live there free.

Don’t be short sighted. Many cash strapped students try to attend college part time; however, you’re much less likely to complete a degree at all. It’s tempting but in the long term, it will cost you more.

It can be overwhelming, but know that there are many ways to cut your costs and resources to help. I always encourage talking with your college financial aid office about your options and share any concerns. Sometimes students are intimidated by financial aid administrators or at the other end of the spectrum they treat them with little regard. Be very respectful and you’ll be amazed at how much these hard working folks want to help students.

For other tips on cost cutting and to learn more about financial aid in general, check out one of my favorite groups, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA). This professional organization for financial aid administrators advocates for public policies that increase student access and success and serve as a forum on student financial aid issues.

Image by Lucius Beebe Memorial Library/CC 2.0

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