Your NPR news source

Paying for college in era of soaring student debt

For many graduating high school students and their families, paying for college can be harder than getting in.

SHARE Paying for college in era of soaring student debt

Paying for college can be harder than getting into college. (Pixabay)

For many graduating high school students and their families, paying for college can be harder than getting in. From scholarships to sky-high tuition, financing high education seems like it’s getting more complex every day.

As part of our series on student loan debt, Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson asks two counselors for tips on planning for – and paying for – college.

Tips For Families Worried About College Costs

By Lisa Micele

  1. Save anything you can for college. Families often believe that saving will hurt them with financial aid. The penalty for saving (especially when in the parent’s name) is very minimal. is a great place to start to learn about the federal student assistance programs and eligibility requirements.
  2. Just do it! File the financial aid forms when applying to college and don’t make assumptions. There are no income cut-offs. It is a formula that takes so many factors (other than income) into account.
  3. Complete NET PRICE CALCULATORS early and have conversations about ability & willingness to pay early as a family too. These calculators are found on each college/university website. You can also do EFC (Expected Family Contribution) calculators at the Big Future College Board website.
  4. Don’t be afraid to call the financial aid office at a college and ask questions. Ask them how accurate their Net Price calculator is (some are better than others) and discuss your outcome from this calculator starting junior year of high school. Get the name of the financial aid officer and talk with the same person. They are there to help you and they appreciate early & proactive conversations. In spring, when a senior is then making the final May 1st decision, any conversations about the aid package or a potential appeal will go thru the financial aid office. Now you will have someone specific to call, if needed.
  5. Merit aid does still at exist at some colleges. Do your research. is a great site to use — under the “Money Matters” tab for each college. also allows you to search for merit aid at colleges that reward students for grades, test scores, talents, leadership, etc. regardless of parents’ income. Use College Navigator and College Scorecard in your research for colleges as well.
  6. Apply for scholarships using free search engines – completing all of the optional questions and portals as thoroughly as possible. NEVER pay for scholarship search services. These portals listed here are free. Students should complete multiple search engines.,, and BigFuture.Collegeboard.orgare great places to start — to name a few.
  7. Apply for as many local scholarships as you can. Talk to your high school Counseling Office about such scholarships; search online; talk with civic centers / volunteer agencies in your hometown. Parents & guardians should inquire with their employers about scholarship opportunities as well.
  8. Student should plan for summer work to save for college and plan for a part-time job in college. 12 hours or less while in college is very doable and data shows that having a job equates to better grades and time management.
  9. If you do borrow student loans, go for the federal loans first over private loans; use repayment estimators; talk with the financial aid office at the college you are attending to budget and plan ahead for repayment.
  10. Use your community college. Summer classes that transfer to your college/university for credit can save you tuition dollars. Starting at your community college first may be the best fit for you as well.
  11. Cut costs in college. Budget; make sacrifices now (yes — you can skip the latte); evaluate closely the meal / housing plan options in college. These are just a few examples. Search “How to cut costs in college” and many sites will offer you tips, budget templates, and words of wisdom from college graduates.

Final words from Lisa Micele: Use these tools and tips to plan ahead, build a better college list, and put “Financial Fit” into your college discussions. You can do this! Good luck.

The Latest
It’s election day, and hundreds of teens are serving as election judges. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments today in a case that could impact more than one million student people in Illinois with college debt. Local groups are stepping up to provide shelter for asylum seekers arriving in Chicago.