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Don’t make assumptions just yet about what education you can and can’t afford.
Considering college?
(Illustration by Alborz Kamalizad
(Illustration by Alborz Kamalizad
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Higher education seems pretty expensive (and often times, it is). But before you throw away options you think you can't afford — or sign on to that giant student loan — here are many of the possible ways you can knock some $$$ off that price tag.

Questions to ask yourself

Can you get free tuition? There are many ways to qualify for it, especially if you’re attending a community college:

  • All California community colleges waive tuition for low-income students via the California College Promise Grant. You can get this grant if you’re a California resident (or, if you’re undocumented, you can qualify as a resident for tuition purposes — read more about that here). If you’re a youth experiencing homelessness under age 25, you’re automatically eligible for this grant. Otherwise, you also have to demonstrate financial need in one of three ways:

    Read more details here.

  • College promise programs often guarantee a year or more of free tuition at particular colleges. For instance, the L.A. College Promise program grants two years of free tuition at any community college in the L.A. Community College District, provided you’re a California resident (or are eligible for in-state tuition), you’ve never completed any college credits before and you’re enrolled full time — and no, it doesn’t matter what year you graduated from high school. Here’s a handy list of other College Promise programs throughout California.
  • Calbright College, an exclusively online public college tailored for working adults, is tuition-free by default. (Read more about Calbright in this section.)
  • Various other situations can get you free tuition, like if you’re older than 60 and attending a CSU; if you’re a veteran with GI Bill funds; if you’re attending USC and your family income is less than $80,000; and many more. Call a school’s financial aid office and see what programs you might qualify for.

Keep in mind that free tuition doesn’t take care of all your costs. There are still books, fees, and daily living expenses to deal with. If you aren’t eligible for specific free tuition programs, or if you still have costs to cover, you can fill some (or all) of those gaps by applying for financial aid — here’s how to get started.

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What’s the official tuition? Much like buying a car, the sticker price of a program is not necessarily what you’ll actually end up paying, but it’s a helpful starting point to understand what costs you’re dealing with — especially if you need to take out loans.

First, know whether you’re getting in-state or out-of-state tuition. If you’re a California resident, you’ll get in-state tuition, which is the least expensive option. (Here are more details about how to qualify as a California resident for tuition purposes.) Out-of-state tuition costs, on average, three times as much. If you’re an undocumented immigrant, you may still be able to get in-state tuition, too. Read more about that here.

Here are some quick annual tuition comparisons between schools, assuming you’re paying in-state tuition for a full-time (12 units per semester) load:

  • Community colleges: $1,104
  • CSU: $5,742
  • UC: $12,570
  • Four-year private schools: around $50,000+

These numbers don’t include school fees, which are only about $20 a semester at a community college but can add on several thousand more dollars at a UC or private four-year school.

If you’re paying for school completely out of pocket or through loans, official tuition numbers matter a lot. But in many cases you may get financial aid offers that will cut down those prices significantly — and who knows, maybe that super-expensive private school will suddenly become your most affordable option. Financial aid offers will be different at each school, and you won’t know what you’ll get until you apply for that aid. Read more about the financial aid process further below.

Do you have any credits already completed? If so, you might be able to finish your program faster and therefore pay less. There are also several kinds of exams you can take to “test out” of required college courses. In some cases, college classes you took a long time ago may still be transferable. Work or life experiences may sometimes count as credits, too. Read more about that here.

Can you transfer from a community college to a four-year school? This is one way to get a four-year degree and pay much lower tuition for half your time in school. It will take some careful planning, though. Read more in this section.

Are you attending school full-time or part-time? This affects not just how much you’re paying in a semester (and over the full course of your education), but how much financial aid you’ll get in a year and how quickly you may be able to pay down your costs. Read more about that in this section.

What kind of financial aid can you get? Applying for financial aid is a major, do-not-miss step of figuring out what higher education will cost. Many school websites have a “Net Price Calculator” that estimates how much aid you may be able to get, but you won’t know for certain until you actually apply. The next section has basic steps to getting started.

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Types of financial aid

Here's an overview of the kinds of aid you can get:

Grants are free money from colleges and federal and state governments — they don’t need to be paid back. Grants are typically based on financial need and other background factors (for example, some grants are designed for women in underrepresented fields, some are for foster youth, etc.). The big ones to know about are:

  • The federal Pell Grant, for low-income students. You have to show enough financial need and meet other eligibility requirements to get one, and it’s open to anyone who hasn’t yet earned a bachelor’s degree. There’s no age limit or competition for funds, and you can get a maximum award of $6,741 as of the 2021-2022 school year. However, it’s not available to currently incarcerated students (though that will change in 2023) or undocumented students. You can read more details at the federal Student Aid Commission website.
  • The state Cal Grant, for low-income students attending in-state public and private universities, colleges, and qualifying career and technical schools. You can read about each of these grants at the California Student Aid Commission website, but there are a few important highlights (NOTE: Some new changes were approved in mid-2021 that may not yet be reflected on the Student Aid Commission website. The state legislature is also considering a bill that would radically change the Cal Grant system. We will update this section if it becomes law.):
    • There are three main types of grants: Cal Grants A, B, and C. Cal Grants A and B are for students pursuing a two-year or four-year undergraduate degree. Cal Grant A can only be used for tuition and fees. Cal Grant B offers a stipend for living expenses in the first year, then covers tuition and fees in addition to that stipend starting in the second year. Cal Grant C is for students pursuing vocational or career technical training — these grants frequently go unclaimed. You don’t have to pick which grant to apply for; your financial aid form (read more about that further below this section) will determine which you can get.
    • A portion of these Cal Grants are entitlement awards, meaning you can automatically get one if you:
      • meet general eligibility criteria (including income requirements that change each year), and
      • are a current high school senior or recent graduate who’s planning to attend an eligible four-year college, or are a student of any age planning to attend a community college. Community college students who get an entitlement award and transfer to a CSU or UC can carry over their Cal Grant eligibility, too. (There used to be restrictions on age and time out of high school for community college students seeking entitlement awards, but they no longer apply starting with the 2022-23 school year.)
  • If you meet general eligibility criteria but otherwise don’t qualify for an entitlement award, you’re still eligible for a competitive award. These are the same Cal Grants, but they come from a limited pool and are given to students based on factors including GPA, family income, parents’ level of education, household size, and more. While these grants are technically competitive, your grades are only one consideration among many that determine if you get an award.
  • The school you’re applying to must accept Cal Grants. The California Student Aid Commission website keeps lists of eligible and ineligible schools.

Scholarships are also free money that can be given out by colleges, governments, businesses, or organizations. There’s a very wide range of scholarships out there, but they are more likely than grants to factor in things like academic performance, test scores, athletics, extracurricular activities, and application essays. (More information about scholarships is further below on this page.)

Work-study programs let you work a part-time job to pay off some of the cost of education. The kind of jobs available will vary from school to school. There’s a federal work-study program and work-study programs specific to individual schools. Work-study funds are limited, so many schools invite eligible students to apply to the work-study program and then accept applications on a first-come, first-served basis. Being approved for work-study doesn’t automatically grant you a job — you’ll usually have to search for and apply for them on your own through campus job websites.

If you have a job under the federal work-study program, schools are required to let you work hours that fit with your school schedule, so that’s one advantage over other part-time jobs. However, you can’t work more than 20 hours a week and can only earn up to the amount awarded to you by the school.

Federal loans are money that you’ll have to pay back, with interest. Look for words like “Direct subsidized loan,” “Direct unsubsidized loan,” and “PLUS loan” — these are all different types of federal loans being offered to you. You can read more about loans from the Federal Student Aid Commission. Federal loans have a fixed, usually lower, interest rate than private loans, and you don’t have to repay them until after graduation. There are caps on how much of each type of federal loan you can get per year. They’re also eligible for government loan forgiveness programs that will cancel the remainder of your debt if you work a certain number of years in a particular job (in government, at a non-profit, or as a teacher).

Private loans are offered by private banks or other lenders rather than the government. You usually have to apply directly through the company instead of through a state or federal financial aid form (read more about that in the section below). Private loans tend to have higher interest rates than federal loans, and usually require a credit check. You can usually borrow up to the amount of the cost of attending the school, minus whatever other financial aid you have. NerdWallet also has a calculator that tells you how much in student loans you can afford with your expected salary and loan terms.

How to apply for financial aid

Step 1: Fill out a financial aid form

Your financial aid form will determine what kind of aid you can get from federal and state governments, as well as individual schools. Filling one out is a requirement for getting most types of financial aid, so it's really, really important.

Complete either the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) or, if you are undocumented, the CADAA (California Dream Act Application — more about that here). You’ll be filling this form out every year you’re in school, so if your situation changes over time, you’ll be able to report it.

The forms ask questions about your or your family’s financial status (like information from your tax returns) and living situation (like whether you live with your parents or whether you have children). The financial questions will all draw from tax information from two years prior to the start of the school year — so if you’re filling out the FAFSA for the 2021-2022 school year, your information will be based on your 2019 tax returns. If your income has changed since 2019 — say, you or a parent you depend on lost a job — you’ll have to contact the schools you’re applying to and let them know what’s changed.

If you’re under the age of 24, in most cases you’re considered a dependent and will need your parents’ or guardians’ information to fill out the forms. One exception is if you’re experiencing homelessness and not living with your parents — more on that here. If your parents or guardians are undocumented immigrants, here’s some guidance from nonprofit organization Immigrants Rising on how to fill out the FAFSA.

Some four-year colleges — primarily private schools — will ask you to submit an additional form called the CSS Profile to apply for grants or scholarships specific to that college. Here’s a list of schools that use it.

Deadlines: The FAFSA and CADAA submission periods begin October 1. It's a good idea to submit your forms as early as possible to claim any grants, scholarships, or work-study opportunities that schools might have limited funds for. The deadline is March 2 to qualify for California state aid for the following school year. If you miss that deadline, you can still submit the FAFSA before June 30 to qualify for federal aid.

Help: If you need assistance, you can call, live chat, or email the Federal Student Aid Information Center for FAFSA help or the California Student Aid Commission for help filling out the California Dream Act. Local organizations also hold workshops to guide students through the process and answer questions. For instance, L.A. Cash for College hosts free sessions geared toward high schoolers and first-generation college students. Here are links to more detailed information about filling out financial aid forms and the different kinds of financial aid that are available:

Step 2: Get your offer

After you fill out your FAFSA or California Dream Act application, you should receive a report back within a few days with your Expected Family Contribution (Note: The term Expected Family Contribution will be replaced by Student Aid Index by 2024). This number is a baseline that gives schools and financial aid officials an idea of how much extra funds you or your family need for school. (It’s not your official financial aid offer!) From here, the federal and state governments can determine which grants, loans, and other types of financial aid you're entitled to..

After this, an individual school may offer you some combination of different types of aid to make up the rest of what you need (according to their estimates) to attend their school. This is your official financial aid award package.

Sometimes schools use different terms for financial aid that make it hard to immediately understand what they're offering. You can use an award comparison spreadsheet or tool (here’s one from the College Board) to input your information and get a clearer idea of your choices.

Appeal if you need to: Didn’t get the kind of financial aid package you were hoping for? Or perhaps your situation has changed since you submitted the forms — a parent lost a job, or you have a new dependent to take care of. You can appeal your financial aid offer — read more about that here.

Step 3: Try to get more free money

Some schools have specialized scholarships and grants that you’ll have to apply for directly. For instance, the L.A. City College Foundation provides scholarships for L.A. City College students, but they won’t be automatically awarded to eligible students — some require letters of recommendation or essays. Check with a school’s financial aid office to see what you might be eligible for and what you’ll have to submit.

There are also a lot of grants and scholarships from non-profit organizations, foundations, and private companies. It’ll take a bit of work to research and apply, but they can add up to be a big financial help. Your school financial aid office is the best first stop for scholarship opportunities. You can also search and filter through opportunities through the U.S. Department of Labor’s scholarship search tool. This section also mentions scholarship resources for specific situations, like if you’re undocumented or were in the foster system.

Here are some big-picture considerations to keep in mind:

Applying for scholarships takes time and energy. Depending on how much money you’re hoping to get, you may end up spending a lot of time writing applications. There are thousands of scholarships out there, with a big range of dollar amounts, application requirements, and competition. You’ll need to stay organized to find ones that are a good match, keep track of deadlines, and get all the required materials in order. Chances are that you won’t get every single one you apply for, either — but the key is to keep going.

A lot of scholarship and grant money goes unclaimed. With a thorough search, you can find grants or scholarships that very few people apply for — and therefore are easier to get.

For instance: If you’re going into an occupational or technical program (which includes education for jobs like electrician, manicurist, paralegal, and a lot more), Cal Grant C will cover up to $2,462 for tuition and an additional $547 for books annually. The number of applicants for Cal Grant C has historically been much lower than the number of awards available, which means all that free money is consistently up for grabs.

You can find someone to help you identify similarly underutilized grants or scholarships. Another good place to start is a school’s scholarship or financial aid office, or a foundation connected to the school that lets donors and alumni create scholarships for students.

Talk to someone to navigate what’s out there. Getting help from a financial aid officer or counselor can make this process much more manageable. They can match you with scholarships or grants that fit your situation, point you toward less competitive awards, and talk you through the application process. If you’re in some specific situations — say, you were previously in the foster system, or were incarcerated, or were in the military — you can talk to someone who specializes in those resources to point the way. Read more about those specific situations here. And if none of that applies to you, here’s more info about local organizations that hold financial aid workshops.

Don’t fall for scams. Yes, it happens. Beware of scholarship offers that ask you to pay a fee to apply or to make you eligible for certain financial aid. Here are more details from the Federal Trade Commission on avoiding these scams.

Step 4: Consider work-study, then consider loans

Once you’ve gotten all the free money you can get, look at the other types of aid available. A school may offer you work-study opportunities — read more from the Student Aid Commission about how that works.

Most people who apply for financial aid are eligible for federal loans, even if they don’t have enough financial need for other kinds of aid. If you still need more money, you can try to apply for private loans — just beware of high interest rates and schools where lots of students default on their loans (read more about that in this section). Many students struggle with student debt after school, especially if they borrowed a large amount. Before you take out those loans, think about:

How much do you actually need to borrow? If you’re borrowing money for more than just tuition, what’s the cost of living in the area? Many school websites have estimated budgets based on what kind of housing you have (see UCLA’s as an example). Would you be willing to offset any of those potential costs (with a job, scholarships, different housing arrangements, a different school, etc.)?

How are you going to pay the loans back? Consider what your projected earnings would be after completing the program. What kind of salary would you need to cover a monthly loan payment plus other living expenses? This section has some data sources for figuring out expected earnings, and here’s a handy tool from NerdWallet that helps you see whether your expected salary would cover your loans.

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