How to Start Thinking About College Costs

Resources to help you pay for college.

If you’re thinking about going to college but you’re not sure how to pay for it, you’re not alone. Let’s look at how you can start thinking about college costs, with answers to frequently asked questions about the cost of college and links to resources for learning more.

How much does college cost?

This is a complex question because different colleges have different costs. There are many factors that affect the cost of college, such as:

  • The type of college – for example, public colleges usually have lower tuition than private colleges, especially for state residents
  • The degree you’re seeking – for example, a 2-year associate degree usually costs less than a 4-year bachelor’s degree

For tips on choosing the type of college and degree that’s right for you, check out this article. If you already have a specific college in mind, you can look up the costs on the college website or BigFuture .

Cost of attendance vs. how much you’ll pay

The cost of attendance (also called “sticker price”) is the listed cost of a college. It’s the combined total of different costs, such as:

  • Tuition and fees
  • Housing and meal plan
  • Books, transportation, and other indirect expenses, which are the costs of being a student not paid directly to the college

The cost of attendance represents the maximum amount a student would have to pay for one year. Most students end up paying less with the help of financial aid , so you shouldn’t eliminate a college from your list based on the cost of attendance alone. When thinking about your college costs it’s important to also consider net price, which is the cost of attendance minus grants and scholarships. You can review net price calculators here.

What exactly is financial aid?

Financial aid is money that can help you pay for college. There are three main types of financial aid:

  • Grants and scholarships are money you do not have to pay back.
  • Student loans are money you have to pay back.
  • Work-study is money you earn from a job offered by your college.

Financial aid is provided by your college, the government, and other organizations. To get financial aid, you must apply for it. The most common financial aid application is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA ®). In 2020-21, on average undergraduate students received over $14,000 and graduate students received over $26,000 from grants, federal loans, tax credits, and federal work-study - so completing the FAFSA is an important step.

The amount of financial aid you’ll receive depends on many factors, including your family’s finances, your academic, athletic, or extracurricular achievements, the college you’re attending, and more.

What are other ways to pay for college?

For most students, financial aid will only cover a portion of college costs. If this is the case for you, here are some other options to pay for college:

  • Savings: No matter when you start and how much you can save each month, every dollar counts. Money you save for college can be used for many different college expenses , not just tuition. For more information about ways to save, please see this article.
  • Working through college: Another option—getting a job to earn money to help pay for college expenses.
  • Outside scholarships: In addition to scholarships you may get from your college you can apply for scholarships from other organizations. For example, BigFuture offers scholarships for completing steps in the college planning process. Find tips and resources for your scholarship search here.

What can I do now?

No matter where you are in the college planning process, you can start preparing for college costs. Here’s how:

  • Continue working hard in and out of school. When it comes to paying for college, your grades and extracurricular activities matter. Keeping your grades up and getting involved in your school and community will pay off when applying for financial aid, especially scholarships.
  • Start (or continue) saving even if it’s just a small amount each month.
  • While exploring different college options, consider academic, social, and financial fit. And read this article to find out more about navigating the college search process.