confident student relaxing in a library

Your Guide to Paying for College

The cost of attending college can be daunting. You may wonder how you’re going to pay for your education, or even if it’s worth it. If these thoughts are running through your head right now, we’re here to help. Let’s take a look at the ways you can make college more affordable.

Financial Aid

The first and most important step toward paying for college is applying for financial aid. If you take just one thing away from this post, here it is: apply for financial aid.

What is financial aid?

Financial aid is assistance given to you to help you pay for your educational expenses. It can come from many sources, including the U.S. federal government, your state government, and your college. It can also come in many forms, including grants, scholarships, loans, and employment (more on these later).

Should I apply for financial aid?

Yes! Everyone should apply for financial aid. If you need any help whatsoever paying for college, this is the best way to get it. 

Even if you don’t end up qualifying for need-based aid (aid that goes to students with the most need), you’ll still be considered for non-need-based scholarships, loans, and employment opportunities. Plus, federal student loans (loans from the government) are often more advantageous than the ones you’d receive from private sources like banks.

A Game-Changing Scholarship

Read how financial aid helped one Illinois student achieve her dream of attending college and all of the opportunities it’s afforded her since.

How do I apply for financial aid?

You can apply for financial aid by filling out and submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Colleges will use the information you provide on your FAFSA to calculate your financial need and offer you any awards.

You’re able to submit the FAFSA starting on October 1 your senior year. Financial aid funding is limited, so the earlier you submit the FAFSA, the better. Be sure to give yourself time to fill it out. It can take awhile!

If you have questions as you work, FAFSA’s instructions are a good place to start. If you’re from the state of Illinois, the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC) and Ladder Up also provide many free resources to help, including workshops.

A quick heads-up: Applying for financial aid isn’t a one-time thing. Because your eligibility may change from year to year, you’ll need to submit the FAFSA each year you’re in school.

graduate posing with orange and blue confetti raining down on them

Illinois Commitment

One of our newest aid programs, Illinois Commitment, provides free tuition for in-state students with a total family income of $61,000 or under. To be eligible for it and other need-based Illinois scholarships, be sure to submit your FAFSA!

What kind of aid will I receive?

Each of the colleges you’re admitted into will send you what’s often called an award letter, which indicates any aid you’ve received. Following are the kinds of aid you may see on that letter.

Grants

Grants are awards based on your financial need. They don’t have to be repaid.

Scholarships

Scholarships are awards based on specific factors like your academic achievement, talent, athletic ability, leadership, geographic location, field of study, or financial need. They don’t have to be repaid.

Loans

Loans are funds you can borrow to help pay for your educational expenses. They may be offered to both you and your parents. They must be repaid later on, usually with interest.

Employment

Finally, you may be offered employment opportunities. You can choose to put what you earn toward your education.

four students posing outside the Illini Union

Estimating Your Aid

You likely don’t want to wait until after you’ve been admitted into a college to know how much aid to expect, and we don’t blame you! To give yourself and your family some idea in the meantime, most colleges, including Illinois, offer free estimation tools. Go ahead and check out our net price calculator.

Scholarships

You don’t have to rely only on scholarships available to you through the FAFSA. Many others exist out there, including from your college and private sources. It’s just a matter of finding them—and then applying!

Start by talking to your high school counselor. They’re likely to know about any local scholarships (and perhaps others) for which you may be eligible. You should also check with the businesses in your area, including your employer or your parents’ employers. Other sources include financial institutions, educational organizations, civic groups, faith-based organizations, and the government.

We suggest starting your search your junior year. Make a list of all of the scholarships you’re eligible for, including deadlines. Don’t just go after the largest scholarships you find; apply to everything you can! Every little bit helps, and, when combined, all those small scholarships can add up to big savings.

school counselor with a student

Scholarship Suggestions

Our Office of Student Financial Aid has compiled a list of scholarships for students, as well as places you can look for others.

Loans

You can also pay for college through loans. When you take out a loan, this means you’re borrowing money and it must be slowly paid back later—typically beginning six months after you graduate.

As we mentioned earlier, you’re eligible for federal student loans if you fill out the FAFSA. You can also apply for student loans through private sources.

Community College

If the cost to attend a four-year college still isn’t feasible for you, community college can be a great way to save money. You can spend two years at a community college to receive your associate’s degree and then head over to another school to earn your bachelor’s degree.

Pathway Programs

Illinois offers some great Pathway programs for students interesting in taking a nontraditional route to college (and saving money along the way).


We hope you find this information useful as you consider how you’ll pay for your college education. If you have questions as you continue to navigate the process, contact the financial aid offices of the schools you’re interested in (ours is the Office of Student Financial Aid). They’re experts on the subject and are more than happy to help!

Illinois Admissions

Illinois Admissions

We're here for you as you prepare for college. Whether you're looking for guidance on the college search process or have questions about Illinois, we hope our blogs will help!

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