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How to Pay for College: A Complete Guide

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 tuition more affordable.

Financial Aid

When it comes to how to pay for college, the first and most important step 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, assuming you’re a U.S. citizen or U.S. permanent resident. 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 University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign student achieve her dream of attending college, and learn 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. (Pro tip: If you’re an Illinois resident who isn’t otherwise eligible for federal financial aid, you can instead submit the Alternative Application for Illinois Financial Aid.)

You’re able to submit the FAFSA in your senior year, beginning in December. 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.

Note that 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.

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Illinois Commitment

One of our newest aid programs, Illinois Commitment, provides free UIUC tuition for in-state students with a total family income of $67,100 or under. To be eligible for it and other need-based scholarships, be sure to submit your FAFSA!

What kind of aid will I receive?

Each of the colleges you’re admitted into will notify you regarding any aid you’ve received. Following are the kinds of aid you may see in that notification.

  • Grants are awards based on your financial need. They don’t have to be repaid.
  • 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, either.
  • 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.
  • Finally, you may be offered employment opportunities. You can choose to put what you earn toward your education.
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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 UIUC, offer free estimation tools. Go ahead and check out our net price calculator.


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.

girl at home reacting to something she's seeing on her laptop, could it be good news?

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.


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

UIUC 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 to pay for college. 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!

UIUC 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!


  • I there any specific scholarships I can apply as an Indian student for master programs?

  • Hi Mohit,
    All students are automatically considered for merit-based scholarships when they apply to UIUC. Unfortunately, need-based financial aid isn’t available to international undergraduates, although a few limited scholarships and loans exist through our International Student and Scholar Services: If you have additional questions about financial aid, you can contact our Office of Student Financial Aid at 217-333-0100.

  • When will we find out if we’ve received a merit based scholarship? Would it have accompanied the acceptance notice?

  • Hi Lisa,
    Thanks for reaching out! If you’re selected to an honors program or awarded a scholarship, you’ll receive notification after your offer of admission but no later than April 1. You can learn more about the scholarships offered at UIUC on our website: Any other questions, don’t hesitate to email us or call us at 217-333-0302.

  • In a case (like mine) where a person was born and raised in Illinois, most of his family, on both sides, lives in Illinois, his parent and brother graduated from Illinois, he has been accepted to Illinois, BUT he was forced to move out of state for a parent’s work and now is faced with out of state tuition, are there any financial support options the University can offer? I’m faced with a hard choice between where I’d like to go and in state options that cost less than half. And it’s my money, not my parents’. Thank you.

  • Thanks for reaching out, Matthew. If you’re currently living out of state, yes, you will qualify as a non-resident for tuition purposes; there are really no other ways to be considered an in-state student for tuition purposes unless you were to move back to Illinois. As far as financial support goes, you can view the scholarships we offer students on our website. We also suggest emailing or calling our Office of Financial Aid at 217-333-0100 to discuss your options further. They are happy to help!

  • Thanks for information.
    What are options for International Students regarding scholarship or financial aid

  • Hi Avtar,
    All students are automatically considered for merit-based scholarships when they apply to UIUC. Unfortunately, need-based financial aid isn’t available to international undergraduates, although a few limited scholarships and loans exist through our International Student and Scholar Services: If you have additional questions about financial aid, you can contact our Office of Student Financial Aid at 217-333-0100. We hope this helps!

  • If someone’s green card is under processing, submitted I-485 adjustment of status, received his employment authorization card(EAD), is he/she eligible for financial aid/scholarship/grant?

  • When my son applied for his admission his green card was in-process eventually he got his green card later. We couldn’t apply in time for early action due to green card confusion. He got the acceptance as a foreign student which we requested to be changed later through mail. How can I know if he has received any merit based scholarship or would he receive any?

  • I was denied aid on my financial aid summary. Can aid be reconsidered? I have already been accepted to start UIUC in the Fall 2022. I am concerned that with no aid will not be able to afford to go. I have worked really hard to get to this point and this is disappointing.

  • Good day , please I need a job to help me finance my education.
    Kindly direct me on how to get a good job to fund my education at illinois university.

  • Hi Christopher, thanks for reaching out to us! In this case, we recommend that you contact our Office of Student Financial Aid to discuss you and your family’s specific situation and potential options. You can reach them at or 217-333-0100.

  • Thanks for reaching out, Ayeni. There are quite a few campus job boards at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Our Virtual Job Board is reserved for on-campus, part-time employment opportunities intended to assist with students’ financial needs while pursuing an education at UIUC. In addition, employers at UIUC’s Research Park are often looking for undergraduate and graduate students to hold internships and part-time employment during the summer and academic year. And finally, Handshake @ Illinois contains postings for internships, part-time, and full-time employment opportunities including local, national, and global job openings. We hope these resources help!

  • Hi am abdulrahman am Nigerian i want to know if i am eligible for any financial aid as an international student

  • Thanks for reaching out, Abdulrahman. All students are automatically considered for merit-based scholarships when they apply to UIUC. Unfortunately, need-based financial aid isn’t available to international undergraduates, although a few limited scholarships and loans exist through our International Student and Scholar Services: If you have additional questions about financial aid, you can contact our Office of Student Financial Aid at 217-333-0100. We hope this helps.

  • When will my son receive
    a notice if he got
    Scholarships base on merit? He got the noticed of acceptance on line last January 28, 2023.

  • Congratulations on your son’s admission, Maria! Our office begins sending financial aid notifications in early March, and scholarship notifications will be available by April 1. If you have any other questions, don’t hesitate to contact our office. We’re here to help!

  • Hello. What type of scholarships are accepted students automatically considered for and what are the maximum amounts? My son was accepted into the industrial design program. He also got accepted to another school where he was eligible for up to $10,000 in academic scholarship based on his GPA and up to another $7000 of achievement scholarship based on his portfolio submitted. Does Illinois offer scholarship similar to that, that all accepted students are automatically evaluated for? Thank you!

  • Congratulations to your son on his admission, Allison! Students are automatically considered for all merit-based scholarships offered through the university and can be offered for as much as full tuition. If your son is selected for any scholarships, he will be notified by April 1. We hope this helps!

  • Please, i wish to apply as an international Student from Nigeria. I love to study in illinois. I thnki of applying for. Graduate teaching assistant Scholarship scheme offers. From your government, to enable me pursue my dream in the State.(USA). I have Higher National Diploma(HND) in Public Health Nursing. I hold both a registered certificates in Nursing as well as in Midwifery. I have chosen to take up a masters in Public Health in your institution of College of Applied sciences in illinois.

  • Thanks for reaching out, and we’re excited that you’re interested in attending UIUC! We’re the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. For information related to graduate programs, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our Graduate College: