Creative Ways to Pay for College

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At the conclusion of our podcast series on secondary and post-secondary education for students with differing abilities, a big question lingered over our heads:

How can college certificate or degree programs be affordable? 

One of the listeners in our LOMAH community had tremendous success finding financial avenues and has graciously passed along the below treasure chest of information. 


$$$$$ Aid $$$$$

  • Apply to the FAFSA. It can be tricky but do it. It now allows you to import your tax information, and I filed it a couple years ago and found it much simpler. This is where you’ll get a lot of money with the least amount of work.
  • That being said, I just wanted to add a quick caveat to looking for federal aid. It’s not as straightforward and guaranteed as it sounds. A lot is based on income, and a lot require that you meet certain requirements (GPA, class load) to keep it. It’s also based on the estimated cost of attendance, which can be wildly inaccurate, especially if a student is dealing with medical needs and disabilities. Aid also cannot go above the estimated cost of attendance—so if the cost of attendance is $7,000 a year and you get a Pell Grant for $5,000, but then get a scholarship for $3,000, your Pell Grant amount might be decreased to $4,000. It can also fluctuate—if you get an income increase, your aid might decrease disproportionately. Still, apply to everything you can, but that’s something to be aware of.
  • Another consideration here is work-study. I highly recommend it, as work-study jobs tend to be really flexible with your schedule and might even allow you to study when it’s slow, and they’re a great way to get experience in your field. That said, it’s also a bit tricky because while it’s included in your financial aid package, it doesn’t guarantee you a job. So you might find yourself “awarded” $3,000 that you don’t actually see because you can’t find a job to actually give it to. It’s complicated. Schools usually have separate lists for work-study jobs, though (at my brother’s school, pretty much the only jobs were work-study), so I still recommend applying for it in your FAFSA, just being aware that it has those strings attached.

$$$$$ Loans $$$$$

  • Look at the types of loans. School-specific, Stafford, subsidized, unsubsidized, parent PLUS….Look around and see what has the lowest interest rates. Ideally, a direct subsidized loan is your best bet, as subsidized loans don’t accrue interest until the student leaves school, and direct loans are eligible for forgiveness. That said, some banks offer an incentive for students to take out loans, and credit unions can have interest rates that are even lower than student loans, so there are a few things to consider.
  • Something to consider is when you apply for financial aid through the FAFSA, you can choose to accept ANY amount of the loans you are offered—you will be offered enough to make up the cost of attendance, but you could accept none of the amount, one loan but not another, part of each amount, or all that you’re offered.
  • Once you have a loan, don’t worry if you can’t make the payment. Direct loans are eligible for payment plans. My brother’s payment plan was $0 a month while he was unemployed, and are currently $44/mo. Completely reasonable. This isn’t an excuse to take every loan available, but if you need to, it’s information that could help.
  • Also to consider, if you are making payments on a loan, your interest payments are tax deductible. So you’ll get a little bit of that back come tax season. 
  • Another consideration, if you have a direct loan, is that these are eligible for complete forgiveness. I work in a public library, and after ten years of making a payment, I am eligible to have my loans completely forgiven. There are several criteria for this, and stories of people who think they are on track for forgiveness only to be told they aren’t, so check and keep checking as you make payments. Here is a link for some basic information about this program. (One forgiveness option is if you are disabled. This isn’t a great option since it requires the student to be unable to work, which isn’t something anyone wants, but if that’s the case, that is available.)

$$$$$ Scholarships $$$$$

  • I thought about creating a list of scholarships, but really, it would just end up being a bunch of links. Google “Autism scholarships” or “Disability scholarships” or what have you and get dozens upon dozens.
  • Check with organizations, local and national.
  • If you’re part of a club or church, check with them. My high school math teacher started a scholarship for her math club participants, and my grandmother’s church offered a scholarship to its congregants.

$$$$$ Library Perks $$$$$

  • Until just a few months ago, I worked at a community college library. I was always surprised by how many students didn’t have student IDs. In addition to making life on campus easier, student IDs can also get you discounted bus fare, movie tickets, restaurant meals, and more. So make sure you get your ID.
  • A lot of people also don’t realize that the college library generally has your textbooks. We rented probably around three-quarters of the textbooks required for classes, for free. The downside to this is we might only have two copies of a textbook for a class with twenty students, and most of the books had to be kept in the library. But I knew students who chose their classes based on whether we had their books, and one student told me she saved $600 in textbooks by checking them out at the library.
  • I’ll also add that our library checked out calculators. Yup, instead of paying over $100 for a calculator you’ll use for one semester, you can get it for free. Replace the batteries if they die, and bring it back in good shape, and you saved a ton of money there.
  • If the library doesn’t have your books or you don’t want to deal with the limitations, try to buy them used. Don’t buy them from the bookstore. My freshman year, I spent $300 in one semester buying them from the bookstore, while every subsequent year, I spent a third of that.

$$$$$ Books $$$$$

  • Check with your professors whether there are any significant differences between older and newer editions. Most will swear you need the newest edition, but I had one professor who told us to go ahead and buy the older edition (which I got for free) instead of the newest (which cost $45). Also, ask them if they’d be willing to put one of their copies in the library—that’s how we got so many books at our community college library.
  • Once you have the textbooks, unless you seriously used them, consider selling them back. I’m a librarian, I take good care of my books, so I would be able to sell them back and make back what I spent—my total textbooks costs after that first semester was probably under $100 for three years.
  • Finally, consider renting, as that’s usually cheaper than outright buying.

$$$$$ Cost of Attendance $$$$$

  • This can work against you with an estimate much too low (not accounting for helping the family, medical emergencies, etc.), but it can also work for you.
  • My estimated cost of attendance included a $5,000/yr meal plan. I found that buying my own groceries was half this cost. This won’t work for everyone, obviously—some people might not have the time, effort, or skills to make their meals or even commute home and then back to campus between classes—but it’s something to consider.
  • The cost of attendance also included transportation costs, but with my student ID, I could ride the bus for free, and we had such a good bus system, that I really didn’t need anything else.
  • The cost of attendance also included transportation costs, but with my student ID, I could ride the bus for free, and we had such a good bus system, that I really didn’t need anything else.

All that being said, I come from a low-income background, and frugality came easily to me. Some people would never want to cut corners like this, and that's fine. Anyone can pick and choose what works best for them.

$$$$$ Other $$$$$

  • Some classes will allow you to test out of them. I took an AP test in high school that earned me three credits for a tenth of what it would have cost me. I also took two years of French in high school, and was able to test out of my foreign language requirement; I knew a Hispanic girl who spoke Spanish and English fluently and so was able to test out, as well. Sometimes these will give you free credits, and sometimes it just allows you to bypass certain required classes to free up your schedule a little more.
  • If your child works, talk to their employer. Some companies offer tuition reimbursement for college students—some will even offer this to very part-time employees.
  • If you do end up paying for college, you can get some of that money back come tax time. There’s both the option for tax credits and tax deductions (you can only use one on your taxes). If you’re going to be paying, take a look at what’s required to claim one of several options here.

More on post-secondary education for students with special needs can be found on the LOMAH Podcast:

  • Episode #25: "Think College" for Students with Disabilities

  • Episode #27: TAP program at The University of Cincinnati

  • Episode #28: A Student's Perspective

  • Episode #30: Legal Rights After the Age of 18 for Students with Disabilities

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