Financing College without Loans: An Introduction

College can be expensive. Very expensive. With national student debt exceeding $1.6 trillion, it’s fair to say that finding a means to pay for college without or with minimal loans is ideal. The first step to a potentially debt-free education is to fill out all financial aid documentation required by your school. All students should complete the FAFSA®, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, to see if they qualify for federal funds such as the Pell Grant. The FAFSA® will delve into your family’s finances to estimate the extent of your need for federal funds. To prepare, be sure to start the process early and gather your family’s financial documents in advance (including tax returns, W4s and other such documents).  The FAFSA® is already open for the 2020/2021 academic year so be sure to check out the site for information on deadlines. Keep in mind that each school has its own deadline for submitting an application for financial aid. In addition to the FAFSA®, some schools, particularly private colleges and universities, require students to submit the CSS Profile. While it covers much of the same information as the FAFSA®, the CSS Profile is more detailed, and families should be prepared to provide a deep look into their finances. The CSS Profile is usually used by schools to award their own need-based aid, so it can be very useful to do this part well.

Besides financial aid, there are literally hundreds of scholarships that students can apply to for help paying their tuition and other college expenses. Keep in mind that some of the best scholarship programs actually begin Junior year of high-school. Many also require that students be nominated by school officials, so make sure to be in touch with teachers and advisors that have access to the right information and that can help you navigate the process. Check out the following scholarship search engines to find some that work for you: Niche, Fastweb,

There are many scholarships intended to help students from historically marginalized and excluded groups. For example, Questbridge’s National College Match program aims to pair low-income, high-achieving students with elite private colleges and universities. Students should look into this program Junior year, as the applications for the National College Match program are due very early in the fall of senior year (the deadline for this year has already passed).

Tips for scholarship applications:

Start Early!

You will need time to complete your application to the best of your abilities. Many scholarships require multiple letters of recommendation and one or more essays. Try to give your recommenders at least three weeks to write their letters. Give yourself as much time to write your essays so they can go through multiple rounds of revision. Ask teachers, counselors, or private essay coaches for help with the revision process. Another reason to start early is that you should be applying to multiple scholarships. Try setting up a schedule with the deadlines for each application clearly marked so you can stay on track to complete them.

Write different essays for different scholarships

It’s possible that some essay questions will be similar, but it’s best practice to write a different essay for each scholarship. However, if you can reuse and modify some of the material from one essay, then do so carefully, making sure to integrate the material with appropriate transitions that address the prompt uniquely. To really boost your essay, do some research on the organization or entity offering the scholarship. If you can find a mission statement or an “about us” section on their website read them to understand what ideals and qualities are important to highlight in your writing. If you can, incorporate meaningful language from their website or mission statement into your essay.

Choose the right scholarships and be authentic

Only apply to scholarships that reflect your true passion, interest, or identity. It’s generally not a good idea to invent interests for an application. Instead, choose scholarships based on your authentic interests. You will make a much more convincing argument for yourself if you truly believe in what you’re writing in your application.

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