7 Ways to Pay for College While You’re Still in School

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When most people think of how to pay for college, taking out student loans is a key part of their plan. In fact, according to Sallie Mae’s 2016 report, “How America Pays for College,” borrowed money is used to cover around 20 percent of college costs.

how to pay for college

Image credit: Sallie Mae

Taking out loans is common; 2017 student loan debt statistics show there are around 44 million student loan borrowers. Unfortunately, student loans can be costly, stressful, and cause borrowers to delay important life goals, such as buying a house or having a baby.

While many college students wait until after graduation to start tackling the problem of student loans, you don’t have to wait. Making student loan payments while you’re still in school could help you graduate with less debt.

There are plenty of great ways to keep student loan debt to a minimum while earning your degree. Here are seven different ways college students can lower their debt loads while still in school.

1. Borrow only what you need

Don’t view student loans as free money, because they come at a price. The more money you borrow, the longer you’ll have to work to pay them off. In fact, Citizens Bank’s “Millennial Graduates in Debt” study revealed most graduates who have student loan debt underestimated how much they’d have to pay each month for their loan and expect they’ll still be repaying their loans into their 40s.

When determining how to pay for college tuition, start by estimating your total cost of living. That should include your tuition, food, room and board, and hidden college costs such as class supplies, lab fees, and late-night pizza runs. Borrow only the bare minimum to cover your essential expenses, even if you’re approved for more than what you require.

“I didn’t borrow for my lifestyle expenses,” Ogechi Igbokwe, founder of OneSavvyDollar said when explaining how she graduated with less than half the national average student loan debt for a graduate and undergraduate degree. “I only borrowed the amount I needed.”

Consider following these specific steps to return part of your student loan if you’ve borrowed too much.

2. Live like a student

The important thing to remember is why you’re in college in the first place. You’re there to learn new skills and pursue your chosen career path. You’re not attending college to spend money on unnecessary things. During this period of your life, live like a student.

“I went to a nearby (reasonably inexpensive) state university, lived at home, commuted to school, and had a part-time job,” Timothy Wiedman said. Weidman paid for two degrees without incurring student loan debt and indicated he continued to live “a bit like a monk,” while he finished his undergraduate degree.

To avoid spending more than you need:

    • Opt for a roommate to save money on rent. According to Trulia, a renter could save an average of 13 percent of his income by getting a roommate in America’s largest rental markets.
    • Cook at home instead of eating out every day. The average cost of each meal out is $12.75 per person, according to The Simple Dollar. Eating out just once a week could cost you $663 per year.
    • Live on a budget. Personal finance expert Dave Ramsey recommends a zero-based budget in which you give every dollar you have a job. This means allocating money for savings and expenses, so every dollar of your income is accounted for.
    • Remind yourself that this is only for a short period. Focus on the fact you will be able to live better once you have graduated with minimal or no debt.

Living like a student doesn’t mean you can’t have a life in college. “Without spending much money on entertainment, I actually had a lot of fun back then,” Weidman said.

Living like a student now will help you minimize your debt load later. That way, you don’t have to struggle financially once you’re in the real world.

3. Take on freelance work or a side hustle

In addition to lowering your monthly expenses, do what you can to create extra streams of income. Even a few hundred dollars a month can make a huge difference to your student loan debt while in college and you can easily earn at least some money if you take on freelance work and side gigs in addition to a regular job or full-time class load. Side hustles are great ways to pay for college, especially if you can find a side gig that pays you $50 an hour or more.

As a freelancer, you can take on as much or as little work as you have time for. You can also work with a variety of services such as blogging, web designing, and photography. Sometimes, this will both help you to repay tuition and open up the door to career opportunities.

“I got into photography and started a blog called Gridfiti,” Nick Le said. Le was able to turn his blogging side gig into a full-time job after graduating, since running his blog taught him how to develop his social media account, build brand partnerships and make affiliate commissions from Amazon purchases.

Brush up on your skills and see what you can offer in exchange for extra income. You can even choose freelance work that helps further your education by getting paid to learn a new skill or working under a mentor.

4. Pay student loan interest payments

Even though you don’t have to start making student loan payments until you graduate college (in most cases), it’s still a good idea to pay the interest on unsubsidized and private student loans if you can. By paying the interest while in school, you can avoid having your loan balance grow larger due to interest accruing.

Find out whether your loan company offers the option to pay the interest due on your student loans. By keeping your balance as low as possible, it will be easier to afford monthly student loan payments after graduation.

5. Apply for scholarships and grants

Scholarships and grants offer amazing benefits to college students who qualify. You could end up getting a college education for free if you are successful at getting enough scholarship and grant money.

Regardless of what year of college you’re in, you should continuously search for scholarships and grants. This is a great option when considering how to pay college tuition because it’s free money you don’t have to repay.

“I applied for a lot of bursaries and scholarships, and surprisingly got accepted for a lot of them,” Le said. “If I were to go back, I would’ve treated this like a job because I only started doing this in my second and third year of university. I know friends that almost paid their full tuition doing this.”

Visit your financial aid department to research different scholarships, awards, and grants that you could qualify for. Browse your local paper and community bulletin board for organizations and companies in your area that may offer financial aid for college students.

Also, check out groups that you or your parents may be a part of. They may offer small grants for college students.

6. Negotiate lower tuition

If you don’t bring up the topic of reducing your tuition, your chosen school won’t automatically offer options. Don’t be afraid to get a discussion when you’re deciding how to pay college tuition.

Your school may be willing to offer discounts on housing, or the opportunity to work part-time in exchange for discounted tuition. Some schools also offer work-study opportunities, even if they can’t offer discounts on tuition. A work-study program will give you the chance to earn money in exchange for aid in paying tuition and other college-related costs.

These jobs could be on-campus working for the school directly, or off-campus working for private organizations. “I was the editor of the yearbook for two years and received a stipend that I turned around and used to pay off my loans,” Michelle Pugh said.

Pugh also worked as a graduate assistant and adjunct teacher when earning her MBA, which allowed her to pay off her student loans while in school and graduate without debt. “I actually probably still have the loan payoff letters because I was so proud every time I finished one,” she said.

Your college may also offer opportunities for community service and work-related programs as part of your course study.

7. Consider community college classes

Community colleges usually offer much cheaper tuition and living costs for students earning college credits. To make your college costs cheaper, see if you can complete any of your prerequisites at a community college.

“I started off at a community college and transferred to a four-year college, in-state,” Igbokwe said. “[That] was also crucial to reducing the costs.”

Igbokwe took advantage of community college courses when earning both an undergraduate and graduate degree. “When it came time to pursue my master’s in accounting, I went back to the community college and took my prerequisites before transferring to another state school in New York.”

By staying close to home and potentially living with your parents, you can save a lot of money and get much closer to earning your degree. Then, after a few years, you can head off to a larger university or out-of-state college to finish your schooling without taking on nearly as much debt.

How to pay for college while enrolled

There are so many options available when you’re researching how to pay for college tuition. You just need to decide what strategies will work best for your financial situation.

Use these tips to minimize student loan debt, and you’ll be able to reduce the financial strain while still getting a great education.

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2 Important Disclosures for College Ave.

CollegeAve Disclosures

College Ave Student Loans products are made available through either Firstrust Bank, member FDIC or M.Y. Safra Bank, FSB, member FDIC. All loans are subject to individual approval and adherence to underwriting guidelines. Program restrictions, other terms, and conditions apply.

(1)All rates shown include the auto-pay discount.  The 0.25% auto-pay interest rate reduction applies as long as a valid bank account is designated for required monthly payments. Variable rates may increase after consummation.

(2)This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a freshman borrower who selects the Deferred Repayment Option with a 10-year repayment term, has a $10,000 loan that is disbursed in one disbursement and a 8.35% fixed Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $179.18 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $21,501.54. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary.

(3)As certified by your school and less any other financial aid you might receive. Minimum $1,000.

Information advertised valid as of 4/1/2020. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation.

3 Important Disclosures for Discover.

Discover Disclosures

  1. Students who get at least a 3.0 GPA (or equivalent) qualify for a one-time cash reward on each new Discover undergraduate and graduate student loan. Reward redemption period is limited. Please visit DiscoverStudentLoans.com/Reward for any applicable reward terms and conditions.
  2. View Auto Reward Debit Reward Terms and Conditions at DiscoverStudentLoans.com/AutoDebitReward.
  3. Aggregate loan limits apply.
  4. Lowest rates shown are for the undergraduate loan and include an interest-only repayment discount and a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments. The interest rate ranges represent the lowest interest rate offered on the Discover Undergraduate Loan and highest interest rates offered on Discover student loans, including Undergraduate, Graduate, Health Professions, Law and MBA Loans. The fixed interest rate is set at the time of application and does not change during the life of the loan. The variable interest rate is calculated based on the 3-Month LIBOR index plus the applicable Margin percentage. The margin is based on your credit evaluation at the time of application and does not change. For variable interest rate loans, the 3-Month LIBOR is 2.00% as of January 1, 2020. Discover Student Loans will adjust the rate quarterly on each January 1, April 1, July 1 and October 1 (the “interest rate change date”), based on the 3-Month LIBOR Index, published in the Money Rates section of the Wall Street Journal 15 days prior to the interest rate change date, rounded up to the nearest one-eighth of one percent (0.125% or 0.00125). This may cause the monthly payments to increase, the number of payments to increase or both. Please visit discover.com/student-loans/interest-rates for more information about interest rates.
Discover's lowest rates shown are for the undergraduate loan and include an interest-only repayment discount and a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments.

4 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.

CommonBond Disclosures

Offered terms are subject to change and state law restrictions. Loans are offered through CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS #1175900).

  1.  Rates are as of July 1, 2019 and include auto-pay discount. All loans are eligible for a 0.25% reduction in interest rate by agreeing to automatic payment withdrawals once in repayment. Variable rates may increase after consummation.

5 Important Disclosures for Ascent.

Ascent Disclosures

Before taking out private student loans, you should explore and compare all financial aid alternatives, including grants, scholarships, and federal student loans and consider your future monthly payments and income. Applying with a cosigner may improve your chance of getting approved and could help you qualify for a lower interest rate. Ascent Student Loans may be funded by Richland State Bank (RSB). Ascent Student Loan products are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application, verification of application information and certification of loan amount by a participating school. Loan products may not be available in certain jurisdictions, and certain restrictions, limitations; and terms and conditions may apply. Ascent is a federally registered trademark of Turnstile Capital Management (TCM) and may be used by RSB under limited license. Richland State Bank is a federally registered service mark of Richland State Bank.

  1. Variable rate loans are based on a margin between 1.90% and 13.50% plus the 1-Month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) rounded to the nearest 1/100th of a percent. The current LIBOR is 1.629%, which may adjust monthly. Your interest rate may increase or decrease, based on LIBOR monthly changes, resulting in an Annual Percentage (APR) range between 3.14% and 11.88%. Fixed rate loans have an APR range between 4.09% and 13.03% based on your credit worthiness and your selected program. Competitive variable rates calculated monthly at the time of loan approval. Rates are effective as of 03/01/2020 and reflect an Automatic Payment Discount of 0.25% on the lowest offered rate and a 2.00% discount on the highest offered rate. Automatic Payment Discount is available if the borrower is enrolled in automatic payments from their personal checking account and the amount is successfully withdrawn from the authorized bank account each month. (See Automatic Payment Discount Terms & Conditions.)
  2. Payments may be deferred. Subject to lender discretion, forbearance and/or deferment options may be available for borrowers who are encountering financial distress.
  3. Making interest only or partial interest payments while in school will not reduce the principal balance of the loan. There are three (3) flexible in-school repayment options that include fully deferred, interest only and $25 minimum repayment.
  4. Flexible repayment plans may be offered up to a fifteen (15) year repayment term for a variable rate loan and ten (10) year repayment term for a fixed rate loan. Students must be enrolled at least half-time at an eligible school. Minimum loan amount is $2,000.
  5. Interest rate reduction of 0.25% for enrollment in automatic debit applies only when the borrower and/or cosigner signs up for automatic payments and the regularly scheduled, current amount due (including full, flat, or interest only payments, as applicable) is successfully deducted from the designated bank account each month. Interest rate reduction(s) will not apply during periods when no payment is due, including periods of In-School, Deferment, Grace or Forbearance. If you have two (2) returned payments for Nonsufficient Funds, we may cancel your automatic debit enrollment and you will lose the 0.25% interest rate reduction. You will then need to re-qualify and re-enroll in automatic debit payments to receive the 0.25% interest rate reduction.
  6. All applicants (individual and cosigner) are required to complete a brief online financial literacy course as part of the application process to be eligible for funding.
  7. Eligibility, loan amount and other loan terms are dependent on several factors, which may include: loan product, other financial aid, creditworthiness, school, program, graduation date, major, cost of attendance and other factors. Aggregate loan limits may apply. The cost of attendance is determined and certified by the educational institution.
  8. The legal age for entering into contracts is eighteen (18) years of age in every state except Alabama where it is nineteen (19) years old, Nebraska where it is nineteen (19) years old (only for wards of the state), and Mississippi and Puerto Rico where it is twenty-one (21) years old.
  9. 1% Cash Back Graduation Reward subject to terms and conditions. Click here for details. In order to be eligible for the 1% Cash Back Graduation Reward, borrower must meet the following criteria after graduation:
    • The student borrower has graduated from the degree program that the loan was used to fund.
    • The student borrower may change majors and/or transfer to a different school, but must obtain the same level of degree (e.g. – undergraduate or graduate)
    • The graduation date is more than 90 days and less than five (5) years after the date of the loan’s first disbursement.
    • Any loan that the student has borrowed under the Ascent loan is not more than 30-days delinquent or in a default status as of the graduation date and until any Graduation Reward is paid.
  10. Students can apply to release their cosigner and continue with the loan in only their name after making the first 24 consecutive regularly scheduled full principal and interest payments on-time and meeting the other eligibility criteria to qualify for the loan without a cosigner.

* Application times vary depending on the applicant’s ability to supply the necessary information for submission.

5 Important Disclosures for Citizens.

Citizens Disclosures

Undergraduate Rate Disclosure: Variable rate, based on the one-month London Interbank Offered Rate (“LIBOR”) published in The Wall Street Journal on the twenty-fifth day, or the next business day, of the preceding calendar month. As March 1, 2020, the one-month LIBOR rate is 1.62%. Variable interest rates range from 2.72% – 10.98% (2.72% – 10.83% APR)  and will fluctuate over the term of the loan with changes in the LIBOR rate, and will vary based on applicable terms, level of degree earned and presence of a co-signer. Fixed interest rates range from 4.72% – 12.19% (4.72% – 12.04% APR)  based on applicable terms, level of degree earned and presence of a co-signer. Lowest rates shown requires application with a co-signer, are for eligible applicants, require a 5-year repayment term, borrower making scheduled payments while in school and include our Loyalty and Automatic Payment discounts of 0.25 percentage points each, as outlined in the Loyalty Discount and Automatic Payment Discount disclosures. Subject to additional terms and conditions, and rates are subject to change at any time without notice. Such changes will only apply to applications taken after the effective date of change. Please note: Due to federal regulations, Citizens One is required to provide every potential borrower with disclosure information before they apply for a private student loan. The borrower will be presented with an Application Disclosure and an Approval Disclosure within the application process before they accept the terms and conditions of the loan.

Federal Loan vs. Private Loan Benefits: Some federal student loans include unique benefits that the borrower may not receive with a private student loan, some of which we do not offer with the Education Refinance Loan. Borrowers should carefully review their current benefits, especially if they work in public service, are in the military, are currently on or considering income based repayment options or are concerned about a steady source of future income and would want to lower their payments at some time in the future. When the borrower refinances, they waive any current and potential future benefits of their federal loans and replace those with the benefits of the Education Refinance Loan. For more information about federal student loan benefits and federal loan consolidation, visit http://studentaid.ed.gov/. We also have several resources available to help the borrower make a decision at http://www.citizensone.com/EdRefinance, including Should I Refinance My Student Loans? and our FAQs. Should I Refinance My Student Loans? includes a comparison of federal and private student loan benefits that we encourage the borrower to review. 

Citizens One Student Loan Eligibility: Borrowers must be enrolled at least half-time in a degree-granting program at an eligible institution. Borrowers must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident or an international borrower/eligible non-citizen with a creditworthy U.S. citizen or permanent resident co-signer. For borrowers who have not attained the age of majority in their state of residence, a co-signer is required. Citizens One reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at anytime. Interest rate ranges subject to change. Citizens One Student Loans private student loans are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application/consumer credit agreement, verification of application information, and if applicable, self-certification form, school certification of the loan amount, and student’s enrollment at a Citizens One Student Loans-participating school. 

Please Note: International Students are not eligible for the multi-year approval feature.

Loyalty Discount Disclosure: The borrower will be eligible for a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their loan if the borrower or their co-signer (if applicable) has a qualifying account in existence with us at the time the borrower and their co-signer (if applicable) have submitted a completed application authorizing us to review their credit request for the loan. The following are qualifying accounts: any checking account, savings account, money market account, certificate of deposit, automobile loan, home equity loan, home equity line of credit, mortgage, credit card account, or other student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. Please note, our checking and savings account options are only available in the following states: CT, DE, MA, MI, NH, NJ, NY, OH, PA, RI, and VT and some products may have an associated cost. This discount will be reflected in the interest rate disclosed in the Loan Approval Disclosure that will be provided to the borrower once the loan is approved. Limit of one Loyalty Discount per loan and discount will not be applied to prior loans. The Loyalty Discount will remain in effect for the life of the loan. 

Automatic Payment Discount Disclosure: Borrowers will be eligible to receive a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. during such time as payments are required to be made and our loan servicer is authorized to automatically deduct payments each month from any bank account the borrower designates. Discount is not available when payments are not due, such as during forbearance. If our loan servicer is unable to successfully withdraw the automatic deductions from the designated account three or more times within any 12-month period, the borrower will no longer be eligible for this discount.

2.75% – 10.65%*,1Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit SallieMae

Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents

Visit College Ave

Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Discover

3.52% – 9.50%4Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit CommonBond

5.20% – 14.18%5Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Ascent

2.72% – 10.98%6Undergraduate and Graduate


Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print to help you understand what you are buying. Be sure to consult with a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time.