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For many people, how to pay for a college education is one of the first major financial decisions they'll make.
There are over 4,000 colleges nationwide and many different ways of actually paying to go to them. As financing a college degree can be the second most expensive thing you will buy in your life, after a house, it can be daunting trying to work out exactly how to go about it. College can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars at a community college to $20,000 or more per year. Yet you shouldn't despair, there are a number of programs available for financing college. You just need to find the right financing option for your education.
Knowing your options is the best way to get financial aid. The largest federal program is for Pell Grants. In 2004 these ranged from $400 to $4,050 and they are based on financial need. Contact the Department of Education after January 1 and they will help you through the application process. There is also the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG). The amounts are similar and go to those with the greatest need of help in financing a college education. There are also a series of state and federal programs for students in particular subjects, like the sciences, or those who will go on to become teachers. Your high school counselors will have all the information on these. You should also contact the Student Aid Office of the college you want to attend to see what scholarships might be available.
Find the right financing option for your education. The most important federal program is Stafford Loans. Remember that loans have to be repaid! You might be eligible, on the basis of financial need, for a subsidized loan. Unsubsidized loans are also available; repayments do not start until you graduate, but unlike subsidized loans, interest starts to accrue as soon as you take out the loan. The amounts available range from $2,625 a year to $10,500. Parents can also borrow, using a PLUS Loan. The amount possible is whatever the costs of financing your college education minus other financial aid that you receive. Many states also have similar programs and you should check on what your state offers.
Of course you can work while you are at college to pay for it. Some private sector jobs will be flexible enough for you study and earn at the same time. There are also some federal programs to help. These are the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) which means that you usually have to serve two years in the military for each year you are at college and the National Health Service Corps which helps medical students in a similar way. The third is Americorps, where you would work on community projects while at college.
There are also tax breaks available, like the Hope and Lifetime Learning program, explained in the IRS Publication 970 "Tax Benefits for Education," and the Coverdell Education Savings Account (which was the Education IRA) which allows you to save money tax-free for education in the future.
The most important thing to remember is that yes, a college degree can be expensive, but there are many financial aid programs out there to help pay for college. It is also probably worth it - as The Economist's Voice reports, those who earn a college degree earn on average 68% more than those who only graduate high school.