Top Tips and Pieces of Advice for all Students, from US News Higher Education Finance Reporter Emma Kerr

It’s no secret that the world of higher education (think: universities, professors, and students) is going through a rollercoaster of tough times due to the unforeseen circumstances of COVID-19. 

On a daily basis through my role here with Access Scholarships, I have had the opportunity to interact with high school and college students (maybe even you!) from across the country. I have been able to listen to the feelings, stories, and lately, worries of those students about what the future of higher education looks like. 

Aside from fears surrounding navigating college during COVID-19, the other prevailing topic of discussion revolves around everything related to paying for college.

To provide some unique insight, tips, and words of wisdom to our students, I thought who better to turn to discuss these topics than US News paying for college reporter Emma Kerr. So, without further ado, here are Emma’s top tips and pieces of advice for all students on paying for college, navigating college during COVID-19, and more.

Tip 1: Know your options for paying for college.

As Emma highlighted in our interview, there are two different “buckets” when it comes to paying for college: federal financial aid options (FAFSA, pell grants, federal work-study) and options outside of that (think: scholarships, 529 plans, working part-time jobs, support from parents, etc). 

Bucket one, which features the federal financial aid options, includes things such as the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), Pell Grants, and federal (paid) work-study programs. These options are crucial for students to be taking advantage of since there is no penalty or fee for applying for them and the money-saving potential is high.

Perhaps the largest component of bucket two is the 529 college savings plan. The 529 plan, which is generally started by the parents, is likely one of the earliest actions taken to help plan ahead for paying for the costs of college. According to the Sallie Mae annual study on How Americans Pay for College, (a great resource for students to read and be aware of!) 44% of student college costs are covered by parents income and savings, and more than ⅓ of families used a college savings account such as a 529 plan in 2020. 

In addition to the 529 plan, we have scholarships, which, according to the Sallie Mae study, were the second-largest source of funding for college in 2020 (utilized by 58% of families). Scholarship money, similar to grants, is money that does not have to be repaid, which means it should be another essential starting point for students entering the world of paying for college.

As you can see, there are a lot of options out there when it comes to funding your higher education. To learn more on this tip, Emma highly recommends reading through the Sallie Mae study to get a better idea of your available options and what breakdown will work best for you!

Tip 2: On the FAFSA: Do it early, and do it even if you don’t think you will qualify for financial aid (but especially if you do!).

The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) opens on October 1st. As Emma puts it, the FAFSA “opens doors to federal, state, and in many cases, institutional financial aid, so it is probably the most important step you can take when you are thinking about paying for college”.

Potential scholarship and grant aid that can come from filling out the FAFSA is huge. So many students leave that money on the table by completing the FAFSA by the deadline. Some colleges have earlier deadlines than others so students must identify those deadlines and be cognizant of them.

Also, in terms of state aid, depending on which state you live in, the aid can run out, which means it is crucial for students to apply for the FAFSA as early as possible, to ensure that they receive the maximum possible amount.

Tip 3: Look at multiple sources when applying for scholarships.

This is a tip that I myself have mentioned countless times in the past, but it is one that is certainly important enough to be repeated and emphasized time and time again! 

As Emma pointed out during our discussion, there are so many scholarships out there that only receive a handful of applicants each cycle, making them low in competitiveness for students who are looking to earn some extra cash. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance for students to diversify the sources that they use to search and apply for scholarships. Aside from our scholarship directory, US News also has its own robust database of scholarship opportunities for students to search through, and there are dozens of other great online resources for students to use. 

In addition to these online resources, it is also important for students to be searching for scholarship opportunities within their local community (for example, your high school website) as well as through their college or university once they arrive on campus. So, make sure you are covering all possible bases when applying for scholarships to give yourself the greatest chance for success.

Tip 4: Before diving into the college application process, make sure you have a solid understanding of your goals, as well as what you/your family’s current financial situation is like.

Emma elaborated on this tip by stating, “We often hear from sources about the issue of parents and students not communicating and being on the same page about what can be afforded. So, it must start from the place of knowing what you want to get out of college and how much money you have available to achieve that, and then moving on from there,”

With the increasing costs of attending college these days, Emma is certainly correct in her statement. Students must ask themselves some tough, but important questions such as “Is college worth the cost?” and “How much can I afford?”. While the answers to them may be more clear for some students than for others, regardless, asking and solidifying these answers (and making sure all key players are on the same page about them), is crucial before getting too far down the pipeline.

Tip 5: (To add to Tip #4) Students shouldn’t plan to borrow more money than they plan to make in their first year’s salary.

There’s no other way to say it other than that college is expensive. Emma put the process of attending college into perspective when she told me, “You are mortgaging your future”. On the topic of loans specifically (which, as you hopefully already know, must be paid back!), Emma advises students to make sure that they are fully informed in these key areas: what that loan is, how long it is going to take to repay it, what kind of salary you would want to ideally have to carry that loan, and what your goals are for the future beyond higher education. 

It is also worth mentioning that most private loans don’t have forbearance (paying less than normal) or forgiveness (no longer being expected to repay), so it is always suggested to go the federal route first.

Tip 6: Work on building your financial literacy as early as possible.

Students have a tendency to go with the flow when it comes to navigating the college process, understanding costs and benefits, and pinpointing options for paying for college along with identifying long-term goals associated with attending. 

Oftentimes, federal aid packages can be confusing to read or misleading in terms of what is being offered and what you are expected to pay back later on. Therefore, starting early with educating yourself on what your options are and what the fine print means will only benefit you later on!

Tip 7: It matters what your major is.

As I have touched on in previous tips, it is definitely important to identify what you hope to get out of attending college before stepping foot on campus. This doesn’t mean that you need to have your major, long-term career, and full life plan solidified by any means, but it does mean that all students should think long and hard about the major options that are available to them and make the decision that they believe will 1) be a return on the college investment, and 2) lead them to a happy and satisfying career.

Tip 8: Don’t let the high sticker price of your dream school deter you from making that dream come true!

Emma expanded on this tip by saying: “Students should never have a dream school and feel like they cannot access it due to financial constraints. A lot of times, a student or their family will see a huge number on the university’s website and this can be very intimidating. I would suggest that students utilize the net price calculator, which will help to give students a more accurate sense of what they will pay, based on their family’s income level and financial need.”

Tip 9: In terms of navigating college during COVID-19, students must work to recognize what study strategies, daily routines, and patterns for social connection are best for them, especially in terms of mental health.

Although this last tip is not quite related to paying for college, it is certainly an important one that all students of all ages should keep in mind. The pandemic has made so many aspects of our lives more complicated and difficult, so setting aside the time to identify what your needs are and what works best for you (not only in school but in life in general) is crucial. Take this as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and work on doing the things that will maintain and improve your mental health rather than deteriorate it. 

In conclusion, my interview with Emma certainly hit on a wide variety of important topics related to higher education, paying for college, and more. I hope you learned a thing or two while reading this piece, and a big shoutout to Emma for providing such great tips and advice! 

Emma Kerr is a paying for college reporter at US News and World Report.

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