The two pillars of paying for college: free money… and work.

Well, it’s not all gloom-and-doom, folks. There are resources out there to take the sting out of the high cost of college. It basically comes down to free money and work.

Free money

Everyone’s favorite. First, get used to the lingo. Sometimes these resources will be termed “scholarships,” other times they’ll be called “grants” or “gift aid” or “tuition discounts.” Whatever the label, free money comes in several flavors:

  • Outside scholarships – These are scholarships you find on your own. Examples: Rotary scholarships available in your town, company scholarships offered by the student’s parent’s employer. Use some of the free web scholarship search services to do your research (but note that the trade-off with these “free” services is that your information is likely to be shared for marketing purposes, high and low. Opt-out, whenever possible.).
  • Federal government grants / scholarships – These are mostly available on a need and/or merit basis. The most common example is the Pell Grant, available to the neediest of students. New types of government aid include merit scholarships for high achievement in certain academic areas and/or pursuit of strategic skills (eg, a particular foreign language).
  • State grants / scholarships – These vary by state, of course. Check out the websites for your state’s department of education to learn more. Also, consult with your high school guidance counselor for his/her local knowledge of what’s available. Most state scholarships are need-based, but that’s not always the case.
  • School grants / scholarships – Colleges and universities provide a big portion of all the free money in the system. School scholarships are split into need-based and merit-based. Much to the chagrin of policy makers and consumer advocates out there, merit-based aid is becoming a bigger and bigger portion of school aid. Some pundits don’t like it because merit-based aid skews toward better educated (and frequently wealthier) families. But, whether you’re wealthy or not, if you think you have a shot at a merit scholarship, go for it. Merit scholarships tend not to be available at the most elite schools, as they have all the “merit” they can handle – though this may be changing for those schools that are “barely elite.”
  • Tuition discounts – A term that encompasses school-based free money.

No matter the source of the free money, you’re going to have to advocate vigorously for yourself to get these resources. Here are some things you should do:

  • Research online
  • Search the college website for terms like “merit scholarship,” “scholarship,” “grant,” etc. You may find some particular scholarships that fit your profile. Use that information when you:
  • Talk to the college financial aid office
  • Speak with your high school guidance counselor to find out about local/state resources

Old-fashioned Work

A night job (or even a day job) is probably not going to earn a student enough to cover the high cost of college. But, a little bit of work can make a big difference.

  • Work-study – This is a federally-subsidized program that enables colleges to offer student workers decent wages, usually for on-campus work.
  • On-campus job – Even if it’s not officially “work study,” there’s probably work available on campus. Someone has to man the climbing wall in the $50 million gymnasium.
  • Off-campus job – Waiting tables is a great way to learn about society (I know from experience), so don’t think it won’t be educational.
  • Summer job – I also clerked at a convenience store. Yes, another off-campus learning experience. Try to bank summer earnings for the school year (ie, don’t live hand-to-mouth throughout the summer).

The key with working while in school is to set the right balance between academic work and plain-old-work. There is a point at which it is worth borrowing a bit more to get more out of the classroom experience. You have decades of work ahead of you. Make sure to appreciate the fact that you are a scholar, after all.

I hope you have good luck lining up these resources. Please feel free to share any creative ideas or suggestions.


Financial Aid Basics