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Harris: Getting ready for college and beyond

By Charlestien Harris

This is the season for graduations! I just returned from my grandson’s celebration this past week in Alabama, as a matter of fact. But May can also be a time of reflection and preparation. 

Finances are a big part of why many students don’t choose to attend the college or university of their first choice. Many students end up settling for a school located much closer to home, or they stay at home to save money and lower the cost of getting a degree. Financial planning for college is often overlooked until time has passed by, and senior year is here. You may still be able to attend college and survive financially. Figuring out how you’ll afford college can feel like a huge challenge. Everyone’s lives and situations are different, and with so many financial aid options and financial guides out there, creating a plan that works for you can be quite a process. The best course of action starts with understanding all your options, so let’s take a look at five ways you can pay for your college education.

  1. Complete your FAFSA application. Completing and submitting a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) might be the most important step you can take toward paying for college. By completing this form, you can learn which types of federal aid for which you’re eligible. The FAFSA application will ask you to provide financial information about yourself and your family or guardians, including factors like income, assets, and household size. Based on the information you provide, the U.S. Department of Education will:
    • Calculate your expected family contribution (EFC), or the amount of money your family will be expected to contribute toward your education expenses.
    • Determine whether you’re eligible for need-based grants, work-study opportunities, federal student loans, and more.
    • Completing the FAFSA accurately and promptly as soon as possible after Oct. 1 each year is essential to maximize eligibility for all types of federal aid.
  2. Apply for as many scholarships as possible. This is one option I can speak about. One of my sons received his undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degrees through academic scholarships. This option can also save you the experience of having to apply for student loans, which can be very costly to repay. Scholarships do not need to be repaid and should be one of your top options for paying for college. One type of scholarship is called a merit-based scholarship, which considers academic performance factors such as GPA or standardized test scores. Other scholarships are based on need. Some need-based scholarships require you to demonstrate financial need by submitting the FAFSA. Still, some scholarships are awarded based on a combination of both merit and financial need. It’s best to begin your search for scholarships before your senior year of high school. Many scholarship opportunities have early application deadlines, limited funds available, and/or award funds to eligible students on a first-come, first-served basis, so getting your applications in early may increase your chances of securing aid. Be sure to pay careful attention to the requirements contained in the application. You can be rejected because of incomplete or missing information.
  3. Apply for tuition assistance from an employer. Many employers, especially in today’s work world, offer undergraduate or graduate tuition assistance, according to a 2022 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. This can take the form of tuition reimbursement, where your employer reimburses you for the cost of tuition you’ve already paid, or direct payment to your school on your behalf. The program your employer offers may vary, so be sure to inquire about the requirements. Some cover a certain percentage of tuition costs, others provide a flat amount towards education expenses, and a few even offer to cover 100% of tuition fees. Keep in mind that some employers may require a minimum number of weekly hours worked to qualify for tuition assistance.
  4. Serving in the military is also an option. I can speak about this option as well. My second son chose this option. He was able to get his degree paid for and used it to start his own business. Serving your country can help make your higher education dreams a reality. In fact, each military branch provides its own Military Tuition Assistance program. Sometimes, this can cover the entire cost of your college education with some limitations. Make sure you do your due diligence to find out what the requirements are and what you must do to take advantage of this benefit. Also, take a look at the GI Bill, which covers tuition, fees, textbooks, and other supplies for up to 36 months for service members and veterans at public colleges and universities.
  5. Try to choose a non-loan college. Imagine graduating from college without the burden of student loans. Sounds too good to be true, but there are no-loan schools out there that can make this a reality. Instead of taking out loans, you can qualify for free tuition through scholarships, on-campus jobs, or even your family’s income. The increasing student loan debt crisis in the U.S. has led to more colleges and universities adopting no-loan policies. While you still need to cover your living expenses and other costs, attending a no-loan college could save you tens of thousands of dollars in tuition fees. Just keep in mind that with the prospect of free education comes high competition for admission. But if you can make it in, choosing to attend a no-loan school is a surefire way to graduate without debt weighing you down.

Paying for college does not have to cost you an arm and a leg. You just have to do some careful planning and detailed research to get the information you need to make the best financial choice when it comes to choosing a school. 

For additional information on this and other financial topics, visit our blog at, email me at, or call me at 662-624-5776.

Until next week – stay financially fit!

Charlestien Harris is our financial contributor and is a financial expert with Southern Bancorp Community Partners whose articles are seen in a number of publications around the region.