Understanding how to pay for college

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Paying for college doesn't have to be complicated. Here's what you need to know about when and how to cover your tuition costs. (iStock)

For many students, determining how to pay for college can be a challenge. 

The good news is, there are a few different options for covering your tuition expenses, including taking out grants and scholarships, applying for student loans or using your savings.

Credible lets you easily compare private student loan rates from various lenders.

When is your college tuition payment due?

Each school sets its own deadline for when tuition payments must be made. You can check with the bursar’s office for the school you are attending to determine the due date applicable to you.

Typically, you will need to pay your tuition bill either shortly before classes start for the term or at the very beginning of the term. That means you may have to pay in August for a fall term beginning in September and pay in December for a winter/spring term that begins in January.

Many schools will not permit you to register for your courses until your bill for the semester or trimester has been fully paid, so you don't want to miss the deadline. You'll usually only have to pay for one term at a time, even though your financial aid is awarded on an annual basis.

Where do you pay for your tuition payment?

You have a few options on where you can pay your tuition payment. 

  • The college portal: This is usually where you will receive your tuition bill and where you can make a payment directly to your school. In the same portal, some schools may offer payment plans to affordably pay off your tuition over time.
  • Bursar’s office: If you’d prefer to pay your tuition in person, you can visit your bursar’s office on campus.

Whichever option you choose, your tuition bill typically comes due at the start of the semester.

3 ways to pay for college

You have a few options to cover your college costs. If you don't have the money saved for tuition or your parents aren't going to cover the cost for you, you'll likely need to rely on one or more of these three payment methods.

  1. Grants and scholarships
  2. Federal student loans
  3. Private student loans

1. Grants and scholarships

Grants and scholarships might be provided by your school, the government, community organizations, charitable foundations or other nonprofit or for-profit businesses. Many are awarded based on financial need or based on meeting some specific criteria such as coming from a particular ethnic background or majoring in a specific field.

You do not have to repay any money obtained through a grant or scholarship, which means getting the maximum amount of money from these sources can help you save on student loans.

If you don't qualify for a grant or scholarship, student loan options are still available. Credible makes it easy to check interest rates from multiple lenders without affecting your credit score. Whether you choose a student loan with a fixed interest rate or a variable interest rate, getting the lowest rate possible matters for saving money.

2. Federal student loans

Federal student loans come from the U.S. Department of Education. They offer low fixed interest rates that are very competitive, and your credit isn’t factored in determining eligibility or interest rate. These loans also provide flexibility in repayment options, income-driven payment plans and many other borrower benefits.

It's always a good idea to take the maximum amount of federal student loans available before taking out any private loans. You will need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to qualify for these loans, which come with a fixed interest rate as low as 4.99% for Direct Loans for undergraduates and 6.54% for Direct Loans for graduate students from the 2022 to 2023 school year.

3. Private student loans

There are borrowing limits for federal student loans, which most people hit before fully covering tuition costs. Private student loans can fill in the gap.

Interest rates are still very affordable on private student loans, especially in the current low-rate environment, and lenders will generally permit you to borrow up to the school-certified cost of attendance. However, you may need a cosigner if you don't have the credit and income to qualify on your own.

How do you qualify for private student loans?

Generally, private student loan lenders have a variety of criteria that you must meet in order to qualify for their loans. These include:

  • Must be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen
  • Must be enrolled in an eligible degree or certificate program
  • Must have good credit
  • Must have verifiable income
  • Must make satisfactory academic progress
  • Must be enrolled at least half-time, depending on the lender

You can visit Credible to explore private student loan options to see what rates and terms you might qualify for.

Credible's student loan calculator will help you understand the cost of borrowing so you can decide how much you'll need and what you can expect to pay for your loans post-graduation.

5 private student loan tips you should follow

What are college payment plans?

Whether you are using student loans to fund your education or are planning to work or pay using savings, it's important to understand the payment plan options your school provides.

While it's customary for tuition to be due at the start of the semester, a number of colleges offer different payment plan options, including monthly plans where you make payments for your schooling over a 12-month period or pay in a set number of installments. Extended payment plans like these may come with added fees, though, so be sure that it makes sense financially for you.

By researching all your options when it comes to paying for college, you can pick a payment method that meets your needs. If that method involves private student loans, visit Credible to view a rates table to compare fixed and variable interest rates from multiple lenders to see which loan is best.

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