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Your Guide to Paying for College: 4 Tips to Get Started

Guide to Paying for College

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Feeling overwhelmed about your options to paying for college? It turns out you’re not alone. According to The Ohio State University’s National Student Financial Wellness Study, 74% of college students agreed or strongly agreed that they were stressed out about their personal finances.

If you don’t know where to start, here are a few steps to help you along your journey to paying for college. Want more? Check out our Guide to Paying for College for important dates, tips, and resources!

Step #1: Understand Your Finances

Before you accept your financial aid award letter or apply for student loans, it’s important to step back and understand just how much college costs, how much money you and your family can put toward your education, and what the difference or funding gap is, may be.

Create a plan.

Personalize a plan that tracks all the scholarships, grants, and financial aid you’ve secured. You can even use Ascent’s College Student Budget Calculator to help determine and evaluate your budget.

Calculate how much you need to borrow for the school year.

To help you understand your budget to help pay for college, check your financial aid award letter for your school’s cost of attendance. This is an estimate from your school, which may include expenses such as:

  • Tuition
  • Fees
  • Housing and meals
  • Books and supplies
  • Transportation, parking, and travel
  • Miscellaneous tech such as a laptop

Remember, every financial aid award letter is slightly different, so be sure to confirm with your school which expenses are included before making any estimates.  If financial aid, grants, and scholarships come up short, you may need to find additional ways to cover the cost, such as applying for private student loans like Ascent’s cosigned loans or non-cosigned loans.

Think of your post-grad lifestyle.

Remember: whatever amount of money you borrow – whether it’s a private student loan or federal – you’ll have to pay it back (except scholarships and grants!). Only borrow what you can afford to pay back post-graduation. You can stay ahead of the game by estimating your starting salary after college with Ascent’s Bright Futures™ Engine, a tool that helps you evaluate the return of your college investment.

Just select your school and major to see how much money you might expect to earn your first year after graduation. This will give you a better idea of how much you can potentially afford to borrow and pay back after college.

Step #2: Apply for Scholarships

Let’s talk about scholarships! When paying for college, it can be valuable to explore scholarship opportunities, in addition to federal or private student loans. Scholarships are free money that you don’t have to pay back, so apply for them early and often (believe it or not, there’s no limit to how many you can apply for!)

Don’t know where to start? Here are a few of our scholarship dos and don’ts to help you navigate this process:


  • Start applying sooner rather than later. Don’t know what college you’re attending yet? That’s okay – keep applying for scholarships.
  • Double-check the deadline and submission dates. For most scholarships, you can start applying for them as early as you want.
  • Be patient. The process can be pretty slow, so don’t stress yourself out if you don’t hear back immediately.
  • Continue applying to new scholarships while waiting to hear back from those you’ve already applied to. To make it even easier, save your answers in a Word document before submitting them to the online portal. There may be another scholarship opportunity with similar questions or prompts to answer.
  • Include letters of recommendation. It can make all the difference in your application if it permits it. Make sure the letters you include are relevant, and you have confidence in the person (or mentor) writing it for you.
  • Keep applying for scholarships – whether you’re a freshman or a senior, scholarships are available every year you’re in school.


  • Don’t rule out no-essay scholarships. Save yourself some time (and cover all your bases) by applying to all forms of scholarships. For example, you can enter for a chance to win an Ascent Shining Stars Scholarship on social media – it’s just three simple steps; no essay required.
  • Don’t miss the deadline. Stay organized and always aim to complete your application before the deadline, so you have extra time to make final edits to your application, just in case. Pro Tip: We recommend setting reminders in your calendar a week before the deadline, so you give yourself some extra time to finalize applications.
  • Don’t give out too much personal information. Be wary of scholarships that want you to fill out your Social Security Number (SSN) or other bank details – it could be a scam. Make sure to vet and research every scholarship you apply for, big or small.


Remember: If you win a scholarship, don’t forget to tell your school. It could affect the amount of financial aid offered to you. Ask your school about their outside scholarship policy so you can prepare for how this could impact you.

Step #3: Explore Your Money Options

Check the mail, check your inbox, and then check out what your prospective college offered you! When your school’s financial aid office sends you an offer, they’ll ask you to specify which financial aid you want. It’s time to look carefully at all your options and make an informed decision when paying for college!

Borrow only what you need.

If you know your living expenses won’t be as high as the amount estimated by your school, you can turn down the loan or request a lower loan amount. To help determine how much money to accept, make a list of your school-related and living expenses, as well as the resources you’ll have available to pay them.

Don’t forget: If you don’t accept the full amount of the loan you’re eligible for, you can increase the amount later.

Step #4: Learn More About Private Student Loans

When grants, scholarships, and federal student loans aren’t enough to cover paying for college, you can turn to private student loans to cover the cost of your education. Private student loans work differently than federal loans, so it’s important to understand what to expect when borrowing from a private lender.

What is a private student loan?

A private student loan is a form of financial aid taken out for college expenses like tuition, fees, and housing. Unlike federal loans, private student loans are funded by banks and other lenders that set their own criteria for their loans.

To qualify for a private student loan, you’ll need to meet the lender’s criteria, which typically considers factors such as creditworthiness, income, school, program, cost of attendance, and other factors.

Tip: If you can’t qualify for a loan in your name for the full amount you need, applying with a creditworthy cosigner might help. Cosigners have an obligation to make payments and be fully responsible for repaying the loan if you default. What’s the advantage? If your cosigner has a higher credit score and verified income, you may qualify for a lower interest rate. P.S. With Ascent, you can check your rates with or without a cosigner without impacting your credit score.

Benefits of private student loans

Private student loans are a great option for you if you need additional support to pay for the upcoming school year. Some benefits of private student loans include:

  • Better credit, better rewards. While credit requirements aren’t applicable for most federal student loans, private student loans are different. With private student loans, eligible borrowers might be rewarded with lower interest rates if they have good credit. Some lenders even offer discounts for signing up for automatic payments or for good grades.
  • Find your financial freedom. At Ascent, you can apply to release your cosigner after making twelve (12) consecutive, full principal and interest payments on-time or an equivalent prepayment amount and meeting other eligibility criteria.

Whether you’re just getting started with your student loans or you’re savvy at scholarships, financial wellness isn’t a destination – it’s a lifelong journey. Explore money management tips to paying for college and more at

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