How to Afford College

Ask the Coach

Question: I want to go to college, but tuition is so expensive. Do you have any ideas on how I can afford college?

Answer: First, let me say that I applaud your desire to go to college. While, yes, higher education can be expensive—especially Christian education—it is well worth the investment. So, how can you get an education without going into major debt? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Fill out your FAFSA. This seems elementary, but did you know that in 2017, high school graduates left approximately $2.3 billion in free federal grant money on the table. While most PELL grants go to families whose annual income is $30,000 or less, the FAFSA is necessary for claiming any federal, state, and institutional money. For the 2019-20 school year, the maximum grant will be increased to $6,195. The official website for applying for federal, state, and college financial aid is

2. Apply for scholarships and grants. In addition to federal money, thousands of private scholarships from companies, nonprofits, and community groups are available. I heard the story of a young woman who spent the summer submitting 1,000 applications for scholarships. She was turned down by 970. But the 30 she received got her $38,000. Pretty good summer job, huh? A good place to start is Some scholarships are renewable.

3. Ask the school for more money. Maybe you can do a better job explaining your financial situation. Sometimes your family might have other expenses, like medical bills, that aren’t already taken into consideration. Experts suggest having the student write a formal appeal letter and then follow up with a phone call. It’s also a good idea to mention if your family’s financial circumstances have changed in the past year because the FAFSA is based on your income from the prior year. And, remember: Not all scholarships are academic, based on your GPA. Some scholarships are awarded to applicants who want to become the first person ever in their family to attend college. (I wish I had known about that one when I pursued my dream of college.)

4. Claim a Tax Credit. The American Opportunity Tax Credit allows you to reduce your taxes after paying for tuition, fees, books, and room and board—up to $2,500 a year per child. Parents can claim the tax credit if their modified adjusted gross income is no more than $90,000, or $180,000 if filing jointly. (

5. Qualify as an Independent Student. Being an “independent student” under the Higher Education Act means that you could be eligible for financial aid because the financial aid formulas applied to this group do not take parental contributions into account.

The requirements to qualify as an independent student are the following:
• 24 years or older by December 31 of the award year
• Orphan or ward of the court
• Armed Forces Veteran or serving actively
• Graduate or professional student
• Married
• Dependents other than a spouse
• Student for whom a financial aid administrator makes a documented determination of independence by reason of other unusual circumstances

6. Save. Save. Save. When I was a financial aid officer, I regularly counseled students who took out loans indiscriminately. Sadly, when they graduated, their monthly loan payments equaled a house payment—without the house! It’s far better to save and earn interest on your money than to borrow and pay interest on your money. One way to save is to use a 529 College Savings Plan. Go to to learn the details. (Tax benefits vary from state to state.)

Enjoy your journey! I pray you’ll look back on these years as some of the best years of your life.

By Bonita Joyner Shields