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What to Do When You Can’t Afford Your Dream College

Being accepted to your dream college can make you feel on top of the world. When you receive your bill and your financial aid package (if you applied), that feeling where nothing can go wrong suddenly feels like a lie.

Unfortunately, many incoming college students struggle to afford tuition, whether it is on their own or with their families’ assistance. CNN reports that families who earn $100,000 a year can’t afford 60 percent of colleges in the U.S. The average cost of tuition ranges from $9,650 for in-state public colleges to almost $34,000 for private schools, according to CNN. This doesn’t even include housing costs, which average at around $10,000.

It may seem like all hope is lost if you find out that the school you want to attend is too expensive for what you can afford. Instead of just deciding on a more affordable college you don’t like as much or skipping college entirely, there are many options to choose from.

1. Search for scholarships or financial aid

You hear the words “scholarship,” “grant” and “loan” tossed around more than you would expect. How can they help? Scholarships are usually merit-based from an academic or athletic ability, and grants are need-based, according to College Board. These are awarded to you as part of your financial aid; loans, on the other hand, are what you eventually have to pay back.

Brooke, a sophomore at Denison University, says scholarships are a great option. When Denison seemed like it was out of her price range, Brooke turned to extra financial help.

“I found so many obscure scholarships that no one thinks to apply for. There are plenty out there that look like complete scams, but are 110 percent real!” Brooke says.

Once on campus, Brooke was also able to find scholarships within her major that weren’t advertised. With thousands of scholarships available, all tailored in different ways, students should be able to find at least one to contribute to college.

Even without a scholarship, the possibility of financial aid from your school or the government can help. Loans are also the key to affording your dream college. Lauren, a senior at UC Santa Barbara, believes loans are the best option.

“You can explore private loan companies like Sallie Mae. You won’t have to pay these off until six months after graduation and even after that you’re able to pay in small increments, just like any other bill,” Lauren says.

Her first year at college was funded completely by loans, but her following years have been covered by financial aid from her school. Loans are a good option, but you also have to be careful when applying and taking out loans every year. Zoe, a senior at Western Oregon University, advises you to think about it before making a decision.

“If the only way you can go somewhere is to take out massive amounts of loans, that’s probably going to negatively impact your life for years after you graduate. So it’s important to consider if doing that is really worth it,” Zoe says.

Many students use a mixture of scholarships and student loans, federal or private, to fund their years at college. How you choose to pay for school is up to you. 

2. Find a job at college or apply for work study

Almost all schools have a work study program you can apply for, where you will be given a job to help with the cost of tuition. If you are not part of work study, however, you can still apply for a job on campus. This could be working in the mailroom, the bookstore, the cafe or the library. There are many jobs available for students, and a part-time position could help pay for school.

“I found a job in the costume shop, [which is] my favorite place,” says Brooke of her time at Denison. Most schools have job boards to post employment opportunities, so you’ll want to check every few days if you’re looking for work. There’s sure to be something that fits your personality and pays well.

Related: How to Talk to Your Parents About Paying for College

3. Consider other options

Most future collegiettes have an exact idea of what college should look like: living in a dorm with your best friends as you get through four years at the same university. But in today’s world, our viewpoint has changed on how we can attend college.

If you can’t afford to live on campus, consider commuting if your school isn’t far away. Ashley, a senior at Lasell College, did not receive any financial aid. Instead, she has commuted to school all four years.

“I spent all the savings I had and all of the bonds I received since I was born,” she says.

Kaitlyn, a senior at Marywood University, has had two different experiences. She commuted her first year and now lives off-campus with friends.

“It was a lot cheaper my freshman year, and even more this year too,” Kaitlyn says. “I don’t think [these options] diminish my college experience. I think it gave me more freedom, to be honest.”

If you aren’t sure about commuting to school or want to save some money, attend community college first. Lauren went to a community college before transferring to UC Santa Barbara.

“That in itself saves you money,” she says. Whether it’s enrolling in community college first, commuting or living off campus, some of these options can help you save in the long run.

4. Look at other schools

If you have your heart set on one school, it can be tough to even think about going somewhere else. Your parents, teachers and guidance counselors all encourage you to apply to other “safety schools” in case your dream college doesn’t work out. Sometimes, this might be the better option.

When Zoe was accepted to her top choice, she then found out she could not afford it. After applying for scholarships and grants, it still was not enough to justify going there. However, she admits that going to a different school was a better outcome than she thought.

“I’m still genuinely sad about not being able to attend, [but] I’m happy about the university I’m currently at. One thing that really helped me was trying to find more positives relating to my second choice schools,” Zoe says.

“Even though the university that I wanted to attend but couldn’t was located in a city I loved and had an amazing program for what I’m studying, the school I ended up going to was probably better for me in terms of mental health and actual academics because it’s smaller, significantly cheaper and is known for being a school where professors really care about teaching.”

Zoe also says that not going to your dream school may feel like the end of the world, but “regardless of where people go, they’re still bound to build a great space around them.”

5. Take time off

If you really aren’t sure about what to do, consider taking some time off before going to college. We think we need to go to college immediately after high school, but it’s completely acceptable to take a few months or even a year off.

Before Lauren went to school, she decided to take a year and half off. “[I wanted] to reflect on what exactly I wanted to do with my life,” she says.

A gap year can not only help you decide on your future, but it could allow you to save some money by working full-time. If Malia Obama took a year off before attending Harvard, consider doing that as well.

If you find out that the college you want to attend may be out of reach financially, there are many ways to get around this. There is always a way to afford college, so really think about yourself and your future before making a decision.

Danie is a 2018 graduate of Lasell College. She served as Campus Correspondent and Editor-in-Chief of Her Campus Lasell for two years, and wrote all four years. Danie also worked for Her Campus as a Community Management intern for two semesters, and was a National Feature Writer for six months. Danie studied Communication with concentrations in Journalism and Public Relations. She is currently seeking opportunities in the editorial or music industry. Follow her on all platforms at @raniedoberts and check out her website, raniedoberts.com.