Ask a College Advisor: How Do I Know Which Colleges I Can Afford?

Hear from one of our advisors on how to know which colleges are affordable for you.
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Question: How Do I Know Which Colleges I Can Afford?

Answer: Thinking of what colleges you can afford is similar to knowing what shoes, car, or vacation you can afford. That starts with setting up and then staying within a budget. Even though you can put things on credit or use a loan, the goal for students should be going to college for free. If you can't go to college for free, you should know what amount you are willing and able to pay for college. To make this easier, start shopping around for colleges earlier rather than later. Let's look at how you can figure out which colleges you can afford.

Consider Your Career Options

Think about what careers you want to get into. If you're unsure about your future professional plans, you can take a career assessment test to try and determine what jobs might suit you. It may also be helpful to choose five potential careers and then research the earning potential for each career. If you have a rough idea of how much you might make after college, you can estimate how much you can afford to pay or borrow when in college.

Look Into Colleges and Universities

Once you narrow down what career or careers you might like to pursue, you can research colleges and universities that offer a major related to your career interests. You should aim to analyze at least 10 schools. Look into how much the average student pays out of pocket at these schools.

It is also essential to look at a college's graduation rate and the number of students who graduate and obtain a job. Knowing this information can help you understand how much money you may want to acquire before starting college or whether or not you should attend a particular school. You can also decide to go to an affordable college online, which can help reduce out-of-pocket costs.

Secure Money to Pay for College

Once you've decided on careers you're interested in, colleges you would like to attend, and your budget, you can plan how you will cover the cost of college.

If you're a high school student, maybe you can work a part-time job to save money for college. You should also look for and start applying to scholarships, and reach out to your potential schools to see what types of scholarship programs they offer. Depending on your situation, you may be able to access tuition benefits, such as through your job or through a parent or guardian's job. Finally, don't forget to see if friends and family members can contribute to your college fund.

Apply for Financial Aid

During your senior year of high school (or the year before you plan to attend school), you should fill out the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for federal, state, and institutional aid. Keep in mind that some financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Therefore, to maximize your potential aid, you should apply for the FAFSA as soon as you can once it becomes available, which is October 1 of each year.

Once you start hearing back from schools, you should compare financial aid offer letters to see which aligns best with your budget and other preferences. Saving more money on school can boost your financial freedom during and after college.

Make Other Helpful Decisions

There are other ways to reduce the amount you have to pay out of pocket or borrow. To reduce the number of courses you'll need to take (and pay for) in college, you can think about taking AP courses. Additionally, some states offer programs that allow students to earn high school and college credit simultaneously.

You can also think about whether you should go to a state school versus a private school, which could save you a lot of money. Another option would be to go to a community college first and then transfer to a state or private school to earn your bachelor's. Lastly, if you have to borrow funds to pay for college, you should only borrow what you need and utilize loan options with favorable repayment terms.


As of spring 2021, Americans owed more than $1.7 trillion on their student loans. Many learners go into debt to pay for their postsecondary education. However, you may be able to avoid adding to this total if you're proactive about investigating your college payment options. Do your best to come up with a realistic budget, identify relevant scholarships, apply for financial aid early, and only borrow what you need.

DISCLAIMER: The responses provided as part of the Ask a College Advisor series are for general informational purposes only. Readers should contact a professional academic, career, or financial advisor before making decisions regarding individual situations.

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