Paying for College: A Look at Three Student Journeys

A Note from BestColleges on Coronavirus and Financial Planning in College

The COVID-19 outbreak has caused rapid and significant changes in students' lives. Campus closures have pushed students to online learning, and life after graduation is uncertain for many.

Saving money and budgeting in college is top of mind for many students, even in the best of times. Our Financial Aid Guide can help you understand and plan your finances in college.

We are also working to provide information and resources to students about the impact of coronavirus on college life. Read our latest Coronavirus Resources for Students.

We encourage students to contact their college's financial aid office for any financial questions related to coronavirus. Many services have moved online as schools work to support students through this challenging time.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), nearly 85% of first-time, full-time undergraduates received financial aid in 2016-2017. This page explores the individual stories behind this statistic, showing you how each student's college financial aid journey is unique. You can also learn valuable information about how to pay for your own higher education.

Meet the Students

The following sections tell three students' stories as they pursued financial aid for college. While filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) helps streamline the financial aid process for many students, there is no one-size-fits-all approach that guarantees you the most funding. Your award package greatly depends on factors like your economic background, chosen school, and field of study.

We purposely picked a diverse selection of interviewees whose ages range from 18-38 years. These students attend school in separate states and pursue different types of degrees. As you read their stories, keep in mind that the financial numbers shown are estimates of their funding, college expenses, and living costs.

Alexandra Arcand

Alexandra Arcand

Alexandra is a 26 year-old resident of Columbus, Ohio. She attends a private university, earning her bachelor of English in secondary education online. On top of her financial aid, Alexandra is paying for college by working as a writer for



Financial Snapshot

Job $15,000-$17,000
Scholarships $0
Loans $8,750
Grants $5,000
Savings $8,000
TOTAL $36,750-$38,750
Tuition $2,640
Books/Supplies $0
Housing/Rent $4,920
Utilities $3,000
Groceries $3,600
Eating Out $700
Transportation $5,400
Credit Card Debt $420
Health Insurance $0
Cell Phone Plan $1,320
Entertainment $2,088
TOTAL $24,088

Alexandra found applying for college financial aid fairly easy, since she keeps most of her important documents and records on hand. However, there was a slight hiccup at the beginning of the process. Due to Alexandra's age at the time of the initial application, she needed her mother to add her own financial information.

Fortunately, applying for financial aid was worth the trouble. Alexandra was shocked at the amount of money she ultimately received. As a future educator in a high-need field, Alexandra received the TEACH Grant — a federal award that paid for half of her tuition.

Alexandra's financial aid package also included a $35,000 loan that begins to accrue 3.5% interest after graduation. She plans to pay off this debt by enrolling in the governmental Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program. By working for five consecutive years as a full-time teacher in a low-income high school, Alexandra can cancel over $10,000 of her student loan debt.

Between her current job and future career, Alexandra feels confident that she has the means to pay for college. She advises potential students to seek funding wherever they can find it and to select a major that fuels their passion and excitement for the future.

Tiffany Verhasselt

Tiffany Verhasselt

Tiffany is a 38 year-old nontraditional student who pursues an online doctoral degree in human behavior with the goal of working in a remote teaching or consulting position. She lives in Westfield, Wisconsin with her spouse and four children.



Financial Snapshot

Job $60,000-$80,000
Scholarships $3,500
Loans $28,000
Grants $0
Savings $8,000
TOTAL $99,500-$119,500
Tuition $24,000
Books/Supplies Included in tuition
Housing/Rent $9,000
Utilities $3,600
Groceries $4,800
Eating Out $1,200
Transportation $9,000
Credit Card Debt $4,000
Health Insurance $3,600
Cell Phone Plan $2,000
TOTAL $61,200

Due to her status as a nontraditional student and adult learner, Tiffany only needed to submit her own financial information, making the FAFSA process relatively simple. This ease was quite different from her son's experience, as he needed to account for three separate incomes.

Tiffany is paying for college with scholarships and loans. Her scholarship comes from the Capella University Alumni Association and totals $3,500 each year. Tiffany also took out $128,000 in Grad PLUS Loans — the maximum amount allowed by this federal program. The interest rate for this type of loan is currently 7.08%. Tiffany will begin to pay back her loan six months after graduation.

Tiffany recommends that other students educate themselves before agreeing to any form of funding.

"My first online college [for associate and bachelor's degrees] gave me so much misinformation about financial aid," she states. The school employed scare tactics to keep Tiffany enrolled, telling her she would need to pay back the full loan amount immediately if she withdrew.

However, Tiffany did not let this negative experience color her perception of higher education. She maintains that attending college is one of the best decisions a student can make as long as they stay informed and only accept the financial aid they need.

Ashley De Leon

Ashley De Leon

An 18-year-old aspiring television news correspondent, Ashley lives in the Bronx, New York. She is enrolled in a bachelor of arts in media studies, journalism, and digital arts program at a private college.



Financial Snapshot

Job $1,500
Scholarships $30,000
Loans $5,500
Grants $0
Savings $0
TOTAL $37,000
Tuition $20,000
Books/Supplies $500
Housing/Rent (Dorm + Meal Plan) $12,000
Groceries $300
Eating Out $250
Transportation $150
TOTAL $33,200

As the first of her siblings to attend college, Ashley found the financial aid process difficult at first. Luckily, with the right guidance, applying for scholarships and grants became easier. Upon submitting her FAFSA, Ashley was automatically considered for scholarships based on academic merit, ultimately receiving seven awards totaling about $60,000.

Ashley is also paying for college by taking out $5,500 in federal subsidized and unsubsidized loans, with 4.53% APR interest upon commencement. Furthermore, her financial aid package includes work-study funding, and she now works at her school's marketing and communication department. This work-study position not only provides a steady paycheck, but it also allows Ashley to gain hands-on professional experience she can add to her resume.

Ashley followed the conventional path to higher education. NCES data shows that 67% of 2017 high school graduates (or roughly 2.9 million students) made the immediate transition to college. While this decision greatly benefits her future career, Ashley notes that the sudden independence prompted her to spend her money poorly during her first few months at college.

Ashley advises other students to "make smarter choices" than she did by creating and sticking to a realistic college student budget. She also thinks high school seniors should prioritize affordability and carefully analyze all expected costs when choosing colleges to avoid overburdening themselves financially after graduation.