How students can help cover college costs

  • These days, parents pay almost half of college costs.
  • Although parents shoulder most of the responsibility, there are ways students can step in and help their parents avoid taking on too much debt, higher education experts say.

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College is one of the biggest purchases you’ll make in your lifetime, but few families have a solid plan for how to pay for it.

Most often, parents are on the hook for the bill, according to Sallie Mae’s annual How America Pays for College report. For the 2021-22 school year, parents covered 43% of the costs of college with income and savings, while students picked up around 11%. But students can contribute in other ways too, experts say.

“Given the cost of college, parents paying for their children’s college education is the norm these days, not the exception,” said Kalman Chany, a financial aid consultant and author of The Princeton Review’s “Paying for College.”

“Still, students and their parents need to plan ahead and be knowledgeable about the financial aid process.”

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Most students and their parents rely on a combination of resources, Sallie Mae’s data shows.

As of the last count, families spent an average of $25,313 on college expenses in the 2021-22 academic year, primarily using income and savings. More than 7 in 10 families also used scholarships and grants — money that doesn’t have to be repaid — to help cover costs, and about 4 in 10 families borrow or take out loans, the education lender found.

As the price of a degree continues to rise, price has become a bigger consideration.

College-bound students and their parents now say affordability and managing the debt burden that often goes hand-in-hand with a college degree are their top concerns, even when getting into their first-choice school, according to The Princeton Review’s 2023 College Hopes & Concerns Survey .

It’s always better to use “other people’s money,” Chany said, referring to financial aid, to minimize expenses and avoid taking on too much student debt.

Even now, there is still plenty of merit-based aid available and free scholarship matching services to help students find it.

It’s also not too late for families struggling to afford college next year to apply for financial aid or ask the college’s financial aid office for more money.

“When it comes to who is responsible for paying for college, it’s really a family decision,” said Sallie Mae spokesman Rick Castellano. “Speak early.”

It is important to set clear expectations about how your child can contribute and consider options, such as grants, scholarships, loans and work-study programs, he advised.

“Setting expectations and involving students in the planning process ensures that everyone goes into this big decision with their eyes open,” he said.

Ultimately, the ability for students to pay and how they can share the cost is unique to each family’s financial situation, added Ross Gittell, an economist and president of Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island.

But even if the students are not on the hook for the school fees, they can contribute in other ways, he added.

In fact, many students work while enrolled in college. As of 2020, 74% of part-time students and 40% of full-time students were employed, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

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