A General Guide to Funding a Private College Education

Private colleges tend to be more expensive than public ones. If you're adamant about attending your dream private school, here's how to fund it.

These are just a few of the many questions students and parents ask as they begin exploring how to fund a private college education. As daunting as it may seem, don’t get discouraged! There are many resources available to assist throughout the process, and colleges and universities are eager to help. First, it’s important that you and your family understand the costs of a private education and how to make paying for it a reality.

Understand cost of attendance vs. actual cost

When evaluating a college or university’s cost, you want to pay careful attention to the direct costs versus the indirect costs, and school websites often list both. What does this mean? Direct costs include tuition, room, board, and fees, the brunt of the cost of attendance. Indirect costs are items such as travel fees, supplies, and other personal expenses. You may want to consider creating your own budget for the indirect costs associated with college. Are you going to have a car on campus—and all the gas, oil changes, and maintenance costs that come along with it? Will you need to buy a computer before you head off to school? Can you take a short car trip home, or will you need to buy plane tickets? Colleges try to estimate these costs based on their average student, but the cost of attendance will be different for everyone. A college out of state or across the country will invariably cost you more in these indirect costs than a college across town!

As a result of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, all colleges and universities must have a net price calculator available to students on their websites. This calculator uses your personal information and institutional data to estimate what the college will cost you and your family based on your individual profile. These calculators can be extremely helpful in determining how much various colleges will cost and which schools are within your price range, so take advantage of them from the very beginning of your college search!

Related: 6 Questions to Learn How Much College Will Really Cost

Fill out the FAFSA

In order to be considered for financial aid, most schools require you to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This is also the form used by the government to determine your eligibility for federal grants and loans. The FAFSA generates an Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) using documents such as W-2 forms, bank statements, and federal income tax returns in addition to information regarding the number of people in your household and the number of dependents in college. The EFC tells colleges approximately what your family can contribute each year to your college education and can range from $0–$99,999. Colleges then use your EFC to determine your need for financial aid.


Students and their families should submit the FAFSA on or after October 1 prior to the year in which they plan to enroll. Most schools have priority financial aid deadlines, so be sure to check with each college regarding when you need to submit your FAFSA. Additionally, many financial aid funding sources are limited, so the earlier you can send in your FAFSA, the better. Finally, you and your parents will need a personal identification number (PIN) to electronically sign your FAFSA.

Get an early financial aid idea

Luckily, it’s easy to get an idea of your financial aid eligibility before you fill out the FAFSA. You can use the Federal Student Aid Estimator to estimate the federal aid you may receive. You can also enter information for the different schools you’re considering, such as tuition and scholarships offered, on a worksheet that helps you get a realistic picture of what it will cost to go to college. The information provided by the FAFSA4caster can be quite valuable in helping you and your family make decisions about which colleges to seriously consider; just remember that it’s a calculator—not the actual FAFSA. The calculations are not guaranteed, and you still need to submit the FAFSA to be considered for financial aid. Although the FAFSA is the most widely used application for student financial aid, some schools may require additional forms such as the CSS Profile and/or their own institutional applications. Make sure you know what each school expects of its financial aid applicants and what the deadlines are, so you can explore every option available.

Related: 5 FAFSA Tips to Get the Most Financial Aid

Types of financial aid

There’s more to financial aid than scholarships and loans. Need- and merit-based aid can take several different forms. When you receive your financial aid award, you may see many different funding sources listed, including institutional scholarships (merit-based aid), grants, loans, work-study, or outside scholarships.

  • Institutional scholarships are usually awarded based on students’ academic or extracurricular achievements in high school and are available to any qualified student regardless of financial need. Be sure to check with the college or university to understand the renewal criteria of the awards you receive. For instance, do you need to agree to participate in a sport or maintain a certain GPA to maintain the scholarship? Understanding the stipulations tied to scholarships will help you financially plan for all four years of college, not just your freshman year.
  • Outside scholarships are everywhere, so don’t forget to look for them too. And start your search early! Check with your parents’ employers, your local parish, or any organizations you are a member of to see if they have scholarship funds. When you apply for these awards, pay careful attention to what they can be used for; some may only go toward tuition while others could be used to help pay for books or personal expenses.
  • Work-study programs provide an opportunity for students to get on-campus jobs and earn money they can contribute toward their education. Many schools offer either federally funded or institutionally funded work-study to students who have demonstrated need. Most campuses offer a wide array of jobs, from working in the library to assisting in the admission office. The number of hours you work per week will vary depending on the amount of your work-study award.
  • Grants are generally need-based funds that don’t have to be repaid, and most colleges will require you to demonstrate need by filing a form such as the FAFSA or CSS Profile. It’s important to understand the funding source for the grants, as they could be federal grants, state grants, or even institutional grants. Like scholarships, make sure you inquire about the renewal criteria for any grants you receive.
  • Student loans are also a reality for most students seeking a college education. The most popular and desirable loans available are offered through the US Department of Education’s Direct Loan Program. These student loans, which are part of a student’s financial aid award, offer a low interest rate and have favorable repayment terms. There are other loan options available too, such as state loan programs, Parent Plus loans, and private loans, so don’t hesitate to ask the financial aid office about these opportunities.

Related: 7 Things You Need to Do Before Filing the FAFSA

Talk to admission and financial aid officers

College and university admission and financial aid offices are there as a resource for you throughout this process. If you have questions, call the school or meet with a counselor for help. There may be other scholarships available, state programs, or additional loan options that aren’t considered with your applications for admission or financial aid. And don’t wait until the last minute to inquire about these additional funding sources; the earlier in the process, the more likely there will be options to explore. You may also want to ask the school about the average student debt and what their career placement rates have been over the last several years.

Many colleges can make a professional judgment regarding your EFC if your family meets certain special conditions or is experiencing a financial hardship. If your family is paying private secondary school or college tuition for your siblings, has suffered the death of a parent, or has experienced loss of employment, colleges may augment your financial aid offer. If your family experiences any other extenuating financial circumstances, be sure to let the financial aid office know, and ask if there is any way to have those things considered.

Related: How to Talk to Admission Officers in Person and Over Email

Investing in your future

Paying for a private college education can seem overwhelming at first, but don’t let the costs keep you from considering any school; you never know what type of merit- or need-based aid is available until you pursue it with tenacity and determination. After scholarships and financial aid have been awarded, many students find the cost of private school is very competitive with other colleges or universities. Never forget that college is an investment in your future. Price should certainly be a consideration when choosing a school, but it should not be the only factor. Even if it does cost you and your family more to attend a private university, there will be many worthwhile benefits. Small class sizes, access to professors, availability of career services, and a faith-filled community are just some of the things that students have recognized as setting a private school education apart from other colleges and universities.

Find more money to help fund your education by searching for awards with our Scholarship Search tool.

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