How to Choose the Right College Experience for Your Budget

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Before You Read, Lower Your Student Payment

It’s that quick & easy — really. Our free tool checks a network of top refinance lenders and shows you options in one easy chart.

Checking rates takes 2 minutes with no impact on your credit
Federal & private loans are eligible
No maximum loan amount

In recent years, the cost of a college education has skyrocketed. According to The College Board, the cost of a four-year degree — including tuition and room and board — at an in-state public university costs $87,800, as of 2020. 

Before you can even think about your financing options and federal vs. private student loans, it’s important to take a step back and consider how to budget for college and how to choose the right college for your finances and goals.

Finding the best college experience for your budget

Spending $87,000 — or more — on a college degree isn’t realistic for everyone. There are ways to significantly reduce your education costs if you’re willing to make some tradeoffs. When thinking about how to afford college, consider these options.

In-person vs. online degrees

While going to college in-person is the traditional approach, it’s also the most expensive. Most students choose to live on campus, so they have to pay to live in the dorms and for school meal plans. With a traditional college schedule, your classes are all during the day, making it difficult to have a full-time job.

Online degrees can be a viable alternative. According to U.S. News, online bachelor’s degrees usually cost between $38,496 and $60,593. However, they tend to be more flexible, so many students find they’re able to work regular jobs while going to school, making it easier to offset the cost of their degree.

2-year vs. 4-year degrees

While a four-year school is often seen as the norm, a two-year school can be significantly cheaper. A year’s tuition at a public four-year school is $10,440, on average. At a two-year school, the average cost is just $3,730.

You don’t have to be limited by a two-year degree, either. Many students utilize the “2+2” strategy, meaning they attend a community college for two years, then transfer to a partner four-year university. Their community college credits cover the school’s core curriculum requirements, and the student graduates with a bachelor’s degree within two years. By attending a community college first, they’re able to reduce their overall education costs.

Public vs. private institutions

If you’re trying to save money, public universities tend to be much less expensive than private universities. Just one year at an in-state public university, including tuition and room and board, is $21,950, on average. If you attend a private university, that number jumps to $49,870.

However, that doesn’t mean you should avoid considering private schools altogether. In some cases, private schools may have more generous financial aid packages than public universities. If you have a high GPA and standardized test scores, are a talented athlete, or participate in extracurriculars, you may qualify for scholarships that can make the private university more affordable than a public school.

In-state vs. out-of-state universities

While the idea of going to college in another state — especially at a school near the beach or in a tropical locale — may be appealing, going to an out-of-state public university can be much more expensive than staying in-state.

On average, the total cost of attendance of an out-of-state public university is about $16,000 more than an in-state university. You’re unlikely to qualify for scholarships, so you’ll have to pay the extra cost yourself.

Financing your education: Understanding your options

Once you’ve identified the best educational path for yourself, you can figure out how to afford college. When it comes to financing your education, there are several different options.

To start, make sure you complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid as early as possible to get the maximum amount of financial aid you’re entitled to receive for the government and your school.

Scholarships and grants

Scholarships and grants are often referred to as gift aid since they don’t have to be repaid. They’re typically offered by schools, organizations, and even private companies. Scholarships are usually awarded based on merit, while grants are based on financial need. You can search for scholarships and grants and apply for opportunities online with FastWeb or

Work-study programs

After completing the FAFSA, your school may approve you for a federal work-study program. With work-study, you take on a part-time job related to your major and use the income you earn to offset a portion of your education costs.

Federal vs. private student loans

If you need additional financing help, you can take out student loans to pay for school. There are two options: federal loans and private loans.

When it comes to federal vs. private student loans, it’s a good idea to start with federal loans first. Federal loans are issued by the U.S. Department of Education, have fixed interest rates, and tend to have lower interest rates and more benefits than private loans. However, they are also subject to annual borrowing limits, so you may not qualify for enough federal aid to cover the entire cost of your semester or academic year.

If that’s the case, private student loans can fill the gap. With private loans, you can typically borrow enough to cover the total cost of attendance. Depending on the lender, you can have up to 15 years to repay the loan, and you can choose between variable and fixed-rate loans. Unlike federal loans, private lenders will review your credit, so you may need a cosigner — like a parent or relative — to qualify for a loan.

Compare private student loan rates

Figuring out how to choose the right college can be overwhelming, especially when you’re trying to stay on budget. By keeping costs in mind and comparing the different college experiences, you can make an informed decision and save money while getting a quality education.

If you need to take out private student loans to help pay for your college experience, make sure you get rate quotes from multiple lenders before applying.

With Purefy’s Compare Rates tool, you can see offers from top private student loan lenders all at once to save research time, while finding the best deal for your needs.

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