How to Afford College

A cost-savings guide to maximize your financial aid.

Navigate the costs of college.

To keep your costs down to a minimum, you'll want to prepare early, save money, and maximize all sources of aid. But how do you do that? Read this guide to learn the steps you can take starting in high school and through your college years.

Illustration of a scale balancing money and books

In This Guide:

Freshman & Sophomore Year of High School Icon for Freshmen and Sophomore Year

Tips from our students:

 Focus on grades and extracurriculars

Keeping up your grades and getting involved with extracurricular activities will not only help you get into the college that you want, but also make you eligible for scholarships. Focus on your academics and get involved with sports, clubs, music, or anything else that interests you.

 Estimate your cost of attendance

To start getting a sense of the full cost of attending a university, look at the net price calculators on college websites. However, don’t get overwhelmed. Net price calculators show the full college price tag including tuition, living expenses, textbooks and campus fees, before factoring in financial aid and the many ways you can cut down your college costs.

 Save what you can, and be strategic

Saving now for your college years will help you later. Try to put aside money from part-time job checks, birthdays, or any other income that you have. You can work with your family to open a college savings account with a local bank or credit union. These accounts can offer high interest rates to help maximize your college funds. Your family may also consider a state sponsored and tax advantaged savings plan, known as a 529. But always remember to ask whether these savings accounts will be considered assets later on, as they can affect your need-based financial aid.

Junior Year of High SchoolIcon for Junior Year

Tips from our students:

 Narrow down your list of colleges

The fewer schools you apply to, the more you will save on application fees, which typically range from $50-$100. Junior year is the time to start exploring colleges and narrowing down your interest list. Start looking through college websites and scheduling campus tours to see which schools check all your boxes.

 Explore scholarship options

As you research colleges, visit their financial aid websites to check scholarship offerings. Some scholarships, known as merit scholarships, automatically consider all students based on things like your high school GPA. Other scholarships dedicated to areas like the arts will require supplemental applications or auditions. For scholarships from outside organizations, visit websites such as and contact your high school counselor for local opportunities. Keep note of the ones you’re interested in and their deadlines so you can easily apply.

 Get to know the FAFSA and CADAA

Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is essential to being considered for any type of financial aid. Get familiar with the form and the documents it asks for, like your family’s taxes, so you can be ready to apply. Additionally, consider taking a moment to learn about the benefits and eligibility requirements of the California DREAM Act Application, or CADAA.

Looking Ahead: Prepare for Your College Applications

The Common App opens on August 1 each year. To avoid feeling stressed about it — especially as you get ready for your senior year of high school — take some time to learn about application deadlines, admission requirements, and tips on how to submit the best possible application. This is also a good time to visit colleges to help you decide where to apply.

Read our guide: 5 Tips for Applying to College

Senior Year of High SchoolIcon for Senior Year

Tips from our students:

 Submit your FAFSA and CADAA

Fill out the FAFSA when it becomes available during your senior year, and add the colleges that you’re applying to so that they can consider you for financial aid. You can login to your account at any time to add or remove schools. Undocumented students or non-US residents applying to college in California are encouraged to fill out the California DREAM Act Application (CADAA) instead.

In 2023, the FAFSA will become available in December. Beginning in 2024 and each year thereafter, the FAFSA expects to become available in October.

 Fill out scholarship apps

Throughout your senior year, even after your college applications are submitted, you should apply to as many scholarships as possible. Look for scholarship opportunities you might be eligible for based on your major, faith, interests, or other areas of your identity. And set a goal for yourself, like applying to one or two per month. (Check out this list of outside scholarships and links to search tools maintained by our financial aid team!)

 Review your financial info

After you’ve been accepted to colleges and receive financial aid offers, review your FAFSA to see if there has been a change in your finances, such as a different parent or guardian employment status. If you need more financial aid to make attending a school possible or as a result of a change, reach out to their financial aid office to request an adjustment to your aid package. Similarly, be sure to check your CADAA if you applied for funding.

During CollegeIcon for During College

Tips from our students:

 Find an on-campus job — quickly!

Most colleges have positions made specifically for students, such as a role in the library, an assistant for an academic department, or a resident assistantship (RA) in a residence hall. These jobs offer flexible hours, boost your resume, and help you cut down on college expenses. Find out how your school promotes their student job openings (some universities require work-study eligibility, while others like Cal Lutheran are open to all students). Sometimes, openings are only available at the start of the school year and fill up quickly, so apply as soon as possible.

 Update your FAFSA and CADAA yearly

Each year by March 1, you will need to renew the FAFSA in order for your school to continue providing financial aid. You can easily login to your account and update your information. However, since the form uses prior-year taxes and records, you should contact your financial aid office directly if your financial situation changes at any time, even during the school year. In addition, be sure to keep your CADAA up-to-date, if you applied for funding.

 Apply for more scholarships

Throughout college, you should continue seeking out scholarships, starting with ones offered by your university. Look for scholarships you could be eligible for based on your major or areas of involvement, like a student club you participate in. In addition, you can keep applying to scholarships sponsored by organizations outside your college. If you visit websites like and research ones related to your areas of interest, you’ll find that there’s a scholarship for just about anything.

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