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2024 - Paying for College

Tags: Going to College
Published 07/08/2024
An Elgin Community College Financial Aid Officer assists a student

An Elgin Community College Financial Aid Officer assists a student

You often hear “scholarships,” “free tuition,” “grants,” and “financial aid,” as if paying for college should be a breeze. But then you look into the cost of college and start asking yourself, “How can I afford it?”

People often make it sound like it’s so simple to apply and receive “free” money, but then you start creating usernames, passwords, pins, and submitting forms, and you can quickly feel overwhelmed and unsure of what to do next. After all, AFFORDING college means something DIFFERENT for everyone.

So, to help you feel confident in your next steps, here are a few tips about affording and paying for college.

1)            Determining what program is right for you

Do you know for sure what you want to study? If you are undecided, consider taking general education classes that can transfer to nearly any institution. Starting at a community college, like Elgin Community College, can give you the freedom to choose what classes interest you and offer flexibility with day, evening, and weekend schedules. You can save substantially more than if you take these classes through a four-year institution. Often, students find that what they THOUGHT they wanted to do is no longer true once they start the program. It serves you best to find YOUR path as soon as possible. You don’t want to spend two years in a program and tens of thousands of dollars just to reverse course and return to the start line. A great way to begin is to take an interest assessment and see what career paths fit you.

2)            Mapping out your costs

While you may not be a financial advisor, you will need to plan how you will pay for college. It’s important to consider the costs of your chosen school(s) and evaluate them based on the financial aid you can receive. If you have any savings to help pay for college, you will want to look at how to use that money. The ideal scenario is to minimize loans so that you avoid paying interest in addition to the cost of school. You want to reduce how much you borrow, and this starts with bringing down the total cost of your education from the get-go. You can start by creating a chart or spreadsheet that shows the total cost of your choice of schools, how much you will receive in financial aid, how much money you have saved or set aside, and how much you will owe or need to finance.

3)            Applying for financial aid

To bring down the total cost of attending college, you first need to know what kind of financial aid is available. This starts with the FAFSA. When you talk to the schools of interest, they will help you determine what aid they will provide. If they accept you into their school, they WANT you to attend and are interested in helping you understand what you would need to pay.


No matter which school you apply to, even community colleges, you will need to fill out the FAFSA. The FAFSA helps colleges understand your financial situation to determine eligibility for state and school aid.


Different schools provide different scholarships. At ECC, for example, the ECC Foundation provides more than 200 scholarships each year. Many colleges like ECC are now implementing a one-form scholarship process, so you do not have to apply separately for each scholarship. The one-form approach saves you time and headaches. But, if you’re applying to multiple places, you will need to apply for scholarships at each school. They will have their own process, which is why determining your desired school(s) upfront will help you navigate the necessary steps.

Grants vs loans

After you apply for FAFSA, you will be notified if you’re eligible for a federal or state grant. Grants, unlike loans, do not have to be repaid (except under certain circumstances). There may be other applications you need to fill out for different types of state grants. Contact your institution to help you determine your eligibility. Loans, as mentioned, do have to be repaid. Your school determines how much you can borrow based on your cost of attendance and other financial aid you receive.

In summary…

Phew! Hope this didn’t overwhelm you. It can seem like a lot to process when trying to get into college, determine what to study, and what you want to do for the rest of your amazing life! So, please, if you have any questions, reach out to ECC’s Office of Financial Aid for help with your next steps.