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Paying for College: Scholarships, Student Loans, Financial Aid, Grants

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It’s no secret—the average cost of college has continued to rise in recent years. Academic and athletic scholarships aren’t always enough to cover the cost of tuition, room and board and other miscellaneous expenses, which is why nearly 85% of students receive some form of financial aid to help them pay for school.

No matter where you are in the recruiting process, it’s never too early to start thinking about paying for college. If you’re trying to compete at the next level without breaking the bank, it’s essential to learn about different ways to pay for college, like using a combination of scholarships, financial aid and student loans.

What is the average cost of college?

According to U.S. News & World Report, the average college tuition and fees at U.S. colleges is $35,087 for private colleges, $21,184 for students attending public colleges out of their home state and $9,687 for students enrolling in public colleges in their home state.

However, keep in mind that these costs refer to a college tuition’s sticker price, or the total cost of tuition and fees before taking a student’s scholarships, financial aid and other grants into account.

So how much does college really cost? The average cost of college (the net price a family pays) depends on several factors, including a college’s location (urban, rural, suburban) and type (private v. public). A student’s personal preferences, like living at home v. paying for room and board, miscellaneous expenses (like lab fees for science majors or art supplies for art majors) and the amount of money they’re awarded in athletic scholarships, academic scholarships and financial aid can also offset a college’s sticker price.

Insider Tip: If you’re interested in learning more about college prices , we recommend our partner, TuitionFit. TuitionFit empowers student-athletes and their families by sharing college pricing information. Price transparency gives students the opportunity to choose the college option that will give them the best value for the lowest price.

Learn more about the average cost of college tuition by comparing college offers

Ways to pay for college

Student-athletes typically use a combination of these five ways to pay for college:

  1. Academic scholarships
  2. Merit scholarships
  3. Athletic scholarships
  4. Student loans
  5. Financial aid, also referred to as need-based aid or grants

Insider Tip: NCSA is proud to partner with SMARTTRACK® College Funding to help parents of 9th, 10th and 11th graders to plan ahead for the financial commitment of sending their student-athletes to college.  SMARTTRACK® empowers families to maximize eligibility for college grants, scholarships and financial aid, reduce dependence on expensive loans and develop personalized strategies to pay for college in the most advantageous way possible.

Scholarships for college

If you’re wondering how to pay for college without loans or financial aid, then academic, merit-based and athletic scholarships are your best bet.

Other types of scholarships include those awarded for community service, hobbies or extracurricular interests, military involvement and employer scholarships. An applicant’s identity or family history can also qualify them for certain awards (like legacies, first generation or first to attend college in the U.S.) Some schools even offer scholarships to students who plan on pursuing a specific major or course of study.

There are thousands of scholarships awarded each year to qualified applicants or students who meet certain criteria—you just need to know where to look for them!

To search for different types of scholarships for college and get matched with scholarships you qualify for, check out our partner,

Learn more about scholarships, including how they can help student-athletes cut down college costs.

Athletic scholarships

The biggest misconception when it comes to athletic scholarships is that all student-athletes who compete in college receive them. That’s not necessarily the case—not all divisions offer athletic scholarships and sports at the NCAA Division 1 or 2 levels can offer either full rides or partial scholarships.

Athletic scholarships are also given out not only based on a recruit’s talent, but also whether they meet certain eligibility requirements, like completing required core courses and achieving a minimum GPA and/or test score on a standardized test.

Learn more about eligibility requirements for athletic scholarships.

Check out our full guide to finding college athletic scholarships by sport.

What do athletic scholarships cover?

According to the NCAA, less than 2% of high school athletes are awarded a full or partial college athletic scholarship. Partial or full ride athletic scholarships can be applied towards direct college costs:

What athletic scholarships don’t cover

Unfortunately, even a full-ride scholarship may not be enough to pay for college. Families also need to focus on what athletic scholarships don’t cover—indirect college costs.

Indirect college costs do not appear on your college/university tuition bill. These additional estimated costs associated with going to college include:

Learn more about athletic scholarships, what athletic scholarships do and don’t cover (and how to get them).

Academic scholarships

To be considered for an academic scholarship, students must be academically qualified. However, since colleges and universities all have different criteria for awarding academic scholarships, this doesn’t mean that a lower GPA or test score automatically disqualifies you. There are different types of academic scholarships awarded for different levels of achievement.

For instance, a student applying to a more academically selective school, like an Ivy League college, may have a harder time receiving an academic scholarship due to the number of qualified applicants, while a student applying to a non-Ivy school may be more likely to receive an academic scholarship depending on that year’s pool of applicants.

Academic scholarships are also awarded at different tiers, so a lower test score or GPA might just mean you’ll receive a smaller scholarship than a student-athlete who ranks at a slightly higher caliber.

Student-athletes who intend to play at a D1 or D2 college should keep in mind that regardless of academic scholarships, their grades and test scores help determine whether they meet the minimum NCAA eligibility requirements to compete at the next level.

Watch our recruiting expert–and former D3 Head Coach–Pam Monnier break down everything you need to know about academic scholarships, including how and why academic scholarships are essential to cutting down college costs.

Merit scholarships

Merit scholarships are similar to academic scholarships because they can also be awarded to students who demonstrate academic excellence. However, merit scholarships are also given out to students who:

Learn more about merit-based scholarships and organizations that award them, including the National Merit Scholarship Corporation

Watch our recruiting experts Kyle Winters and Pam Monnier break down everything you need to know about merit scholarships, including key differences between academic and merit scholarships, in the video below.

How to pay for college without scholarships

Whether you don’t qualify for scholarships, didn’t receive an athletic, academic or merit-based scholarship, or expect to have a high cost of college even after your scholarship money has been applied to your college tuition bill, families typically bring their average cost of college down using:

Student loans

If you’re wondering how to pay for college with loans, you’re not alone. 63% of parents and 60% of students say they wished they looked into college financing options earlier.

There are two types of student loans:

How to pay for college with loans

Once you’ve exhausted all sources of aid, including scholarships, grants, personal/family college savings and payment plan options, look at the leftover cost. How much do you need to bridge the gap? Do you have enough for all four years (or more) of college? If not, it might be time to check out federal and private student loan options.

However, if you’ve already taken out federal loans and still owe money to a college, a private loan allows you to borrow what you need to bridge the gap after federal aid.

Learn more about how student loans work.

How to pay for college without loans

If you’re wondering how to pay for college without loans, there are other ways to pay for college, including:

Grants and other types of financial aid

Financial aid and grants can help bring the average cost of college down even after you’ve applied any athletic scholarships, academic scholarships and merit scholarships to your college tuition bill.

Financial aid can come from both federal and private sources, including:

Learn more about student financial aid.

How to pay for college without financial aid

Some families may not qualify for federal or private financial aid but may still need help finding money for college. There are a few options for families who are looking for other ways to pay for college, including:

For more information on how to pay for college without financial aid, check out our guide to student loans.