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How to Plan for Educational Expenses

For many people, one of the biggest hurdles to higher education is the cost. Both undergraduate and graduate degrees typically come with a hefty price tag. 

Luckily, while higher education can be pricey, there are ways to cut the costs. Planning ahead, shopping around, applying for financial aid, and sticking to a budget may help make college or graduate school more affordable. 

Furthermore, obtaining a higher level of education might make you a more attractive candidate in your career field. This guide outlines the four steps you can take to plan for educational expenses and maybe even save some money.

Step #1: Research the Costs

The price of a college education usually includes more than simply the price of tuition. The first thing you must do to prepare for educational expenses is to research all of the costs. Typically, these costs include:1

  • Tuition – The biggest cost of higher education is tuition. Some institutions charge a set fee for full-time students while others charge per credit hour. Undergraduate and graduate students often pay a different amount per credit hour, so make sure you use the right rate for your budgeting calculations.
  • Fees – Tuition doesn’t include additional fees students are often required to pay. Technology, parking, and activity fees are all quite common. Some schools also charge student health fees. The type and cost of fees vary widely by school and student type.
  • Books and materials – Books, notebooks, laptops, lab supplies, and more can take a hefty chunk of your budget. You might also need to purchase software if your program requires a specific kind.
  • Room and board – Whether you’re planning on living on campus or elsewhere, you have to have food and a place to live. On-campus living can seem expensive because you pay an up-front sum, but in the long run, it might save you money because the cost is fixed ahead of time and usually won’t come with unexpected expenses. However, living on campus isn’t feasible for everyone. 
  • Transportation – If you plan to park your vehicle on campus, you may have to pay for parking. You’ll also have to pay for gas, insurance, and upkeep of your car. If you plan to use public transportation, you’ll need to include those costs in your budget, as well.

When all of the costs are added together, the true price of undergraduate and graduate education is often higher than you may have considered.

Not All Programs Are Created Equal

The good news is that you can shop around and find an institution and program that fits your budget. Consider the following when researching your education options:

  • Attending a state school is typically less expensive than a private school
  • Earning credits at a community college might help cut costs
  • Sharing a house or apartment with friends may help you save on housing
  • Working on campus might earn you discounted or free tuition

Finally, if your employer offers tuition reimbursement, you can take advantage of this major perk by attending a school or program that qualifies. You might have to stay with your current employer for a set period after your schooling is complete, but it might be a worthwhile trade-off if they’re willing to pay for your tuition.

Step #2: Weigh the Benefits of Full-Time vs. Part-Time

If attending school full-time isn’t feasible, there’s no need to worry. Many students take classes part-time and complete their degrees. If you’re uncertain about which is best, part-time or full-time, you should consider the benefits of each and how they align with your goals.

Benefits of Being a Full-Time Student

To be considered a full-time student, you typically must take 12 credits per semester as an undergraduate and 9 credits as a graduate student. There are several benefits to attending school full-time, such as:

  • You might complete your degree faster
  • You can put more focus on school
  • You may have more time to enjoy the full college experience
  • You’ll likely have more opportunities to build relationships on campus

However, a full-time school schedule doesn’t work for everyone.

Benefits of Being a Part-Time Student

A part-time student is anyone taking less than a full course load. This typically means fewer than 12 credits as an undergraduate and fewer than 9 credits as a graduate. 

There can be benefits to a part-time schedule, including:

  • You can have time for a job while you’re in school
  • You’ll have fewer classes to focus on at once
  • You’ll have more time for family and other obligations
  • You can spread the cost of your education over a longer period

The reality is both full and part-time attendance have advantages and disadvantages. The best option depends on your specific circumstances.

Step #3: Apply for Financial Aid

Regardless of your age or financial status, you should always fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The form can take as little as 15 minutes to fill out and is completely free. It’ll tell you if you’re eligible for any federal financial aid and can help your school determine if you’re eligible for any of their school-specific financial aid packages.

If the idea of being burdened by hefty student loans frightens you, there are other options you may qualify for.2 Let’s look at the different types of student aid that might be available:

  • Student loans – Student loans come in many different shapes and sizes, but it’s important to remember that the money borrowed as a loan must be paid back after you are no longer a student. You’ll also be responsible for paying interest on any loans you take out while you’re in school. This can increase the total cost of your education. There are different types of loans you might be eligible for, depending on your circumstances. 
  • Grants – Grants are monetary aid that you don’t have to repay. There are grants for specific programs, professions, and financial circumstances. Most of the grants that are available through the federal government are awarded based on financial need.
  • Scholarships – There are scholarships available for countless reasons. Most require you to apply for them directly and include information about yourself. You might also have to write a short essay or complete another task. Scholarships might be awarded based on heritage, academic abilities, athletic accomplishments, and more.
  • Work-study – Filling out the FAFSA can also help determine if you’re eligible for the federal work-study program. Most institutions have a specific number of on-campus jobs designated as work-study positions. These jobs allow you to earn money toward your tuition and fees by working on campus. 

Along with all of these forms of financial aid, there might be other types available if you’ve completed military service or if you’re an international student.

Financial Aid Restrictions

Not all students qualify for financial aid. Some restrictions dictate whether or not you’re eligible and how much aid you’re able to receive. Some of the basic requirements for federal financial aid include:3

  • Demonstrated financial need
  • U.S. Citizenship (or eligible noncitizen)
  • Enrollment in an eligible degree or certificate program
  • Satisfactory academic progress
  • Maintenance of enrollment at least half-time

That last point is very important. If you opt to attend school part-time, at least half-time enrollment is typically required for federal financial aid. The aid you might be eligible for through your institution may have different rules.

Step #4: Develop a Realistic Budget

Once you’ve applied for financial aid and know what you’re eligible for, it’s time to set a realistic budget. Consider everything you must account for—food, housing, tuition, supplies, health care. It’s also wise to leave a little room for the unexpected, such as:

  • Life changes
  • Tuition hikes
  • Medical emergencies

Of course, there’s no way to anticipate all of life’s little hiccups, but allowing some room in your budget for emergencies can help. If you do experience sudden financial hardship while you’re a student, you should contact your institution’s financial aid office right away. They may be able to help or offer advice to help get you through a rough patch.

Saving Money as a Student

Luckily, there are several ways students may be able to save money. Some of our top tips for being a savvy saver as a student include:

  • Buy used books whenever possible—you might save a ton of money this way
  • Share housing with roommates or housemates to split rent costs
  • Use public transportation whenever possible
  • Take advantage of your student ID and the discounts it can give you

These small saving actions can make a big difference for a college student.

Explore Your Next Opportunity at Alliant International University

Sifting through the options for undergraduate and graduate degrees can be a challenging task. When you realize how much it may cost, that task can become even more daunting. However, planning for educational expenses can help mitigate some of the fears about paying for college.

At Alliant International University, we know college can be one of the biggest investments you’ll make in yourself and your future. That’s why we offer a wide variety of degree options in many fields. For added flexibility, we also offer some online options. Contact us today to learn more about our programs and how we might be able to help make your dreams a reality.


  1.  “College and Career School Costs Can Vary SIgnificantly From School to School.” U.S. Department of Education. 2020.…. Accessed January 27, 2022.
  2. “Types of Financial Aid.” U.S. Department of Education. 2020. Accessed January 28, 2022.
  3. “Who Gets Aid?” U.S. Department of Education. 2020. Accessed January 28, 2022.

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