Pay For School

How do I Afford College?

We’ll show you the money, and how to get it. Learn about financial aid, completing the FAFSA, student loans, and more.

Let's Talk Scholarships

Interested in free money to pay for school? Scholarships can really pay off, if you’re willing to put in the work.

Understand College Costs

Tuition, fees, room and board, books…it all adds up. We’ll help you understand what you’re paying for, and ways to stretch your money.

Special Circumstances

Check out these resources for youth in foster care and students with disabilities.

Paying for School

For many students, education is their first investment opportunity - an opportunity to invest in their future by going to school. Education after high school is within reach and we have the tools and resources to help you make it happen.

Financial Aid

Financial aid helps make education more affordable. The federal government is the largest source of financial aid for education after high school.

There are three main categories of financial aid: Scholarships and Grants, Loans, and Work Study. Scholarships and grants do not have to be repaid, but student loans do require repayment. Work Study provides students with access to on-campus jobs. Some students may also be eligible for tuition waivers.

The FAFSA: Opening Doors to Financial Resources

Paying for college starts with the FAFSA. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the starting point for financial aid, including federal grants, loans, work-study, and scholarships. In most cases, the federal government sees students (24 years or younger) as dependent, which is why parents are required to provide financial information to complete the FAFSA. After filling out the FAFSA application, the federal government will provide you with an your FAFSA Submissions Summary (FSS). The FSS provides an estimated Student Aid Index (SAI) and estimated Pell Grant and student loan eligibility using information from your FAFSA. This amount is requested on many scholarship applications.

The "Better FAFSA"

GOOD NEWS, the revised “Better FAFSA” is simpler and easier to complete than ever before. Here are a few of the changes that may affect you:

  • The “Better FAFSA” will open on December 31.
  • New deadlines (check with your financial aid office)
  • More students will be eligible for Pell Grants
  • Families who receive federal benefits may be exempt from providing asset information
  • Reduced barriers for at-risk students
  • Financial aid could decrease for:
    • Families with multiple children in college
    • Families with small businesses or farms

Delivery of applicant information from the FAFSA to the schools will be delayed, possibly until the end of January. This will mean significantly delayed financial aid award offers from the schools listed on your FAFSA. Be patient, it is going to be a stressful time for school financial aid offices, and they will do their best to communicate with the student applicant.

Complete The FAFSA Using these Helpful Tips:

  • Start with your FSA ID, you and one parent will need this to complete the FAFSA.
  • Filling Out the FAFSA. This resource will guide you through the steps to file the FAFSA. Filing the FAFSA requires both student and parent information.
  • Click "Submit" Before the Priority Deadline! This year the FAFSA opens December 31st, get your FAFSA done ASAP. The Priority deadlines have changed this year, check with your financial aid office to confirm the date. Schools only have so much funding available and those students who have submitted their FAFSA by the priority deadline have the greatest chance to receive funds for which they may be eligible.
  • What if you file after the priority deadline? You can file the FAFSA at any time. Filing after the priority deadline may limit the amount of aid you receive, but you should still file the FAFSA, regardless.

I Submitted my FAFSA…Now What?

The information from your FAFSA will be sent to the schools you identified when you applied. The financial aid office at each school will then package your financial aid offer and send you an award letter notifying you of the resources the school will be able to provide to help you pay for your education.

Your award letter will outline:

  • Cost of Attendance (COA) — the estimated “all-in” cost for you to attend the college. COA includes tuition, fees, books, transportation, and living expenses. COA is not the sticker price; it’s an estimate of what the total cost will be for you to attend the college on annual basis.
  • Student Aid Index (SAI) — is the new name of Expected Family Contribution (EFC)—an important factor in the needs-analysis calculation on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the form used by colleges, states, and other scholarship providers to determine financial aid packages.
  • Unmet Need — If the COA is greater than the EFC, you have unmet financial need.
  • Offer — The financial aid award offer will list the resources the financial aid office can provide to help you address your unmet need: scholarships, grants, loans, and work study.
  • Be sure to accept your offer by the deadline provided to ensure you receive these resources. Likewise, if you decide to attend one college and have offers from other colleges, let the financial aid offices at the colleges you will not be attending know of your decision so they can offer the aid you would have received to other students.


Scholarships are money for college that you don’t have to repay. Scholarships can go a long way toward making college more affordable for students who are willing to put in the work to apply.

Check out our Scholarship page


Grants are often need-based aid, and do not have to be repaid. Need-based grants support students who need financial help to pay for school and meet specific eligibility criteria. The most common grant is the Federal Pell Grant. Pell grants are awarded to those who demonstrate exceptional financial need.

To learn more about grants and financial aid, visit Federal Student Aid.

Student Loans

Student loans can come from the government, your school or private lenders. A loan is something you have to pay back, so only borrow the amount you truly need!

There are several types of student loans:

Federal Student Loans - students must complete the FAFSA to be eligible.

  • Direct Subsidized Loan — Based on financial need, the student is NOT charged interest while enrolled at least half time.
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loan — Not based on financial need, the student is charged interest during all periods of the loan.
  • Direct Parent Plus Loan — Not based on financial need, the parent is the borrower and responsible for repayment, the parent is charged interest during all periods of the loan.

Private Loans — an option if other resources have already been utilized. Terms vary widely, so be sure you understand private loans before borrowing.

Always accept grant and scholarship offers first. If accepting loans, borrow only what you need to cover educational expenses.

Tuition Waivers

Tuition waivers are non-cash scholarships that cover the cost of tuition, but do not cover fees, books, or other expenses. Rules and restrictions apply, and vary by category. The Montana University System offers waivers to students who meet specific criteria.

Understanding College Costs

Going to college is a significant investment of time and money. By understanding the costs of college, you may be able to save by: comparing costs at various institutions; exploring other college expenses and ways to address them; and discovering strategies to minimize student debt.

Breaking Down College Costs

There are five main categories of expenses to consider when calculating how much your college education is really going to cost: tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, personal expenses, and transportation.

  • Tuition and Fees
    Tuition and fees are the price you pay for taking classes at your college. This amount can change based on your academic program and the number of credits you take.
  • Room and Board
    Room and board is the basic cost of living for students – where you live, and what you eat. Colleges offer a variety of dorm room options and meal plans for students who live on campus. If you live at home or off-campus, estimate your actual costs for rent and meals.
  • Books and Supplies
    You’ll need books and other course materials to support what you learn in the classroom. Actual amounts vary based on program of study and specific classes each semester. You may be able to reduce the costs for books and supplies by renting books, or purchasing used books.
  • Personal Expenses
    You have the most control over your personal expenses, which includes costs of eating out, cell phone bills, laundry, and anything else you normally spend.
  • Transportation
    How much will it cost to travel back and forth from home to campus? Can you take public transportation to get around town while you are at school? How much does it cost to park a car on campus? Include the cost of transportation in your overall estimate of the cost of college.

Strategies to Minimize Debt

Many students have concerns about going into debt to pay for their education. While student loans are an important tool to help make education attainable, students should be mindful of the amount borrowed – it has to be repaid, and is (or will be) accruing interest. Students should consider the following strategies to minimize the amount they borrow for education costs:

  • Freshman 15 — Not pounds, credits! In the Montana University System, you pay the same price for 15 credits as you do for 12. Take at least one extra class per semester, and you can shorten your time to degree, which saves big money.
  • Summer School — Most colleges offer summer sessions, and if your college offers classes you need during the summer, take advantage. This can shorten your time to degree, and time = money.
  • Textbook Savvy — Ask your professors how much they’ll use the textbook for the course. Often, the school library will have textbooks available that you can use for free. If your class will use the textbook infrequently, you may be able to use the copy in the library instead of purchasing your own copy. If you do need to have your own textbook, consider renting the book or sharing the book (and the cost) with a classmate. Finally, see if the textbook is available electronically. An e-book may cost less, and it’s environmentally friendly.
  • Live Like a Student — College is a great time to develop smart money habits, and living within your means is a good habit to start. Be careful about unnecessary spending, especially if you are spending borrowed money. Shop second-hand stores, clip coupons, and walk or ride your bike for transportation.
  • Pay Your Interest — If you can, make interest payments on your student loans while you are in school. It’s totally optional, but this strategy can help keep your balance under control.
  • Work…Just Not Too Much — Having a job while you are in school can help you offset your expenses. You might even find a job in the field you are studying, which will give you valuable experience to complement your education. Just be careful not to work so much that your school work suffers.

Special Circumstances

Resources for youth in foster care and students with disabilities

Resources for Youth in Foster Care

Youth in foster care are amazing people and we love supporting them on their paths to education after high school. All students need financial and emotional support when thinking about the next steps in life, and we offer guidance and funding to help these special students achieve their education dreams.

Reach Higher Montana Summit

What better way to experience college life than to spend four days on a Montana college campus, sleeping in the dorms, eating in the cafeteria, attending "classes", and more importantly hanging out with other students JUST LIKE YOU! During the Reach Higher Montana Summit, youth learn about wellness, career and employment prep, budgeting and finance, academic support and SO MUCH more!

As an added bonus, participants can take home a FREE laptop to assist with the next steps in their education, or a life skills package to help them transition to independent living.

For more information about the Summit, contact Programs Manager Rhonda Safford at (406) 422-1275, Ext. 800 or [email protected].

Foster Care Education and Training Voucher program

Montana foster care youth are eligible to apply for the Foster Care Educational Training Voucher (ETV) program, which provides eligible youth with up to $5,000 per year to pay for educational expenses.

Who qualifies? Students Who Are:

  • Currently in foster care and likely to age out of the foster care system; or
  • Aged-out of the foster care system; or
  • Adopted or placed into guardianship from foster care after reaching age 16, or
  • Have been under tribal court jurisdiction and meet the above eligibility criteria.

The priority deadlines for the program are December 15 for students planning on attending spring and summer courses, and July 1 for fall courses or the full school year.

Visit our Youth in Foster Care page to learn more.

Resources for Students with Disabilities

For students with disabilities, attending college can be a challenge and paying for it after high school is not any easier. Fortunately there are resources available to help students with disabilities identify funding opportunities for their education.

  • National Center for Students with Disabilities allows students to find free information related to attending college as a student with any kind of disability. It allows people to ask questions or get help with disability-related issues, find stats, access Research Briefs specific to issues concerning people with disabilities, and more. To learn more, check out this video and visit their website.
  • Montana Vocational Rehabilitation Services provides pre-employment transition services for high school students with disabilities. They can help assess career potentials, provide training, and identify appropriate paths to help students with disabilities achieve their career potential.
  • Montana University System Disability Services is committed to ensuring full and equal participation by eliminating barriers and making accommodations that allow persons with disabilities to have equal opportunity in all aspects of campus life.
  • Do-It — Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology DO-IT "serves to increase the successful participation of individuals with disabilities in challenging academic programs such as those in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology." Here they provide resources specifically aimed at supporting students with disabilities in funding their education.
  • Comprehensive Transition and Post-Secondary Program (CTP) provides funding and opportunities for students with intellectual disabilites to pursue academic, career and independent living instruction leading to gainful employment.
  • Scholarships for Students with Disabilities — This guide offers a comprehensive and valuable list of scholarship and grant programs.

Additional Resources

Next step, Scholarships