How do I pay for college?


Paying for college can be a challenge, we will walk you through some great options.

Financial Aid Basics for Attending College

College is the gateway to many great careers that are rewarding and pay well. The main challenge of attending college is the cost. In this blog, I will discuss the basic sources of funding you can utilize to pay for college.

The first source for paying for college is simply your savings. Parents can save a portion of their income each month and place it into a specific account that is for their child’s college education. Students can also work and place a portion of their earnings into an account. The earlier you start saving for college the more time you have to contribute and the more time your savings have to compound. Working with a financial planner or studying on your own can help you place your savings in an investment that is appropriate for the number of years remaining until your son or daughter attends college. Some college savings accounts have tax benefits. Saving for college is a good idea because receiving grants and scholarships are not guaranteed.

Grants are generally given to students who have significant financial need. Grants do NOT have to be paid back. See FAFSA below regarding Pell grants.

Scholarships are given to students for a wide variety of reasons and do NOT have to be paid back. Some scholarships are given based on academic achievement, others for financial need, community service or to employees of certain businesses. For instance, McDonald’s has scholarships available for its employees. Some businesses such as credit unions offer scholarships to their customers’ children. 

Local service organizations such as the Elks and Moose also offer scholarships. In order to be a candidate for scholarships, you will have to fill out an application that generally asks questions regarding your financial need, academic accomplishments, extracurricular activities and community service. 

Throughout high school students should earn the very best grades they can, be involved in school originations and activities, and volunteer in their community to be a good candidate for scholarships senior year.

Your high school counselor is usually the best person to talk to regarding scholarships. We here at Reach High Montana have an extensive list of scholarships on our website.  Go to and click on scholarships. Also, check with the college you intend to attend by visiting their website and by calling their financial aid office.

It all starts with FAFSA
FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Many scholarships and Pell grants use your financial information from your FAFSA to determine your financial need for awarding funds. The information on your FAFSA is also used to determine if you qualify for certain federal student loans. 

The earliest you can submit your FAFSA is October 1st of your senior year.  It is recommended that you submit your FAFSA as early as possible. The sooner you submit your FAFSA, the sooner you will know if you qualify for a Pell grant, work-study, and federal student loans. To fill out your FAFSA go to, have on-hand the parent’s and student’s social security numbers, driver’s licenses, your previous year’s taxes, records of your financial assets, and the names of colleges you might attend. 

Once you submit your FAFSA you will be given an EFC (expected family contribution) number which colleges and scholarship providers use in determining financial aid eligibility including grants, scholarships and loans. The lower your EFC number the better chance you have at receiving a Pell grant, need-based scholarships and certain federal student loans. Contact your high school counselor or a financial aid professional at the college you intend to attend for FAFSA assistance.

Work-study is awarded to students based on financial need determined by the financial information you provide on your FAFSA. Students in work-study are given jobs on campus that fit their class schedules. All work-study students earn at least minimum wage, but some students can earn more depending on the skill level needed for their job. We recommend that on your FAFSA, you indicate that you are interested in work-study. You can decide to turn down work-study if later you change your mind. I know individuals who have participated in work-study and after graduating from college continued working for their college and moved up to more advanced positions. 

Loans should only be used after you have done your best to fund your education through savings, grants, scholarships, and work-study. Any amount you borrow in student loans will have to be paid back and in most cases with interest. When using loans, borrow only the amount you need to cover educational expenses. There are a variety of loans. Federal student loans come in three flavors: subsidized, unsubsidized, and parent plus loans. The government uses the financial information you provide on your FAFSA to determine which loan(s) you qualify for. 

  • Subsidized loans – are given to students of need. Interest on these loans does NOT accrue while the student is enrolled in college at least half time.
  • Unsubsidized loans – are given to students and are not based on need. Interest accrues during all periods of the loan.
  • Parent Plus Loans – are not based on need. The borrower is the parent(s) and they are responsible for repayment. Interest accrues during all periods of the loan.
  • Private Loans – can be obtained through financial institutions, the terms and interest rates on private loans can vary widely, so be sure to do comparative shopping. Generally, federal student loans have lower interest rates and costs.

Reach Higher Montana is passionate about helping Montana high school students achieve personal success in education, career, and life. Our advisors can help guide you along your individual path. To find the closest advisor to you, click here. Stay informed, sign up for our newsletter and like our Facebook and Instagram page so you don’t miss out.

Montana high school students learning about the many options to help pay for college