How to Find Money for Higher Education

Higher education can lead to better job prospects and higher earnings, but let's face it — college isn't cheap. The soaring costs leave many students worried about amassing massive debt before they even start their careers. 

If you're wondering how to pursue higher education without drowning in student loans, we've got you covered. Here are some practical and creative ways to fund your studies without breaking the bank. 

What is higher education? 

Higher education refers to any learning beyond high school. Just as you earn a high school diploma after completing a secondary education, higher education leads to degrees or certifications that can help you advance your career. 

Unlike public elementary and high schools, which are free, higher education usually comes with a hefty price tag. The cost varies depending on where you go and how long you study, but it can range from several thousand to hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

Types of higher education 

Higher education comes in various forms, each with different programs and costs. Here are the main types: 

Undergraduate school 

Undergraduate schools, which include colleges and universities, are where most high school graduates go for higher education. They offer a wide range of degrees and certifications and typically take two to four years to complete. You can pursue everything from liberal arts to sciences, education, pre-medical training, and more. 

On average, a four-year degree from an undergraduate school costs about $104,000. However, costs can vary significantly depending on the institution and program you choose. 

Graduate school 

Graduate schools offer specialized, advanced programs for those seeking further education after earning an undergraduate degree. This is where you can pursue a master’s degree, doctorate, or other type of advanced certification. 

Graduate programs typically last one to four years, and they’re often more demanding than undergraduate studies. The cost of graduate school varies widely depending on the degree and the length of the program. 

Trade school 

If you're not interested in spending two to eight years on a traditional college degree, trade schools offer a faster, more focused path to a career. Trade schools provide practical training for specific jobs, often leading to certification in less than two years. They’re also generally more affordable than undergraduate or graduate programs. 

Here are some popular career paths that people often pursue through trade schools: 

  • Plumber 
  • HVAC installer 
  • Electrician 
  • Dental hygienist 
  • X-ray or CT scan technician 
  • Automotive or diesel mechanic 
  • Airplane mechanic 
  • Home inspector 
  • Licensed practical nurse (LPN) 
  • Firefighter
  • Carpenter 
  • Welder 
  • Drafter 

Trade schools offer a hands-on, direct route into these professions, often with excellent job prospects and a fraction of the debt that traditional college students face. If you want to start earning sooner and specialize in a specific skill, trade schools might be the perfect fit. 

Community college 

Community colleges offer an affordable and flexible way to start your post-secondary education. These institutions, also known as junior colleges, typically provide two-year degrees with a range of programs, from liberal arts to technical fields. 

Gone are the days when community colleges were viewed as inferior. Many now offer high-quality education with the same foundational courses you would find at four-year colleges and universities. While community colleges tend to have fewer degree options, they are often an ideal stepping stone to a full undergraduate degree. 

>RELATED: What to Do When You Need Cash Now 

How to pay for college 

Higher education is notoriously expensive, and few people can afford to pay for it out of pocket. As a result, many students take out public or private student loans, often with high interest rates, to cover their college expenses. But taking on heavy debt isn't your only option. 

If you want to avoid piling up debt while pursuing an advanced education, here are some of the best options available. 

Work for companies that pay for college 

One of the smartest ways to pursue higher education is to find a job at a company that covers tuition for its employees. 

It might sound too good to be true, but many companies offer tuition assistance or tuition reimbursement programs. These programs benefit both the employee and the employer by encouraging skill development and fostering loyalty. 

Companies understand the value of having educated employees but recognize that not everyone can afford higher education. By offering tuition assistance, they create a win-win situation: employees can advance their education without incurring debt, and companies gain a more skilled workforce. 

However, tuition assistance programs often have stipulations. For instance, you might have to sign a contract agreeing to work for the company for a certain number of years. Other stipulations can include maintaining a minimum grade point average or pursuing a degree relevant to your job. 

Here are some popular companies known for offering tuition assistance: 

CompanyTuition Assitance Details
UPSOffers up to $5,250 per year for higher education.
Wells FargoProvides up to $5,000 per year in tuition reimbursement for employees, and additional assistance between $1,000 and $3,000 for employees’ children.
FedExSubsidizes tuition for employees if their education helps them advance within FedEx.
PublixOffers $4,000 in tuition assistance annually, with a maximum amount of $16,000 for a four-year degree, or $2,200 annually with a lifetime maximum of $4,400 for a two-year community college degree.
VerizonProvides tuition assistance to all full- and part-time employees who work at least 17 hours per week.
OracleOffers up to $5,250 annually in tuition reimbursement.
DisneyPays 100% of tuition up front if employees pursue degrees from schools in the Disney Aspire network.
Home DepotProvides up to $6,000 in tuition assistance for full-time employees, $3,000 for part-time employees, and $2,500 for immediate family members.
LowesSubsidizes tuition for employees who have been with the company for at least one year.
WalmartProvides tuition assistance for a wide range of online and in-person higher education options.
TargetOffers tuition assistance to full- and part-time employees on a case-by-case basis.
ChipotleProvides up to $5,250 annually in tuition assistance to full-time employees.
Chick-fil-AOffers two types of scholarships to select employees, with awards of $25,000 and $2,500.
AmazonCovers up to 95% of tuition expenses for full-time employees.
AppleOffers tuition reimbursement on a case-by-case basis to employees wanting to further their career at Apple.

In addition to the companies listed, many others — such as fast-food restaurants, retailers, and grocery stores — offer tuition assistance programs to their employees. Tuition assistance isn't just limited to big corporations; many smaller companies also have programs to help their workers pursue higher education. 

For example, plumbing, HVAC, electrical, and construction contractors often pay for their employees' trade school tuition, provided they use their certification to benefit the company. If you're unsure whether your current employer offers a tuition assistance program, it's worth asking. You can even propose the idea to them, outlining how further education could improve your skills and ultimately benefit the business. 

Join the military 

If you'd rather not work for a company to cover college costs, another effective way to graduate debt-free is by joining the military. Each branch of the military — Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and National Guard — has its own Military Assistance Program, providing different benefits and stipulations. 

In most cases, the military will pay 100% of college tuition for active and reserve duty members, up to a certain amount. These programs are designed to help servicemembers pursue higher education while serving their country. 

Additionally, the military offers the GI Bill, which provides up to $36,000 for tuition and related expenses for former military members within 10 years of leaving the service. 

Join the ROTC 

The Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) is an excellent option for those who want to pursue higher education while preparing for a career in the military. Army ROTC, Naval ROTC, and Air Force ROTC are offered at select universities and colleges across the country. 

ROTC can be an excellent way to pay for college, but it does come with a significant commitment. To receive free tuition, you must agree to serve as an officer in your chosen branch for a set period, typically at least 8 years. This commitment might delay the point at which you can use your degree in a civilian context, so it's best suited for those interested in a career in the military. 

Financial aid 

One of the more common ways to pay for college is through federal financial aid. You can apply for grants and loans by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Although not everyone qualifies for federal aid, it’s worth applying — after all, the FAFSA application is free. 

Work your way through college 

Although it’s a less glamorous option, you could work your way through college. A practical way to do this is to take on a part-time job and schedule your classes around your work hours to avoid conflicts. 

Another strategy is to work during the day and take night classes, which are commonly offered by community and junior colleges. This arrangement can provide more flexibility, allowing you to earn a steady income while attending school. 

However, working your way through college can be extremely challenging. Balancing work and academic responsibilities requires careful planning, discipline, and time management. The added stress and fatigue can impact your grades if you're not careful, so it's essential to pace yourself and seek support when needed. 

Take AP classes in high school 

If you’re still in high school and looking for ways to get a head start on college, consider taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes. These courses allow you to earn college credits before you graduate high school, potentially saving you time and money once you start college. 

Be sure to check with your high school counselor or AP coordinator to see which courses are available and how they align with your college goals. 

Take summer classes 

Continuing your education during the summer has many benefits, including: 

  • Faster graduation. By accumulating extra credits during the summer, you may be able to complete your program requirements sooner, potentially saving thousands on tuition and living expenses. 
  • Reduced costs. Some colleges offer summer courses at a discounted rate compared to the regular academic year. 
  • Flexible scheduling. Summer classes often have flexible schedules, including online and evening options, which can be helpful if you’re working a summer job or have other commitments. 
  • Focused learning. With fewer classes during the summer, you can concentrate on a specific subject, which may improve your understanding and academic performance. 

Check with your college to see which courses are offered in the summer, if there are prerequisites, and whether they can be applied toward your degree program. This way, you can make the most of your summer and stay on track with your higher education goals. 

Get help from family 

Asking your parents or other family members for financial support can be a practical way to cover college expenses or even pay for your tuition outright. 

In fact, if your parents have the means to pay for your tuition, you may not qualify for federal student aid. And even if you do qualify for student loans, the amount you receive may not be enough to cover the costs of textbooks, clothing, snacks, and other supplies. Those are expenses that are easier to cover through parental support and monetary gifts. 

It's essential to approach this option with an understanding of your family's capacity to assist. Establishing open and honest discussions about finances can help ensure that everyone is on the same page and avoid any misunderstanding. 

Apply for scholarships 

While filling out your FAFSA and exploring student aid, don’t forget to apply for public and private scholarships. There are thousands of scholarships available, and there’s a good chance you qualify for some of them. 

Take the time to research scholarships in your field of study, community, or demographic background. Look for scholarship opportunities through your high school, local businesses, community organizations, and online scholarship databases. Applying for scholarships can be time-consuming, but the potential financial rewards make it worth the effort. 

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Why continuing education is important 

Given how expensive college is, you might wonder if it’s worth the investment. Here are a few reasons why pursuing a higher education is often a wise choice: 

  • Higher earnings. People with a college degree typically earn between $150 and $800 more per week than those with only a high school diploma. Generally, the more advanced your degree, the higher your earnings. 
  • More job opportunities. Those with a college degree or trade certification have 57 percent more job opportunities than those who do not. 
  • Better job security. Individuals with a higher education are less likely to experience unemployment compared to those with just a high school degree. 

Given these benefits — higher earnings, more job opportunities, and greater job security — it's no surprise that college graduates tend to report greater overall happiness

The journey to higher education can be challenging, but with careful planning and the right resources, you can achieve your goals without a significant financial burden. Whether it's through scholarships, tuition assistance programs, or other creative funding options, there's a path for you to earn your degree and embark on a successful career.

About the Author

Jalin Coblentz has contributed to Advance America since 2023. His experiences as a parent, full-time traveler, and skilled tradesman give him fresh insight into every personal finance topic he explores.

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