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Spring 2013
Vol. 57, Number 1
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Paying for college: Strategies to afford higher education today

A college degree is often the key to jumpstarting a career. And data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) consistently show that workers who have a college degree earn more than workers who don't.

Not surprisingly, a college education is increasingly popular. For example, according to the U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), postsecondary enrollment at all levels grew between fall 1980 and fall 2010—from about 12 million to 21 million students. Those students were less than half of the college-age population in 1980 but about 70 percent in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The cost of attending college rose during that time as well. NCES data also show that between academic years 1980–81 and 2010–11, the cost of college, adjusted for inflation, more than doubled at both public and private institutions.

But sources of money to help students pay for college haven't kept pace. And some types of financial assistance, such as state-funded aid, have shrunk. "The result is that, today, student debt is largely unavoidable," says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of financial aid websites Fastweb and FinAid.

This article is a guide to affording higher education. The first section describes ways to plan for college expenses before enrolling. The second section explains how to finance higher education. The third section offers tips for money management before, during, and after college. Resources for more information are listed at the end of the article.

Strategies described in this article focus primarily on attendance at 4-year colleges and universities. However, the information is broadly applicable to different levels of higher education. Also, keep in mind that some financial aid details, such interest rates and tax incentives, may change. (Check to see if rates and rules have changed since this article was published.)

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U.S. Department of Labor
Bureau of Labor Statistics

Last Updated: March 26, 2013