Saving for College


MODULE GOALS: To provide students with basic knowledge of the options for saving for college and the importance of planning and budgeting for this expense.


  1. To inform students of options for saving for college.
  2. To let students know where they can get financial assistance.
  3. To help students develop a budget or a payment plan for tuition and other costs.
  4. To inform students of the typical college and living expenses they should anticipate.


Graduating from high school is a significant milestone, and while graduating is an accomplishment that should be celebrated, it marks your transition from a free public education to the cost of a college education. College costs and expenses that come with it can be very expensive; you and your parents and/or guardians should begin discussing your options prior to your graduation.  Some families have funds and college savings plans set aside to help fund your college education; others opt to look into financial aid and other options such as scholarships or grants.


  1. Why do I need to save for college?
  2. How much does a college education cost?
  3. How should I pay for college?
  4. How much should I save per month for college?
  5. What will my expenses in college be?

Why do I need to save for college?

College is not cheap. The money that you pay for your college education will pay itself off, because the money you invest in your education will lead to higher-paying jobs in the future. The College Savings Plans Network (CSPN) summarizes the benefits of investing in education as increasing the amount of money you will earn in your career, “The more you learn, the more you earn” (College Savings Plan Network, 2010). Despite the benefits of investing in a college education, the cost of college is rising each year.

How much does a college education cost?

The price of college can vary depending on the school, the area, and whether the college you attend is in your home state or in different state from the one where you live. Each year, college expenses rise by a certain percentage, so this year’s tuition expenses are more expensive than last year’s tuition expenses.  See module on In-State versus Out-of-State tuition for more information about tuition. Keep in mind that some students choose to spend the first two years at a community college to save money. These students can then transfer to a college/university for their final two years of college.

This part of the module will address the general cost of a two-year community college, a four-year in-state college, and a four-year out-of-state college.

Questions to ask yourself when thinking about saving and budgeting:

-Will I attend a two-year community college?

-Will I attend a four-year public college?

    -If so, will the college be in my home state? (More expensive)

    -If so, will the college be outside of my home state? (Less expensive)

-Will I attend a four-year private college?  

These are questions that you need to ask yourself, because the college that you choose should fit into your budget and be a good fit for you. Some options, like out-of-state colleges and private colleges, are more expensive than other options. Discuss the questions with your parent or guardian as you are deciding how to pay for college.

The College Board offers a resource that allows you to select colleges you are considering and compare them. This feature allows you to compare everything from acceptance rate, requirements for admission, and in-state and out-of-state tuition rates. Click the link below to use this feature for free. No sign up is required.

How can I pay for college?

One payment option that many students and their families consider is financial aid. Financial aid assist students who need some help to pay for their college education. Different amounts of aid may be awarded based on how much assistance your family requires. The HEATH Resource Center provides up-to-date information about financial aid and scholarships for students with disabilities. This resource is full of useful information and helpful links to help you decide which financial aid option is best for you and how you can get started on the financial aid process. The guide gives you tips and facts about financial aid. Check out the link below to explore this helpful guide.

Another way to get the facts about financial aid is by clicking on the following link, which will give you quick, concise information about the basics of financial aid.

Financial aid can be:

  • Grants: grant money is usually based on need. If you are eligible for a grant, you do not need to pay the money back.
  • Scholarships: scholarships are “gifts” of money that you do not need to pay back.
  • Loans: loans are money that you borrow and need to pay back. You will also be charged extra money called interest if you take out a loan (CollegeBoard, 2013).

If financial aid is the best option for you and one that you would like to consider, you will have to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You can access the FAFSA application using the following link:

According to College Board, most financial aid (73%) comes from federal government grants and loans. The rest of financial aid comes from sources such as college grants and scholarships (18%), state grants and scholarships (5%), and private and employer grants and scholarships (4%) (College Board, 2013). Despite the sources, there are several ways to get financial assistance to help cover the cost of your college education.

Another way that you can get money to save for college is to apply for grants and scholarships. Scholarships are often available through community organizations and groups. An organization might offer, for example, some amount of money (NOT enough to pay for your whole education) if you qualify, write an essay/fill out an application, and demonstrate that you are a deserving candidate.

Do a general scholarship search here:

Some scholarship opportunities are available for students with disabilities. The following website allows you to look up scholarships that are available for students with your specific disability. This website lists scholarships that might be appropriate for you, and it provides clear deadlines that tell you when the application for each scholarship is due:

The HEATH Resource Center provides information about various scholarship opportunities in their financial aid publication as well post scholarship opportunities on their website and social media sites. After opening the link below, go towards the end of the guide to see a list of scholarship opportunities.

529 College Savings Plan

A 509 College Savings Plan is an investment plan that gives tax advantages to a person who saves for the future college expenses of another person. This may be a plan that your parents, guardians, and/or grandparents have invested in, so ask your family whether they have a savings plan in place. One benefit of this plan is that when you withdraw money for educational expenses, you do not need to pay any tax on it (College Savings Plan Network, 2010). This website outlines college savings plans options that vary from state to state. Find and research the savings plans options for your state here:

How much should I save per month for college?

If your parents and/or guardians have a college savings plan in place (e.g., 529 College Savings Plan) you should discuss which expenses that plan will cover. For example, will the college savings plan cover your tuition, room and board, textbooks, meal plan, and other expenses, or will you need to save or earn extra money? Will you need some financial aid?

What will my expenses in college be?

a) Room and Board

See Module on Food and Nutrition in College for a table that breaks down the expenses for a typical college student. According to the table, the biggest expense in college is Room and Board, which refers to place where you live at college. Most students live on-campus during the first year of college; this means that you are responsible for paying for the university dorm room or apartment. Other students choose to live off-campus, which means that they pay for an apartment or live at home. Whether you will live on or off-campus, you should make room in your budget for room and board.

b) Tuition & Fees

The next most expensive part of college that you should consider is the cost of tuition. Again, tuition is the money that you pay for your classes and instruction in college. To learn about the tuition of the college or university of your interest, go to their website or use College Board’s feature that allows you to compare and contrast the costs of colleges. To access College Board’s compare colleges feature, use the website listed above (under the heading “How much does a college education cost?”).

c) Food/Meal Plan

You will also need to think about the cost of food for college. Food is an expense that some students do not think about, because often parents and/or guardians do the grocery shopping and provide meals when you are living at home. While most community colleges and universities have restaurants and grocery stores nearby, many college students opt to purchase a meal plan. A meal plan allows you the flexibility of eating based on your schedule. You may choose a meal plan that allows you to eat three meals a day or one that allows you to eat fewer meals a day with extra money to spend on food at different times during the day.

d) Textbooks and Related Supplies

Most classes that you will take will require textbooks and other supplies for the class, which can add a significant amount of money to your budget. According to College Board, during the 2012–2013 school year, books and supplies cost about $1,200 per year (College Board, 2013).

One option to save money is buying used books, which are often in good condition but have been used by a student in the past. However, some college professors ask that you purchase brand-new editions of a certain book, which would mean that you would have to buy an unused copy of the book.

You can purchase textbooks in one of the following ways:

Purchase the books at your college/university bookstore (a more expensive option, but bookstores carry used books).

Purchase the books online. While Amazon generally has good prices on new and used textbooks, there are other websites that give you good deals on the books you need to buy. Some reliable, inexpensive websites are listed below:

(This is a great site that helps you find the best price for textbooks. The website does the price comparisons for you by sifting through multiple textbook vendors and finding the best price for you in a matter of seconds. Just enter the title, the author, and/or the ISBN number of the book that you want to buy, and you will see options for renting or buying the book for the cheapest price available.)

(This website has college textbooks for sale that are roughly half the price that you would pay in a bookstore. You can find both new and used textbooks here, and you can search for the textbooks you need by the title, the author, and/or the ISBN number).

e) Transportation

Most college students (especially freshman or first-year students) do not have a car on campus. Sometimes, it may be necessary to leave campus to shop, go to the doctor, and/or go somewhere with friends. Depending on where your college is located, you may have an accessible mode of transportation close by—like the Metro or a bus service. You should leave some room in your budget to pay for transportation if you need to leave campus for any reason.

f) Other

We have covered the basics like where you will live, how you will pay for your classes, what you will eat, and other related expenses. There are, however, other expenses that are important for you to consider. There are times when you will want to go to a movie with friends, eat a dinner out, and/or spend money on entertainment.  These are all expenses you should leave room for in your budget. Other possible expenses to consider in college are health insurance (if your parent/guardian is not paying for your insurance already) and the cost of toiletry items like toothpaste, shampoo, and/or other products that you will need to replace every few months.

Note: In order to save for college, some students work part-time. While it can be difficult to balance a part-time job, attending classes, doing schoolwork, and spending time with friends, think about whether making the time to work a few hours a week would be a good decision for you.

Many colleges have part-time on campus jobs. This may be a good way for you to earn money when you start college. Some on-campus jobs for students include working at the library, college gym, working at the dining hall, and serving as a resident assistant.


Why do I need to save for college?

  • Description:  A college education is a big expense, and costs for this education increase every year. Start talking with your family and thinking about how you will pay for this expense.
  • Advantages: There are many options that you can explore when you start saving for college, and many other students have survived this process!

How much does a college education cost?

  • Description: The cost of a college education can vary, and it depends on many factors. For example, it costs more to go to a university outside of your home state than it costs to go to a university in your home state. It costs more to attend a private university than a public university. It costs more to attend a four-year university than it costs to attend a two-year community college.
  • Advantages: There are many websites (e.g., CollegeBoard) that can help break down the costs of college depending on what type of college you want to attend. If you know the college that is right for you, it can help you start saving for college early.

How should I pay for college?

  • Description: There are many options for paying for college, including getting financial assistance from the government or other sources. Types of financial aid include grants and scholarships, which you do not need to pay back. Another type of financial aid is a loan, which you do need to pay back with interest after you finish college.
  • Advantages: If you are willing to put the work in, there are many opportunities to get scholarships and other types of money that you would not have to pay back. A loan that you do have to pay back gives you the opportunity to wait until later to pay the money back after you have graduated from college.

How much should I save per month for college?

  • Description: Establishing a budget is an important part of deciding how much to set aside for college. A budget is personal to each person, so it is important to determine your current and future expenses to  figure out how much you will need to save each month.
  • Advantages: Saving a little bit each month can go a long way to establishing a fund you will be able to use during college. Even putting aside a small amount of money each month can add up and help you establish a college fund. 

What will my expenses in college be?

  • Description: Some typical college expenses include the cost of tuition, room and board, meal plans, textbooks, transportation, and other costs. Expenses will vary for each person, but most students should plan to save and budget for the typical expenses with some extra money set aside for expenses you do not anticipate ahead of time.
  • Advantages: Once you know what your expenses will be, you can create a personalized budget to approximately plan how much money you will need per month when you are at college. This budgeting will help you in planning for your future.



What did you learn from this module, and how will you use this knowledge to make decisions about saving for college?

  1. Why is it necessary to save money before college?
  2. What college payment/savings option is best for you?
  3. Do you know how to set up a budget for college?
  4. Do you know what expenses you will have during college?


This module has provided an overview of how to save for college and what expenses you should expect during college. Saving for college requires a plan that you should start thinking about prior to your graduation. While planning a budget for college can be overwhelming, the resources provided in this module will help you navigate your way through this process and come up with an individual saving and budgeting plan that is right for you and your family.  The hope is that after reviewing this module and using the resources provided, you will feel ready to start saving for college!

Remember to ask yourself the following questions during this process:

  • How much financial help (if any) will I get from my parents/ guardians/family members?
  • How much financial assistance (if any) will I get from the federal government or other agencies through loans, grants, and scholarships?
  • What expenses do I have to think about for a budget?
  • Have my expenses changed?


This lesson plan (sections or the whole lesson plan) can be used to help students start thinking about saving for college in their early high-school years. Teachers or school counselors can use this lesson plan to teach students how to start thinking about saving for college and to increase student involvement in the planning process.

Megan Betz is a graduate student pursuing a degree in Secondary Special Education and Transition Services at The George Washington University.  Currently, she is conducting research on the different transition options for students with disabilities.   


CollegeBoard. (2013). Financial Aid 101. Retrieved from

College Savings Plans Network (CSPN). (2010). Why save for college? In College Savings Plan Network. Retrieved from

Lim, P. J. (2004). Plotting your savings strategy. Retrieved from

National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). (2013). What’s the price tag for a college education? In COLLEGEdata: Your online college advisor. Retrieved from