There are many factors to consider when making the decision to pursue higher education. From tuition prices, available scholarships or financing to finding the right school; there is no one-size-fits-all solution. By being realistic about your goals and planning ahead, you can make a decision that is both affordable and can help further your desired career path.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Consider Community College

You don’t need to attend a four-year university to receive a great education. Whether you are a high school student unsure of which colleges to apply to, or an adult considering returning to school, there are many reasons why community college could be a great alternative for your education. 

  • Community college tuition can be as little as around $3,500 per year compared to attending a public university which can cost an average of $35,000. While the cost of any upper-level education depends on several fluctuating factors, community college is generally the most affordable option.
  • If you are looking to save money on your education, it could be cost-effective to attend a community college for the first two years and complete all of your prerequisites beforehand. However, not all credits may transfer. Before committing, you can request a transfer credit evaluation from the school you intend to transfer. These evaluations are often carried out by the Office of Admissions and provide an analysis of how your credits might transfer from one institution to another.

Trade School

While a bachelor’s or associate degree can lead to opportunities, it’s not for everyone. Trade schools typically provide skill-specific training and include programs that run for up to two years. They remove the majority of general education courses and emphasize hands-on training.

  • Some of the best trade school programs provide the groundwork for lucrative career paths such as technicians, plumbers, electricians, and ironworkers.
  • Not every student thrives in a traditional university. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 38% of students who pursued a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college or university in 2012 did not graduate within six years.
  • The cost of tuition for trade schools varies depending on the school and program. On average, a trade school education costs a total of $33,000. That is roughly equivalent to one year’s tuition at a traditional university.

Private vs. Government Loans

Due to the ever-increasing cost of college, you may need to consider taking out loans to cover the cost of tuition. It’s important to understand the different types of loans available so that you can determine the best route for you and your finances. There are two primary types of loans: private and federal student loans

  • Federal student loans are educational loans administered by the U.S. Department of Education. They tend to have lower interest rates, and relatively flexible repayment plans in comparison to private loans.
  • Private student loans can come from many different sources, including banks, credit unions and other financial institutions. These loans can be used to cover a variety of things such as books, room and board, meal plans and tuition. Unlike most federal loans, however, you may be asked to pay your private loans back while you are still in school and the interest rates on private loans are often times higher. 

Apply for Scholarships

Scholarships can be a great source of financial assistance for college students. Unlike loans that need to be paid back, scholarships are free money that can help close the gap between college savings and educational expenses. 

  • There are a variety of scholarships students can apply to year-round, but the majority of applications take place between September and May. Many people apply for scholarships during the academic school year, so it’s a good idea to apply during the summer when there’s less competition, increasing your chances of being awarded.
  • To receive a scholarship award is a big deal. This award can prove your academic excellence or knowledge in a specific subject matter and can look great on your resume. Winning scholarships can also give students the opportunity to pursue an education at higher-priced universities.
  • There is a plethora of scholarship websites, scholarship search engines and even scholarship books that can provide you access to many scholarships at once. 

Where to Save for College

Lastly, there are several ways to save for college, but many experts recommend a 529 plan. A 529 plan is an investment account offering tax benefits for funds used to pay for qualified educational expenses. You can use a 529 plan to pay for college, K-12 tuition, apprenticeship programs and even for student loan repayments. With time being your greatest asset, the sooner you start saving, the more time there will be for your 529 savings to grow and the earnings to compound.

  • One of the primary benefits of a 529 plan is investments grow free from federal income tax and can be withdrawn tax-free if the money is used to pay for qualified higher education expenses.
  • A 529 plan provides you with flexibility about who can use the plan and when. For example, if the originally designated child chooses not to go to college, parents have the ability to change the beneficiary.
  • In 2019, the benefits of a 529 plan were expanded with the passage of the SECURE Act. Now a 529 plan can be used to pay off up to $10,000 in the beneficiary’s student loans.
  • If you’re a Colorado resident, you could consider FirstBank’s Smart Choice College Savings Account*, which is the only FDIC-insured 529 account in the state. However, it can be used for eligible public and private colleges, universities, trade and vocational schools across the country.

Between universities, community colleges, school loans, scholarships, and trade schools, there are many ways you can prepare your expenses for higher education. If you have any questions about how to financially prepare for higher education, contact us at

*Please consult your tax advisor regarding potential tax benefits.

*To be eligible to apply for a College Savings Account at FirstBank, you must be a U.S. citizen or U.S. resident alien.

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