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For many of you, paying for college isn’t far off, and the unknowns can be a bit worrying. But at Student Health 101 we had to find an upside, so here it is: The cost of higher education is an opportunity to build certain vital life skills—like stress management, financial self-empowerment, and problem solving. We’re confident these skills will be at least as valuable to you as your future degree is. To get started, here’s some advice from college students about what they wish they’d known about loans, scholarships, and grants when they were preparing to enroll.

Student loans come in many shapes and sizes

“I wish I would have done my research and realized sooner that there are multiple options.”
—Graduate student, University of Wyoming

  • The federal government offers several types of student loans.
  • Private student loans are provided by banks, credit unions, state agencies, and other lenders.
  • All loans must be repaid.

Loan lingo overwhelm?

“I wish I’d known more about what different things mean: variable interest rates, deferment, deferral, etc.”
—Graduate student, Suffolk University, Massachusetts

Dollar sign bullet pointTranslate loan garble into a language you can understand


“Look at when the interest starts accruing, how much interest will accrue in school and later, and how long it will take to pay it off at what monthly payments.”
—Undergraduate, University of Alaska Anchorage

  • Know when you’ll be expected to start making payments.
  • Know what your minimum payments will be.
  • Know whether your interest rate is fixed (never changes) or variable.
  • Know when interest will start to accrue.
  • Know your grace period (how long until you’ll start making payments).
  • Know whether your loan gets you a tax deduction.

Subsidized vs. unsubsidized

In a recent Student Health 101 survey, 80 percent of high school students said that they didn’t know the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans.

Here are the basics:

  • The federal government provides subsidized and unsubsidized loans.
  • Direct subsidized loans are available to undergraduates in financial need. The interest is paid by the government until you’re done with school.
  • Direct unsubsidized loans are available to undergraduate and graduate students; there is no requirement to demonstrate financial need.

Get organized

“I wish I had known to start that spreadsheet immediately.”
—Undergraduate, Santa Clara University, California

  • Keep track of loan amounts, providers, etc. in a spreadsheet. This helps with your taxes, loan repayments, and self-empowerment.
  • Read the info carefully, including the fine print. Don’t miss a deadline.
  • If possible, start paying on the interest as a student to keep rates lower later.
  • Routinely track your spending.

Dollar sign bullet pointOrganizational tools & tips

Reconsider how much you need

“I didn’t have to accept the loan in full. If I had known this, I may have borrowed less.”
—Undergraduate, University of Montana–Western

  • Check out the “cost of attendance” info on the school’s website.
  • Take out as few student loans as possible.

Dollar sign bullet pointCalculate your needs

Don’t miss your repayments

“Even if your mom pays your loan, it’s still in your name. Make sure she makes those payments on time!”
—Undergraduate, Metropolitan State University, Minnesota

If you don’t pay on your loan, you will go into default. This can negatively affect your credit score and reduce your options for getting a cell phone, or buying or renting a place to live.

Dollar sign bullet pointInfo on defaulting

Dollar sign bullet pointOptions for if you can’t pay


“I wish I’d known how readily available scholarships are, if you just look for them.”
—Student, Normandale Community College, Minnesota

Student story

Felecia Hatcher was awarded $130,000 in scholarships. Her advice: Focus on what you’re great at or what you love, and apply for local scholarships: “The pool is so much smaller.” Hatcher is author of The “C” Students Guide to Scholarships (Peterson’s, 2011).

  • Scholarships are usually merit-based. Some scholarships support students facing challenges or contributing to their communities, or employees of certain companies.
  • Scholarships don’t need to be paid back.
  • Check regularly for opportunities others miss with the school’s office of financial aid or the scholarship office, and online.
  • Apply for scholarships every year, even if it didn’t work out last time.

Grants & paid positions

“I wish I had known a way to avoid having to take out loans in the first place.”
—Undergraduate, Humboldt State University, California

  • Grants provide free* money for college (*usually).
  • The federal government offers grants based on need. You will need to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).
  • Check for grants with the college or university’s office of financial aid or the scholarship office, and the academic department you’re applying to.
  • Also look for grants from your state or local government, non-profit organizations, and research and travel programs.
  • Apply for grants every year, even if it didn’t work out last time.
  • Ask about work-study jobs, residential advisor (RA) positions, and other paid part-time roles.

Dollar sign bullet pointScholarships & grants

Essential info from the US Dept. of Education:

Types of federal loansDollar sign bullet point

Dollar sign bullet pointFederal vs. private loans

Dollar sign bullet pointLoan subsidies

Dollar sign bullet pointRepayments and grace periods

Dollar sign bullet pointCalculate repayment timeline

Dollar sign bullet pointFAFSA info

College students’ stories

"I wish I’d seen the big picture"

“I knew in high school that a family member was going to cover all my expenses for college, so I didn’t pay attention when they were explained my senior year. But after two years there was family drama and [the family member] dropped my funding. I had about a month to learn everything I needed to know about loans and get two federal direct loans and a private loan. Should have paid attention.”
—Undergraduate, Pacific Lutheran University, Washington

“I just wish I had applied for more scholarships. It took me until grad school to start doing that.”
—Graduate student, University of Southern Maine

“I didn’t realize how easy it was to just accept [loans] and how hard it was to pay them off. The available amount looks great but just makes you stuck with more debt!”
—Graduate student, California State University, San Marcos

“I wish I would have known about alternatives before I signed away to be in debt.”
—Graduate student, California State University, San Bernardino

“[I wish I’d known] community college is cheaper and I could work before I got to school. Also, the average amount of years it would take a person in my financial situation to pay off a loan of the size that I took out.”
—Undergraduate, Western Illinois University

"I wish I’d known this earlier"

“I wish I’d known that I should pay off unsubsidized loans before subsidized loans.”
—Undergraduate, Western Washington University

“I wish I’d known that each student is allotted a certain amount of federal aid for the whole course of his/her undergrad education, which means students have the potential to run out of federal aid if they need an extra year or two.”
—Undergraduate, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth

“I wish I’d known about income-based repayment plans.
If so, I would not have had semesters with no textbooks or a shortage of toilet paper.”
—Graduate student, Western Illinois University

“I wish I [knew] the importance of paying off the principal as I attended school. This really helps in the long run!”
—Undergraduate, University of Wyoming

“I wish I knew how much I owe, how to pay it off as I go, how much [it’s] growing in interest, and how long it will take me to pay off!”
—Undergraduate, Roger Williams University, Rhode Island

"What I’d do differently"

“Don’t lose your login information. Phoning student loan help is basically useless.”
—Undergraduate, Mount Royal University, Alberta

“I wish I’d tracked the total amount. I had so many smallish loans that when I
graduated and got the total I was shocked. Way higher than expected.”
—Graduate student, Husson University, Maine

“Budget smartly and know the benefits of having a savings account.”
—Undergraduate, Humboldt State University, California

“[I wasn’t aware of] the high interest rate. I should’ve saved up while I had the chance rather than buying those shoes I wanted.”
—Undergraduate, University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley

“Vote for a legislature and government officials who will work for lowering student loan interest rates.”
—Graduate student, University of the Pacific, California

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Article sources

American Student Assistance. (n.d.). Tools & guides. Retrieved from

Couch, C. (n.d.). What to do when you can’t pay student loans. Bankrate. Retrieved from https://www.bankrate.com/finance/college-finance/what-to-do-when-you-can-t-pay-student-loan-1.aspx

Farrington, R. (2015, Jan 22). Three simple actions to take if you can’t afford your student loan payments. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertfarrington/2015/01/22/three-simple-actions-to-take-if-you-cant-afford-your-student-loan-payments/

FinAid! (2015). Smart student guide to financial aid. Retrieved from https://www.finaid.org/

Institute for College Access & Success. (n.d.). The top student loan tips for recent graduates. Retrieved from https://projectonstudentdebt.org/recent_grads.vp.html

Internal Revenue Service. (n.d.). Student loan interest deductions. Retrieved from https://www.irs.gov/publications/p970/ch04.html

Lane, R. (2014, May 14). 3 benefits of making interest-only student loan payments. US News & World Report. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/student-loan-ranger/2014/05/14/3-benefits-of-making-interest-only-student-loan-payments

Mayotte, B. (2015, March 4). Understand the consequences of student loan default. US News & World Report. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/student-loan-ranger/2015/03/04/understand-the-consequences-of-student-loan-default

Shin, L. (2013, Sept. 19). Taking out student loans? Do it right with these 8 tips. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/laurashin/2013/09/19/taking-out-student-loans-do-it-right-with-these-8-tips/

Student Health 101 surveys, August 2015, January 2015, February 2016.

US Dept. of Education (n.d.). Federal student aid. Retrieved from https://studentaid.ed.gov/types#federal-aid

Wells Fargo. (2015). College cost calculator. Retrieved from https://www.wellsfargo.com/student/calculators/budget/

Brandy Reeves is a health educator at the College of Public Health at the University of Kentucky. She received her undergraduate degree from Miami University, a master of public health from Ohio State University, and a master of higher education from the University of Kentucky.

Lucy Berrington is a health writer, editor, and communications manager. Her work has been published in numerous publications in the US and UK. She has an MS in health communication from Tufts University School of Medicine, Massachusetts, and a BA from the University of Oxford, UK.