What is the best way to pay for college for my child?

1 min readLast updated March 8, 2024by Unbiased team

Learn about the various options for funding your child's education, including student loans, scholarships, grants, FAFSA, 529 plans, and ESAs, and the delicate balance between saving for retirement and college fees.


  • There are various avenues you can explore to pay for your child's college education, including student loans, grants, and saving plans. 

  • When planning for your child’s future, you also need to consider your retirement plan. 

  • Recent changes in 529 plans can impact your retirement planning. 

  • An expert financial advisor can help you plan for big financial events like your child’s education and your retirement.  

How to pay for college for your child 

Before delving into the best way to pay for college, it's crucial to understand the broader context of financing higher education in the United States.  

Need expert financial advice?

A financial advisor can create a personalized financial plan that will help you plan for your and your family's future.

For instance, a hefty loan is not your only option; you can help your child find a scholarship, apply for Federal Student Aid, or qualify for a grant. 

The overviews provided below are pointers to help you explore the options available while helping you find a balance between paying for college and funding your retirement. 

With college costs in the US rising, saving for your child's education is a big financial undertaking.

To save successfully and build a financial plan that works, it’s best to seek out expert financial advice. Unbiased can connect you with a financial advisor perfectly suited to meet your needs. Connect with an advisor today.  

How do I secure a student loan for my child? 

Securing a student loan requires understanding what it is and how it operates.  

A student loan is money borrowed (either from a federal loan financial provider or a private company) specifically designed to cover educational expenses.  

Here's how you can empower your child with knowledge and resources to get a student loan: 

  • Research different loan options and their terms. 

  • Guide your child through the application process, emphasizing the importance of accurate information. 

  • Encourage them to explore federal loans with lower interest rates and flexible repayment plans. 

  • Consider co-signing the loan or offering financial guidance to enhance their choices. 

How can I help my child find a scholarship? 

Scholarships are merit-based financial aids that can significantly ease the burden of college expenses.  

Colleges and institutions offer limited scholarships to reward academic achievements, talents, or unique qualities. 

Given the limited availability of scholarships, applicants can anticipate intense competition. So, to help your child find a scholarship, you can do the following: 

  • Actively search for relevant scholarships, considering your child's strengths and interests. 

  • Assist your child in crafting compelling applications and supporting essays. 

  • Encourage extracurricular involvement in relevant fields to enhance eligibility. 

  • Offer practical and emotional support to boost your child's chances of securing a valuable scholarship. 

How do I apply for Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)? 

If you're looking for a gateway to federal grants, loans, and work-study programs, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the tool for you.  

The FAFSA offers the advantage of accessing various aid options, but the application process can be pretty complex and challenging. 

Here's how you can help your child apply for federal student aid: 

  • Gather essential financial information, e.g., tax returns and bank statements, prior to application. 

  • Guide your child through the application process, ensuring accuracy and emphasizing deadlines. 

  • Remember that it's essential to provide truthful financial details. 

How can my child qualify for a grant? 

Grants are essential financial aids that do not require repayment; they are predominantly awarded based on financial need.  

To qualify for a grant, your child must successfully navigate the application process, highlighting their academic achievements and financial circumstances.  

The main advantage of grants is that you don't accrue debt, which offers a financial boost. However, they can be competitive, and their eligibility criteria vary.  

You can support your child when applying for a grant by doing the following: 

  • Research suitable grants. 

  • Aid in application preparation. 

  • Ensure all necessary documents are in order. 

What is a 529 plan, and how do I start one? 

A 529 plan is an education fund that is a tax-advantaged savings account.  

It operates on a state level, allowing you to invest funds for your child's education and offering tax benefits, e.g., tax-free withdrawals for educational withdrawals. 

To start a 529 plan, research your state's specific plan, open an account, and contribute regularly.  

Additionally, recent rule changes in 2024 have removed a significant barrier in 529 plans, offering more flexibility and opportunities. 

How do I start an Education Savings Account (ESA)? 

An Education Savings Account (ESA) is much like a 529 plan. It is a tax-advantaged savings account that allows tax-free growth and withdrawals for educational expenses.  

An ESA's benefits include flexibility, increased choice in investment options, and potential tax advantages. However, an ESA is more restrictive than a 529 plan. Drawbacks may consist of contribution limits and penalties for non-educational withdrawals. 

If you’re considering supporting your child with an ESA, it’s wise to conduct thorough research before selecting one, contribute consistently to it, and monitor its performance to ensure its alignment with educational goals. 

Saving for your retirement vs saving for your child’s college fees 

One of the most challenging decisions parents face is whether to prioritize retirement savings or their child's education fund.  

Prioritizing retirement savings offers the advantage of securing your financial future and ensuring a comfortable and stress-free retirement. However, it may leave your child responsible for their educational expenses, potentially burdening them with loans. 

On the other hand, prioritizing college funds can provide short-term relief for educational costs but may compromise your retirement nest egg.  

Therefore, striking a balance between how to pay for college and how to ensure you have enough retirement savings is crucial, so considering long-term implications and exploring options like 529 plans is a good option. 

Get expert financial advice when saving for the future

As a parent, the best way to pay for college for your child will depend on your financial circumstances.  

You’ll need to examine all your options and decide whether you need to get a student loan, assist your child in applying for funding or scholarships, or if you can afford to pay from your savings.

At the same time, you’ll need to consider how this will impact your financial future. 

It’s best to seek the advice of an expert financial advisor to ensure that you make the best decisions, not just for yourself and your child, but for both your futures.  

Let Unbiased match you with an SEC-regulated financial advisor who can offer expert financial advice that suits your unique circumstances. 

Find a financial advisor today


Unbiased team

Our team of writers, who have decades of experience writing about personal finance, including investing and retirement, are here to help you find out what you must know about life’s biggest financial decisions.

Need expert financial advice?

A financial advisor can create a personalized financial plan that will help you plan for your and your family's future.