Can the Middle Class Afford College?

March 8, 2011 | posted by Jeff Sheely.

acceptance-letter-envelopeGetting your acceptance letter can be the thrill of a lifetime, but then reality hits: how can you afford to pay for it?

The situation goes a little like this: A student comes from a middle class family, his or her parents can’t or won’t put any money toward college, and the financial aid package from the school is too small.

Result: Not enough money for college.

At one point in time, education was considered the ticket into the middle class. Now it seems that education is difficult to access even if you are in the middle class.

How many of you have been or are in a situation like the one above? We bet that a lot of you are. Here’s a message we received from a student facing this exact situation on Twitter:

can the middle class afford college

We know the realities of this situation. But instead of ditching the idea of school altogether, look at this as a chance to use the skills that got you into college in the first place. Don’t ignore your reality; simply think creativity and work around it.

Keep in mind this great quote from Maya Angelou: Nothing works unless you do.

It’s Not an Impossible Situation

Even though it may feel like it, this is actually not an impossible situation. You don’t have to be rich to go to college, or super-talented, or a genius. AND you do not need to come out of it saddled with debt. Here are some key thoughts to keep in mind:

1. Choose a school you can afford

One of the most difficult parts of the college journey is applying to and getting into the school of your dreams. If money were no object, you could go to any school that would accept you. But if you’re paying for college on your own, you have to think a little differently.

According the Freshman survey put out by UCLA, more and more students are evaluating colleges based on their value, and you need to jump on that bandwagon. Ask the tough questions – is the school worth the money? All too often, students don’t look critically enough at their schools because of the way that the application process works. But think of it this way: you are paying for that education! You are essentially a customer of the school. You have to ask yourself whether or not you can afford it, and whether or not the education there is worth the price.

2. Don’t waste time in high school OR college – Get good grades

Good grades pay off; they really do. Even if you are on your way out of high school, you need to think about your work ethic and how much effort you put into school. The higher your grades are, the more likely you are to qualify for certain merit awards and scholarships. Many schools give a merit award every semester, so it pays to find schools like that and work hard at keeping your grades up.

You don’t have to be a genius to get good grades. Pay attention in class, do your assignments, and ask for help when you need it.

3. Be financially savvy about working and internships

Are there opportunities to work and save money for fall semester? Take them. Is there a paid summer internship program available to you? Apply for it. From now until college starts, consider all of the ways you can collect enough money to pay your college expenses. As they say, leave no stone unturned.

4. Take it a semester at a time

Take your education one semester (or quarter, or trimester) at a time. Keep the long term vision, but know your short term reality. That means, from now until the fall, focus on paying for the fall semester. Then, during fall semester, focus on finding the money you need for the spring semester. Not only is this smart, but it’s encouraging, because it’s a lot easier to meet short term goals.

5. Never stop applying for scholarships

This goes along with number 4, but it’s just good practice of habit. Never stop applying for scholarships. Every month, we publish a list of scholarships with deadlines ending within the month. Scholarships pop up all year round; there is no reason to not apply for them. Even if you are currently in school, you should apply for scholarships continually. The more you apply for, the more you are likely to get.

6. Consider your ultimate goal and commit to doing what’s necessary to achieve it

What is your ultimate goal? What do you need to do to achieve it? Would ROTC help you get where you want to go? What about work study, or going to school closer to home?

Sometimes, you have to make the hard choices, but it can be done.


There is so much more advice we could give on this topic. What questions do you have regarding paying for college, student loans (that’s our specialty), and financial aid? Let us know and we’ll help you out.

Great Resource: The College Board “Where the College Scholarships Are

Image Credit: slgckgc


  • KNorval

    Sure, everyone can go, but most of the packages offered by colleges are all about LOANS. Student loans, parent loans, private loans, etc. At one point I would have said it was totally worth it to loan up like crazy in order to attend your first choice school, but I am no longer sure coming out with 80 thousand dollars in debt is wise. I agree about grades, scholarships, etc., but the truth is most kids are average students who will still do well in college, and those kids are the ones who cannot find ways to pay for it.

  • Felicia Gopaul

    I respectfully disagree with KNorval. If you apply to the wrong school you could end up with lots of loans but there are plenty of colleges out there that are looking for good students. What I’ve seen is too many students applying to the SAME colleges (ie. selective). Selective colleges don’t give merit scholarships because all the admitted students have merit. Your best bet for money from colleges is to be one of the best students at a college that will be glad to have you attend.