How to Pay for Postsecondary Education

Postsecondary education is schooling that comes after high school. It includes four-year university programs, two-year community college programs and specialty programs in technical, vocational and trade schools. No matter which program your student may be interested in, it’s never too early to start planning how to pay for secondary education.

A good approach to starting the process of figuring out how much money to save is by working with your student to determine their interests. Does your student want to go to school within the state where they live? Do they want to travel somewhere across the United States or internationally? Is the military lifestyle calling them? Are they undecided and want to take things slow at a local community college? Your student’s schooling preferences will make it easier to plan and budget.

Though parents are not legally obligated to pay for their children’s college education, the U.S. Department of Education established Expected Family Contribution (EFC) guidelines to assess how much money a student and their family are reasonably expected to pay towards their postsecondary education. According to private foundation College Access Fairfax, the EFC “is a federal calculation based on information” provided on a required financial aid form known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

When students and parents fill out the FAFSA, they must include specific information including income for the parent and student, assets for the parent and student, the number of people in a household, the number of people in college, the marital status of the applicants and the dependency status of the student. Because every family’s composition and circumstances are widely different, the resulting EFC calculation is different for each student.

Funding for postsecondary education comes from two main sources: personal assets – including cash, checking and savings accounts, CDs, stocks, bonds, mutual funds and investment properties – and financial aid. “Financial aid is intended to bridge the gap between the cost of attendance and what the family is expected to pay,” states Marian Kendrick, the program director for College Access Fairfax. Students and parents can research a variety of financial aid sources: federal government grants and loans, state grants for in-state students, programs offered by postsecondary schools including work-study, scholarships from private foundations (including civic, religious and professional organizations) and tuition assistance from private employers.

Kendrick emphasizes that students can start to apply for scholarships as early as their freshman year in high school. She also cautions parents to be wary of individuals or groups who charge fees to search for funding to pay for postsecondary education; scholarship information is easily searchable and not hidden, which seems to be a myth that people perpetuate.

Every state from our metropolitan area has organizations available to help students and parents navigate funding options. In the District of Columbia, there is the Office of the State Superintendent of Education offering the DC Tuition Assistance Grant. In Maryland, the Maryland Higher Education Commission helps by awarding “hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid to more than 57,000 Maryland residents … at community colleges, independent colleges and universities, private career schools and … public four-year campuses,” according to its website. In Virginia, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia provides resources including tuition waivers and savings programs to help students “pay in-state tuition rates at out-of-state public institutions while studying in select programs not available in their home state,” according to its website.

The Office of Federal Student Aid, a division of the U.S. Department of Education, manages the FAFSA form guidelines and administers the federal financial aid program. All requirements trickle down through individual postsecondary schools and high schools, making it easy and practical for students and parents to get the help they need.

If parents believe they may have conflicts or concerns associated with their student’s financial aid, it’s a good idea to address any issues directly with the schools and start the process early enough to give themselves ample time to collect all documentation needed to apply for financial aid. Students applying for financial aid can access the FAFSA in October of their senior year in order to apply for financial aid for the following year. Depending on which schools students choose, FAFSA forms may be due at any point from November through April. To ensure FAFSA forms are submitted on a timely basis, it is best for students and parents to work closely with the schools to meet their deadlines.

Though it appears that the bulk of the financial aid process is placed on parents, Kendrick emphasized the importance of student-initiated conversations with college and career counselors at the high-school level. Each high school has one or more career counselors available to talk to students one-on-one and answer questions. They are perhaps an underused source, as teens in school are less likely to go to adults to help them with problems, but they are readily available whenever students need advice on career and school choices.

Career counselors from high schools offer many benefits. Students who talk about their personal interests with career counselors have the advantage of a neutral adult providing resources and information about postsecondary schools and the specific certificate or degree programs that best match the students’ interests. Career counselors also have up-to-date resources that are not easily found through simple internet searches. Finally, conversations with career counselors can give families a starting point to research specific schools and develop a framework to determine cost of attendance, which will in turn help estimate the family’s expected contribution for school.


For state-specific sources for financial aid, visit:

District of Columbia: Maryland: Virginia:

For a comprehensive guide to financial aid, visit:

For a list of scholarships, visit: