A smiling woman in a graduation cap and gown
A smiling woman in a graduation cap and gown
Diversity & Inclusion
July 1, 2024

How to pay for college

Leaders of national scholarship organizations and first-generation college students address the rising cost of education.

Key takeaways

  • A college degree has never cost more in the United States, and cost is one of the reasons 1.2 million fewer students enrolled in college over the last decade.
  • Experts from organizations in Wells Fargo’s National Diverse Scholarship Portfolio believe prospective students can find ways to pay for college by seeking private scholarships and better understanding financial aid.
  • Four-year colleges are important, but technical colleges that teach trades and vocations can also be paths for students to earn good-paying jobs.

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is clear: A combination of rising prices and inflation has made college more expensive than ever.

The cost of tuition at public four-year institutions has risen for decades, with the average student and their family paying more than $30,000 per year in 2022 – 2023. Many barriers make it difficult for people from all walks of life to attend college, but one often cited by experts is the cost.

Over the last decade, according to the Pew Research Center, the number of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college was down 1.2 million from its 2011 peak.

"It's really something we can't afford as a country to say, that college isn't worth it," said Dr. Noël S. Harmon, president and executive director of Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) Scholars

 Wells Fargo spoke with the leaders of several national scholarship organizations, as well as students who have benefited from their programming, to share ways to pay for college during a time when a college education has never cost more.

Seek scholarships outside of your university

Lani Lam is a rising junior at the University of California at Davis. Coming out of high school, she had little knowledge of the college application process. She didn’t know where to look, or who to ask for help, to become the first person in her family to attend college.

After some online searching and conversations with friends at school, Lam found her answer.

“I realized that I could filter through them [scholarship organizations and opportunities], based on a certain demographic of students,” she said. “I found APIA Scholars through just Google searching and saw they had a pretty prominent social media following.”

After being rejected prior to her freshman year, Lam has been an APIA Scholar each of the last two years.

“APIA Scholars has lessened the financial burden off of me tremendously,” she said. “I don't have to worry about making rent. I don't have to worry about my school fees and other things that can cause stress. That has allowed me to really focus on things like research and getting to know faculty.”

Don’t be dissuaded by sticker shock

For families wanting to put students through college, the price of post-secondary education might seem discouraging and make college feel, frankly, out of reach.

That’s why Fidel Vargas, president and CEO of Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF), urges families to look beyond the list price.

“When we advise families, we tell them a college education is something that can never be taken away,” Vargas said. “Helping students understand and simplify something like financial aid, or the FAFSA is important. We let them know that if their students are exceptional and they get accepted to prestigious institutions that cost a lot, there’s financial aid — a lot of it — available for them.”

That was the case for Blake Scott, a student — and baseball player — at North Carolina Wesleyan University.

“My dream was to play college baseball but I didn’t have a whole bunch of opportunities out of high school,” Scott said. “Wesleyan reached out saying I could play there, but it’s a private institution and it’s not cheap.”

Scott knew Wesleyan was a fit for him athletically and academically, but his family couldn’t afford to put him through four years there. He reached out to the Native Forward Scholars Fund, the largest scholarship provider to Native American students in the United States.

“I had a mentor at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke who introduced me to the organization,” Scott said. “I’ve received a scholarship from Native Forward each of my four years at Wesleyan. With the other financial aid I received, I’ve been able to continue my education and am looking forward to graduation.”

Exhaust all options

Scholarships, financial aid, internships, externships — all the things associated with paying for college — can be a lot to manage. And that’s on top of writing essays, submitting applications, and asking professors and mentors for referral letters.

It’s not a process full of joy, but one potential students have to grind through, says Della Britton, president and CEO of the Jackie Robinson Foundation.

“When somebody waves a check in front of them, students are quick to borrow,” she said. “But the goal is to be debt-free, so students need to ask exactly what is in their financial package from the school? What is there from the federal government, from the state government, from private grants?”

Dr. Harry Williams, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, believes working hard to pay for college now is a sure-fire way to be successful later.

“We all know that college is a pathway to elevating students out of their current economic situation,” he said. “But the biggest challenge facing our students is finances. Our students graduate with a significant amount of debt and that slows them down from moving to the middle class. So we try to minimize that debt by encouraging our students to look at private scholarships, aid, and departmental scholarships, too.”

And the type of school is important, as well.

Mike Nylund, president and CEO of Scholarship America, wants more students to be open to different types of college experiences, some that don’t cost as much as traditional four-year schools.

“A four-year degree isn't necessarily the right path for everyone,” he said. “There are better solutions for students who want to try a trade or get a technical degree. I think community organizations need to partner together to educate families and students about all of their options.”