14 Ways to Pay for College Without Student Loans

A woman reads a book in the library at college.
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So student loan debt got wiped out for millions of borrowers who’ve already left school, but what if you’re heading to college now? Should you take out loans?

Today, nearly half of all U.S. adults who attended college say they left school with loans to repay. That shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the average annual cost of college is more than $35,000. But although it may seem that college costs can only be covered with student loans, taking out a loan should be a last resort.

Even with student loan forgiveness now a reality for many, there are no guarantees about what this means for remaining federal student loans, or what will happen in the future. And even if more relief is on the horizon, there’s no reprieve expected for those holding $131 billion in private student loans.

If you’re headed to college, you don’t have to end up with a mountain of student loan debt. In fact, here’s how to pay for college without loans.

How to Pay for College Without Loans

  1. Start saving early with a 529.
  2. Fill out the FAFSA.
  3. Choose an affordable school.
  4. Negotiate with the college.
  5. Consider community college first.
  6. Earn college credits in high school.
  7. Apply for scholarships.
  8. Apply for state grants.
  9. Apply for private grants.
  10. Get tuition assistance from your employer.
  11. Work your way through school.
  12. Live off campus.
  13. Use military tuition assistance.
  14. Finish college in four years (or less).

1. Start Saving Early

A 529 college savings plan is a type of tax-advantaged investment account. These accounts come coupled with tax advantages and other types of incentives to make it easier to save for college degree or other types of higher education. The plans are administered either by a state or an educational institution.

The main advantage of 529 savings plans is that earnings are not subjected to federal tax, and they are usually not subject to state tax when they’re used for qualifying educational expenses.

Check out our ultimate guide to saving for college and beyond with a 529 plan.

2. Fill out the FAFSA

The next step is to fill out your FAFSA — also known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Even if you’re worried you won’t qualify for financial aid, filling out the FAFSA is a relatively painless process, and most schools require it if you want to qualify for any kind of financial aid.

This means that filling out a FAFSA, even if you don’t take out loans, can help qualify you for scholarships and work-study. Importantly, to qualify for Pell Grants, which you don’t have to pay back, you’ll also need to fill out the FAFSA.

3. Choose an Affordable School

When evaluating where to attend school, consider how much value you’re actually getting from each institution. In many cases, the more affordable option is the smart choice.

Often, smaller, state-run schools can save you thousands of dollars in tuition when compared to large private schools or large public universities. Many institutions offer lower tuition prices for in-state residents. This can be a great way to find “bargains” when it comes to schooling.

4. Negotiate With the College

If you’ve found a school you like, don’t be afraid to negotiate. Many institutions offer grants or tuition programs for low-income college students or students from diverse backgrounds. They can also direct you to more resources.

And if you’re applying to multiple schools, compare the offers from each and ask the financial aid office at your school of choice if they can match the free financial aid offered by another school. Rather than presenting an ultimatum (which could backfire), approach the school with why you want to choose their institution but are tempted by a lower price tag.

5. Consider Community College First

If you live somewhere with a community college nearby, consider attending this school first. Many universities and colleges will accept credits from these institutions, and community colleges tend to have lower costs of attendance. In addition, you can save even more money by continuing to live at home.

6. Earn College Credits in High School

If you’re still in high school, you can get a jump start on college before you ever set foot at a university. Many high schools offer special programs to help you earn college credits while still attending high school. Sometimes these programs will allow you to attend a community college for courses. You may have also heard of Advanced Placement courses, which allow you to take higher-level classes and earn college credits for them.

7. Apply for Scholarships

Always, always, always apply for scholarships. In many cases, scholarships go unclaimed simply because people don’t apply.

Some scholarships are need-based, and others are merit-based. Need-based scholarships examine things like your income, educational background, and diversity. On the other hand, merit-based scholarships look at your GPA and other achievements to determine your eligibility.

It may seem like a lot of work, but scholarships can help offset your college costs.

8. Apply for State Grants

Many states offer public grants that don’t have to be repaid. These grants can go toward your education expenses. Unlike scholarships, which may come from private groups, many states sponsor grants for students who meet specific qualifications. Often, students must demonstrate a financial need and enroll at least half-time.

9. Apply for Private Grants

Similarly to state and public grants are private grants. There are many organizations out there that offer assistance to aspiring students. Contact your financial aid office and community groups in your area to learn more about private grants and locate the ones you’re eligible for.

10. Get Tuition Assistance From Your Employer

Not everyone at college takes a traditional path. Many people change careers or simply want to boost their value at their organization. One way you can attend college, and save money, is to receive tuition assistance from your employer.

Today, more and more companies offer tuition assistance as part of their employee benefits packages. These programs usually require you to remain with the company for a certain period after graduating, but they can be a great way to work and acquire an MBA, for example.

11. Work Your Way Through School

We’re not going to claim you can pay for college without loans just by working a part time job. But getting a job while in school can help you cover tuition.  One way to do this is through work-study programs, which allow you to offset your educational expenses with part-time work. Usually, these programs are minimal hours, and to qualify for them, you have to complete your FAFSA. These jobs are often highly sought after, so apply early!

If a work-study doesn’t suit you, consider taking on a side hustle. Don’t forget to help your money grow; consider investing in low-risk options such as certificates of deposit or high-yield savings accounts.

12. Live Off Campus

One of the biggest costs you’ll face is housing costs, so living off campus is an easy way to save money. If you live close enough, you can always live at home too.

Living off campus will mean you can split expenses with roommates and save huge amounts of money compared to expensive dorm rooms.

13. Use Military Tuition Assistance

If you’re currently enlisted, consider using the Military Tuition Assistance program. All four service branches of the United States military and the U.S. Coast Guard offer financial assistance to its service members. Members of the National Guard and Reserve Components also may qualify.

Finally, the Department of Veterans Affairs offers several benefit programs for veterans. Both of these options are great choices for servicemen and women.

14. Finish College in Four Years (or Less)

Lastly, finish your schooling in four years or less if possible! Failing classes, retaking others, and spending more time in school all mean you’ll be spending more money. Some of the best ways to save money are to finish early. Consider taking courses during the summer or winter breaks to speed up your progress.

Even for current college students who have had federal loans wiped out, there are no guarantees that future federal student loans will be forgiven. So it pays to avoid student loans for the rest of your college years.

With smart financial planning, you can minimize the amount of student debt you take out and have a leg up financially on your peers.

New York contributor Kiara Taylor specializes in financial literacy and financial technology subjects. She is a corporate financial analyst.