8 Ways to Pay for College Without Student Loans or Your Parents’ Help

Female college student on university campus
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Parents aren’t perfect. Shocking, I know.

So even though you may have been planning out your college career, your family’s financial situation may not have kept up with your dreams of campus life.

On average, 34% of college costs were paid from parents’ income and savings, according to a national study by Sallie Mae. But families who have a limited income and haven’t been saving may not be able to help cover a higher education price tag.

Including tuition and applicable fees, the cost per credit hour at a four-year institution is $301.23, according to a Penny Hoarder analysis of National Center for Education statistics. If an average bachelor’s degree requires 120 credit hours, the total price comes to $36,148 — not including room and board.

Whether it’s by necessity or by choice, your parents could end up saying you’re on your own if you want to go to college. But that doesn’t mean you should resign yourself to a mountain of student loan debt or to skipping college altogether.

But you do need a plan of attack, which is where we come in.

How to Pay for College Without Your Parents’ Help

You may not want to hear this right now, but paying for your own college education can actually be good for you (just like brussels sprouts or liver). Taking on the responsibility can teach you budgeting techniques and saving strategies that you might not have learned if your parents were picking up the tab.

You can start saving on college by choosing a less-expensive school — here’s our list of the best college bargains by state.

Once you’ve narrowed your choices, check out these eight ways to pay for college without money from your parents — or student loans.

1. Scholarships and Grants From Your School

Already have a college in mind? Then the first place to start looking for scholarship money is the school’s financial aid office. If you’re still in high school, ask your guidance counselor for their help reaching out to the college.

It’s important to know what money is available, so ask the financial aid officials about deadlines for applications, opportunities for need- vs. merit-based funding and options for renewable scholarships and grants.

Transferring from another college? Whether you started at another four-year institution or you’re continuing your education after completing your associate’s degree at a community college (a great way to save money, BTW), transfer scholarships offer a niche option. Here are 25 transfer scholarships we’ve found.

2. Federal Pell Grant

Federal Pell Grants are need-based awards that are awarded on an annual basis (meaning you need to reapply every year). Use the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to apply — here’s a step-by-step guide for filling out FAFSA.

The maximum Federal Pell Grant award is $6,195 for the 2019–20 award year (July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020). The amount you get will depend on the four following factors, according to the Federal Student Aid office:

  1. Your Expected Family Contribution (EFC).

  2. The cost of attendance at your school and your specific program.

  3. Whether you’re a full-time or part-time student.

  4. If you plan to attend school for a full academic year or less.

Filling out FAFSA requires your tax information, and unless you’re no longer a dependent, that means you’ll need your parents’ most recent tax returns. Providing this information doesn’t leave them on the hook for your college bill, but it could affect your financial aid package.

If your parents won’t provide these details, there are a few options that you can explore. One option is to claim yourself as an independent, but that’s typically only allowed if you are over 24 years old, are married, have kids, are a veteran or can claim special circumstances.

3. Grants From Your State

States use your FAFSA to determine your eligibility for state financial aid, so you get a two-for-one with that application (actually, it’s more like a three-for-one, since your school will probably use it, too). But some states require additional documentation, and their deadlines are not always the same as the federal ones.

Note that most state grants are only applicable for in-state schools, but there are some state grants and scholarships you can use for out-of-state tuition.

Check out your state’s FAFSA requirements for rules and deadlines.

4. Work-Study Program

Federal aid doesn’t stop with scholarships and grants. If you’re able to work on campus part time while attending classes, you can apply for federal work-study (FWS), which is essentially federal aid you receive for working.

Work-study jobs typically allow you to earn extra money without having to leave campus — that’s helpful if you’re without a car or if making the hike from campus to a job would be cost prohibitive.

But don’t expect a work-study program to cover all your costs. Under the FWS program, students typically work no more than 20 hours a week during a semester. And you won’t be allowed to exceed the allotted hours from your financial aid award, so don’t bank on overtime to cover extra costs.

Learn more about on-campus job opportunities here.

5. Other Scholarships

After you’ve talked to your college’s financial aid office and filled out your FAFSA, it’s time to get a little creative in your scholarship search.

Start with your intended career. Corporations and professional associations often offer grants and scholarships for students pursuing degrees in related fields. As a bonus, researching and contacting these organizations early in your college career will help you make connections that can come in handy when you’re applying for jobs when you graduate.

Also check out nationwide databases like Career One Stop, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, and The Penny Hoarder, which has its own compilations of awesome scholarships — and weird scholarships.

6. Part-Time Job

On-campus work isn’t the only way to make extra cash — and off-campus jobs don’t require you to qualify for federal work-study.  

Among the other benefits of an off-campus job is the potential to earn more money than at a FWS job since you can work more hours and keep the job year-round.

Additionally, you can potentially turn a part-time gig into a job upon graduation. Here are six tips to help you move from part-time to full-time employee.

And if you don’t want to leave campus but still want to earn part-time or full-time money, check out our handy work-from-home portal for legit ways to make money from your dorm.

7. Paid Internship

Internships provide on-the-job experience, which can help bolster your resume as your college career draws to a close.

Not only does a paid internship offer the same potential experience as an unpaid version, it could actually improve your chances of finding a post-graduation job.

Among the 2019 graduates who had an internship, 66.4% of paid interns received a job offer, while just 43.7% of unpaid interns were offered a job, according to the survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

You can start your internship search at your own college, whether it’s contacting the career services department, attending on-campus career fairs, reaching out to your alumni network or asking professors within your own department for recommendations. Need more help? Check out this guide to landing an internship.

8. Military Tuition Assistance

Served in the military? Instead of asking your parents paying for college, let Uncle Sam. Active duty, National Guard or Reserve Component service members are eligible for Military Tuition Assistance, which can pay up to 100% of tuition expenses.

If your tuition exceeds your active-duty tuition assistance program award, you can potentially use your GI Bill benefits to cover the remaining costs (known as Tuition Assistance Top-Up). Additional tuition assistance benefits are available through StudentAid.gov/military.

And check out these additional military benefits that can help you cover costs as you progress toward your degree.

It may not be as easy covering college costs without mom and dad helping to foot the bill, but the reward will be a degree you can say you earned on your own.

Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Data Journalist Alex Mahadevan contributed to this article.