How to Afford College Without Your Parents Help
It’s no secret that college costs many thousands of dollars – far more than the average high school grad has on hand. Most students are able to count on their parents to kick in some savings, but what if that’s not the case?
What if your parents can’t afford to help pay for college? Or they won’t?
We’ve got 8 tips to help you pay for college without your parents’ help, and without drowning in debt!
1) Have a frank discussion
Start by talking to your parents about how much money, if any, they are willing to contribute to your college costs. You can talk in terms of a dollar amount or a percentage.
The circumstances will vary from family to family. Perhaps your parents can offer more financial support if you’re not living at home or will no longer need a vehicle / auto insurance. Or perhaps it’s the opposite, and if you’re at home and can help with housework or childcare they can offer more. If a 4-year university is too daunting, maybe they will help fund community college or pay for dual-credit courses while you’re still in high school.
This conversation can be uncomfortable and your parents may feel pressured, so be sure to be reasonable and understanding of their limitations. If your parents can’t or won’t help pay for college at all, help them understand that you will need their financial information in order to apply for financial aid.
2) Fill out the FAFSA
When you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), it is assumed that you are a dependent of your parents. Even if they don’t claim you on their taxes, even if you fully support yourself and they won’t be helping with college expenses, you will still be required to include their financial information when completing the FAFSA.
The only way to get around this is to be considered “independent” by FAFSA’s standards. To be considered independent, you must meet one of the following:
- Age 24 or older by 12/31 of the school year
- Working toward a master’s or doctorate degree
- Married or separated (but not divorced)
- Have children who receive more than half of their support from you
- Have dependents (other than children or spouse) who receive more than half of their support from you
- Since age 13, both of your parents became deceased, you have been in foster care, or you have been a dependent or ward of the court
- Emancipated minor or in a legal guardianship determined by a court
- Unaccompanied youth who his homeless or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless
- Active duty in the U.S. armed forces
- Veteran of the U.S. armed forces
If you do not meet any of the above criteria, you will be considered a dependent student and must provide your parents’ financial information when completing the FAFSA. But don’t let that deter you.
The FAFSA unlocks the door to several types of financial aid, including grants, scholarships and even low-interest loans. And even though it is a federal program, many states and colleges use the data collected by FAFSA to determine eligibility for their own grant and scholarship programs as well.
You might think that if you include your parents’ finances you won’t qualify for financial aid, but there is a good chance you will be surprised. Most students who apply receive some financial aid.
In 2016-17, according to The College Board, postsecondary students received $125.4 billion in grant aid — up 74% (in inflation-adjusted dollars) from a decade earlier. Even with an increase in enrollment, the average undergraduate was able to receive $8440 in aid!
Keep in mind that some funds awarded by FAFSA are done so on a first come, first served basis, so you should not procrastinate. The FAFSA application becomes available each year on October 1st, and should be filled out the year before you plan to attend college.
3) Apply for scholarships
You don’t have to have straight A’s, be a star athlete or top musician to earn scholarship money!
There are scholarships available for all sorts of students. Some are based on where you live, your racial / cultural / religious background, the major you’ve chosen, where you or your parents work, a talent or hobby, a unique life experience, etc. And some are just sweepstakes or contests.
Here are a few examples of unusual scholarships available:
- Zombie-Apocalypse Scholarship ($2000) – Write a winning essay about how you’d handle a zombie apocalypse
- Create-A-Greeting-Card Scholarship ($10,000) – Submit original photo / artwork / graphic for the front of a greeting card
- Dairy Farmers of America Scholarships (varies) – For students pursuing a career in the dairy industry
- The United Federation of Dolls Club (UFDC) Scholarship ($1000) – For students interested in dolls
- Duck® Brand Duct Tape Stuck at Prom® Scholarship Contest ($10,000) – Make the best prom outfit from duct tape
You can find scholarships like these using search sites like Fastweb.com or Scholarships.com. Each site searches millions of scholarship and grant programs! Just fill out a profile with some basic information about yourself, and you will be matched with scholarships that you can apply for.
Finally, ask your high school guidance counselor about local scholarship opportunities. These programs may have fewer applicants, which means you will have a better chance of getting free money for college. Even the smaller awards ($100-200) are worth applying for as these will add up!
4) Consider a work-study job (or another job)
The Federal Work-Study Program helps students earn money for school through part-time jobs, usually on campus or through local non-profit employers. Eligibility for the program is determined by the FAFSA, and you can find out about positions by contacting the financial aid office or career center at the school you choose. Oftentimes work-study positions are related to a students’ chosen major.
Work-study jobs are designed to work around students’ irregular class schedules, and offer around 10-15 hours per week. The pay is usually not enough to drastically offset the cost of tuition, but it can help with additional expenses like room and board, textbooks or entertainment.
The biggest benefit to work-study jobs is that the money you earn will not be counted as income when you complete your next FAFSA.
If you don’t qualify for a work-study position, consider looking for another job that can work with your class schedule and provide you some income to help with college costs.
But be sure that holding a job – work-study or otherwise – is something you can handle. If you’re already feeling overwhelmed by coursework, adding a job will be a recipe for disaster. Instead, take advantage of school breaks and summer vacation to earn money for school.
5) Take advantage of tax credits
If you are filing your own taxes, there are two higher education tax credits you should know about:
- The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) – Up of to $2500 per year based on your qualified education expenses (tuition, fees, books, supplies, equipment); Credit of 100% of the first $2000 in qualified expenses and 25% of the next $2000; Only applies to the first four years of postsecondary education; Up to $1000 refunded
- Lifetime Learning Credit – Up to $2000 or 20% of the first $10,000 spent on qualified education expenses (tuition and fees); Applies to undergraduate, graduate and professional students; Credit is nonrefundable
You cannot take advantage of both credits in the same year, so figure out which is better for you. For undergraduates who meet the requirements, the AOTC is generally the more valuable tax credit option.
6) Make a college plan that fits your budget
Even if you’ve worked hard throughout high school and have been accepted at your top choice school, you may not be offered enough financial aid to make it affordable. That’s a harsh reality to face.
But think about it: To attend your top choice school you may have to take out hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans that will burden you throughout your adulthood. That cost is simply too high.
Instead, cast a wide net by applying to a variety of schools and comparing the final prices, after grants and scholarships are applied. You may be surprised to find a private school is cheaper than a state school because of the financial aid packages they are able to offer.
Another budget-friendly option is community college. The average per-credit cost at a community college is $135, less than half of the $325 per credit cost at a 4-year school. By opting to get your general education credits or associates degree at a 2-year school first, and then transfer to a 4-year school, you could save $10,000 or more!
7) Cut costs
To save money, eliminate as many unnecessary expenses as you can.
Entertainment expenses are usually the easiest to cut. Skip out on concerts and movies and look for cheap or free alternatives right on your college campus. Check out a guest speaker, a choir concert or a student play. Show school spirit at a volleyball or baseball game, or join a recreational sports league. Get involved in the cultural center, student ministry or another organization.
If you plan to live on campus, research the dining options to determine whether it’s best to eat on campus or keep food on hand to eat in your dorm room.
On some campuses and in some cities a vehicle is unnecessary, which means you may be able to eliminate a car payment, auto insurance and parking permits as well.
And finally, you can save on books by buying or even renting used textbooks. You can also check to see if electronic books (e-books) are available, or if the books you need can be checked out from a local library.
8) Apply for student loans
After you have accepted all of the grants and scholarships offered to you, without the financial support of your parents you may still need to take out student loans to help pay for college. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as you are smart about which loans you accept.
The best loans for students are those offered by the federal government. Federal loans do have to be paid back with interest, but the interest rates are fixed and are typically very low. There are two types of federal loans: subsidized and unsubsidized. With a subsidized loan, the government will pay the interest while you are in school, so choose this option before any unsubsidized loans.
After federal loans, the next best option is usually loans from your state government or your school. These loans may be similar to federal loan but with slightly different terms so be sure to read the terms and conditions carefully.
Private loans are the least desirable option for student loans. These loans, offered by lenders such as banks or credit unions, will likely have higher interest rates and require a cosigner. Be sure to read through the fine print before signing.
If you’re still struggling to understand the different loan types, the Federal Student Aid website is an excellent resource.
As you accept student loans, remember to only borrow what you absolutely need. If you don’t need quite as much as you are offered, you can request a lower loan amount. Your aid offer will include information about how to do this.
Some parents simply don’t have the funds to help their children pay for college, and some may feel it’s a child’s responsibility to pay for his / her own education. Some just aren’t in the picture to ask.
Whatever the situation, know that you can do this! Talk to your high school guidance counselor and/or the financial aid office at the school(s) you’re considering, research thoroughly, and follow our tips above to learn how you can pay for college without your parents help and without drowning in debt!