Creative Ways to Pay for College

When it comes to financial aid, you've heard it all before: government loans, scholarships, grants, etc. But what happens when you tap all these resources and you still come up short? It's time to get creative.

Freelance writer

Originally Posted: Oct 25, 2011
Last Updated: Sep 24, 2020

When it comes to financial aid, you've heard it all before: government loans, scholarships, grants, etc. But what happens when you tap all these resources and you still come up short? It's time to get creative.

You’re most likely going to need a bit of help paying for college. Many times students receive their scholarships and max out government loans and still need a little more. But before dipping into private loans, consider these creative ways to pay for college.

Let the college pay for you!

Believe it or not, there are schools out there that are completely tuition free. You can earn the education you want without the big loans to pay off after graduation. One of these schools is The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, located in New York, New York. Mitchell Lipton, The Cooper Union’s Dean of Admissions and Records and Registrar, explains financial aid at the school, saying, “The College admits undergraduates solely on merit and awards full scholarships to every enrolled student. In addition to the full-tuition scholarship, our institution provides financial aid to help cover costs such as room and board, books and supplies, transportation, and other personal expenses.” This scholarship doesn’t come easy, though. The Cooper Union is a very selective school and admission standards are extremely high. The students that gain admission have really earned their tuition!

If you’re looking for a place where you can work your way through college, you may want to look into College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Missouri. The school is nicknamed “Hard Work U,” and with good reason. Rather than paying tuition, all full-time students work 15 hours per week at one of 80 assigned campus work areas.

There are other ways to go to college on the cheap. “Some colleges offer no-loan financial aid policies to families with limited financial resources,” says Lipton. This means, in most cases, that you have to pay your estimated family contribution (EFC) and the school will make sure you don’t have to take out any loans to pay for the rest of the costs. Colleges vary greatly, so it’s worth contacting financial aid offices to see what the rules are.

Work hard for the money

Yes, you’ve been told to get a part-time job to ease college costs, but have you thought about participating in cooperative education?

Cooperative education (or co-op) involves students working full time at companies while enrolled at college. These students can earn up to $25 per hour and gain experience and career contacts. “This is a great opportunity for students to finance their education and gain valuable work experience,” says Michelle Beaton, Manager of Undergraduate Admissions and Recruitment at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada.

While co-ops can be a great source of income, they can be challenging, as well. Because you have a full-time course load, you might have to take a bit longer to finish your degree. At Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, undergraduates typically take five years to complete their education, but they also graduate with close to 18 months of on-the-job paid experience, which many people consider invaluable.

Don’t be afraid to be weird

You’ve probably done a search for “scholarships” on Google or visited your favorite scholarship search engine. But these methods only partially cover the vast array of money available in scholarship form.

There are scholarships out there to fit every type of student, not just those with great grades or who are good at sports. There’s a scholarship for vegetarians who show initiative in promoting the benefits of being a vegetarian in their community. You can find a scholarship that focuses on creativity, such as the Duct Brand Duct Tape Stuck at Prom contest in which promgoers design their attire out of Duct Tape. Or maybe you can find a scholarship to match your unique physical characteristics, such as the Beckley Scholarship at Juniata College, open to left-handed students only. And there are even scholarships for you Trekkies out there: the Klingon Language Institute awards a scholarship each year to students interested in language studies and the Starfleet Academy offers several scholarships for its members.

Even though your weird and unique talents may score you some big-time money, don’t forget about the local scholarships in your area that might be available. “I always suggest that a student obtain a program of the previous graduating class’ honors assembly from his/her high school guidance counselor,” says Bruce Perkins, Director of Admissions at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Oklahoma. “Usually such a program lists all of the scholarships that class members were awarded. It’s an easy and quick way to identify local and regional sources for scholarships.”

Lower costs

There are many methods to get help paying for college, but there are also ways in which you can lower your up-front college costs.

First, you can try the transfer student method (see article on page 10 to learn about the pros and cons of community college attendance). By starting out at a school that has a lower price tag and then graduating from a four-year university, you get the same degree on your résumé and pay a lot less in tuition bills. You do have to be cautious with this option, however. Careful planning is needed to make sure your credits will transfer to your new school and that you will graduate on time rather than spending an extra year or two in tuition to earn that degree.

Another option is accelerating your degree. Rather than taking four years to complete your classes, try graduating in three. You can test out of many freshman-level courses through exams like the Advanced Placement (AP) or by taking college-level, credit-granting courses while in high school. Again, you’ll need careful planning and make every class count. You can take a few summer courses or an extra course each semester to ensure you earn enough credits. If you plan on obtaining an advanced degree, look into the hundreds of combined degree programs, such as a five-year bachelor’s/master’s or 3+3 law and physical therapy programs.

One more way to lower your college costs is to go where you’re wanted. As Lipton puts it, “Sometimes applying to a school that historically you would have been at the top of their entering freshman profile can lead to more grant/scholarship money.” If a school thinks you’ll be a great fit, they’ll add grants and scholarships to their acceptance offer. So make sure to pick out some sure-fire schools that you think you could really turn into your home for the next four years.

Some last pieces of advice

There are other ways to be creative when it comes to paying for college (e.g., locking in your tuition rate), so make sure you do your research! Talk to the financial aid officers at your prospective colleges and find out what other students have done. Deborah Bandy, Director of Admissions Operations at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, suggests developing an “elevator speech” to ask organizations, corporations, and nonprofit foundations for help. “Any time the door is opened, walk through, make your plea, and accept the answer graciously,” she says. “You may be surprised to learn how your boldness, courage, and honesty may be rewarded.”

College can be expensive, but if you’re diligent in your research and dedicated to lowering the costs of your education, you may find that you can obtain a degree without going broke. 

Like what you’re reading?

Join the CollegeXpress community! Create a free account and we’ll notify you about new articles, scholarship deadlines, and more.

Join Now

Join our community of
over 5 million students!

CollegeXpress has everything you need to simplify your college search, get connected to schools, and find your perfect fit.

Join CollegeXpress
CollegeXpress Logo


Are you our next winner?

Register now for our scholarship giveaway

College Matches