6 Ways for Students to Independently Pay for College

Students don't have to rely on their parents to be able to pay for college. Here are six avenues to consider that can help you pay for your higher education.

The cost of attending college has risen dramatically over the last few decades, and that often means students and their families have to dig deep in their pockets to pay for it. American families paying for college spent an average of $30,000 last year, according to Sallie Mae. Just over half of that money came from parent income, savings, or borrowing—but those aren’t an option for everyone. While paying a hefty tuition bill alone can seem daunting when you’re young, it’s not impossible. If you’re on your own financially when it comes to college, you still have plenty of options. Here are six common ways students can pay for college without the aid of their parents.

1. Student loans without a cosigner

Nearly half of first-time undergraduate students take out student loans to help pay for college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. For graduate students, the percentage is even higher. The US Department of Education offers several loan programs for students, often referred to as federal student loans. You can take on loans by filing your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. 

While the FAFSA will ask about your parents’ financial situation, you won’t necessarily need their assistance. Fortunately, most federal student loans do not require a cosigner. A cosigner is someone, often a parent or other relative, who agrees to make payments on your loan if you fail to do so. Some mortgage and auto lenders will require you to have a cosigner to qualify for a loan if you don’t meet the requirements yourself, but that won’t happen with a federal student loan.

Most federal student loans also don’t subject you to a credit check. This can be a comfort to young borrowers without much of a credit history yet. However, this doesn’t hold true for private student loans offered by banks, credit unions, or other organizations. They often require a co-signer and credit check—and are generally more expensive to boot. If you choose to go this route, keep in mind that it usually takes a decade or longer to pay off your student loans, depending on your repayment plan. This means you’ll be carrying a large amount of debt into the beginning of your career. They don’t go away, either—student loans generally can’t be discharged in bankruptcy. 

Related: Types of Student Loans Explained: Federal vs. Private

2. State-based financial aid

In addition to federal financial help, your home state might also offer ways to help pay for college. These can be in the form of grants or scholarships. Most of the time, it’s intended to help state residents pay for in-state colleges and universities. Find your state college grant agency to see what’s available to you. You may just need to fill out the FAFSA to be eligible, but some states require a separate application. Make sure you’re aware of the deadlines, and try to submit any additional applications early since some of this aid is first come, first served. 

3. School-based financial aid

Your school may offer financial assistance out of its own scholarship and grant funds that can help you pay for college. This also often starts with the FAFSA, which allows you to list schools on the form. When you’re accepted, schools will send you financial aid offers that may include federal student loans, work-study, scholarships, and grants based on the FAFSA. If you don’t have an offer already, be sure to check your school’s financial aid website or speak to the financial aid office about this possibility. Don’t forget to check with your academic department as well! You may need to fill out even more applications and meet deadlines to qualify, but every avenue is worth checking. As always, read the terms of any aid you’re offered before accepting. Also be aware that if your school makes you a tentative offer for aid, it can change down the line.

Related: All About Institutional Aid and Scholarships

4. Private scholarships

You can also look outside the government and your school for help. Hundreds of employers, nonprofits, professional organizations, and other groups offer scholarships for promising young students. Scholarships are free money that doesn’t have to be repaid, so you should always accept this kind of aid first. Some scholarships are merit based, meaning they go to students who best meet the criteria set out by the organization. This can be based on academics or interest in a specific field. Other scholarships take your financial situation into account. To find scholarships to apply for, inquire with nonprofits and civic organizations in your area, ask your school counselor, or try scholarship search tools like the one on CollegeXpress. Lastly, make sure if you’re offered a scholarship, you understand how to maintain your eligibility.

5. Part-time attendance

Going to college part-time can allow you to also work a part-time job while pursuing your education, potentially reducing the amount of money you need to borrow or be awarded. One-quarter of undergraduate students attending four-year universities go this route—that’s nearly three million people. But going to school part-time isn’t without risk. Taking less than a full course load means it will take longer to graduate and sometimes requires you to pay more per class in tuition. You might also miss out on some types of financial aid.

6. Attend a community college

With significantly lower tuition, community colleges can be a great way to get started on your higher education at a discounted cost. Community colleges are two-year schools that offer affordable classes, smaller class sizes, flexible schedules, workforce training, and a cheaper path to a four-year degree. The credits you earn at a community college can often be applied to a four-year program at another college to count toward your program requirements. In fact, most students attending community college hope to one day earn a bachelor’s degree. Be aware that not all community college courses will help you achieve your ultimate goal. You need to make sure the class credits you’re earning at community college will apply to the four-year degree you’re seeking.

Related: Top 10 Reasons to Study at a Community College

Paying for college and the thought of financial debt can be scary, but some students don’t want to rely on their parents or don’t have the option to. With this advice, you can find more money for college and cut your costs to make your higher education work.

Check out our Financial Aid section for more blogs and articles like this to help you figure out your college finances.

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About Callie McGill

Callie McGill is a Content Marketer for ValuePenguin.com.


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CollegeXpress has been a huge help! The website is very organized with finding the right scholarship for anyone and anything. With CollegeXpress, I've been able to find many scholarship opportunities to apply for. Not only that, I'm also able to search for the colleges I have interest in and see what’s required and what scholarships they offer. I've learned a lot from CollegeXpress. They've helped me in many ways to achieve my goals!

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I wanted a school that wasn't too far away from home and could provide me with a full-ride scholarship. CollegeXpress helped me put into perspective the money I had to pay to attend those schools, which ultimately drove me to choose to attend a community college first to get used to being in college before transferring to the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, one of the colleges I was able to research further on CollegeXpress.

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CollegeXpress is always telling you with time to spare when to apply for certain scholarships, what they require, and if you’re eligible or not. They also provide helpful tips for both incoming college students and current college students, such as what to absolutely have in your dorm.

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