College  |  March 20, 2023  |  Chris Morrison

How to pay for college without help from your parents

What you’ll learn
  • The options you have for paying for college without help from parents
  • How to apply for financial aid
  • How to evaluate your financial aid offers
  • What you need to know about student loans

Although planning and paying for college on your own can seem daunting at first, it is something that many students successfully do. Between submitting the Free Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA®), applying for scholarships, and taking out federal or private student loans, there are resources available to you.

This can be a significant financial undertaking, so if you’re looking to pay for college on your own, here are tips to help you make it happen! 

1. Plan ahead

When it comes to paying for college, especially without the help of a parent or guardian, taking the time to plan ahead and map out your college journey early on is super important. Not only does it give you the chance to outline your specific career interests and determine what you’re looking for in a college experience, but it can also save money and lower your tuition costs.

AP classesStart by maximizing your high school classes. Does your school offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses? These programs have the potential of turning into college credits, so talk to your counselor about how to enroll. There may be some AP courses that are a great fit for you, and some that are more of a stretch. Make sure you’re generally comfortable in the subject (for example, if you struggle with writing, speak to your counselor before signing up for AP English).

- Dual enrollment: Check out opportunities with local community colleges or universities to potentially earn college credits while still in high school. Not only can dual enrollment help you decrease the cost of college by fulfilling degree requirements needed to graduate, but they can also be a great way to gain some exposure to the way college classes operate.

- Start saving: Use the time you have in high school to save as much money as you can for college. Consider finding a part-time job while in high school so you can put money aside to finance your future college expenses. Take advantage of temporary and seasonal job opportunities to build your college savings.

Then explore options to make your savings work harder for you. For example, you might put your college savings in a high yield or goal-based savings account, such as SmartyPig, which allows your college savings to grow with interest. Look around and see which banks are offering the highest interest rates.

2. Become familiar with all your post-secondary education options

Research shows that 61% of students will pursue a 2- or 4-year program, while 12% will opt for career training. The cost of these different options will vary. For example, a 2- or 4-year institution can cost more than a certificate program or even community college. As you review your options for education after high school, consider what’s needed in order to enter your desired field, along with the other requirements or criteria you’ve got in mind, like employment rate, average cost, number of students, location, etc.

The U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard is a great resource that can help you see your desired college’s academic programs, costs, admission statistics, and post-graduate job placements and starting salaries.

Start early, plan ahead, and form an idea of what you’re looking for so you can make the most out the money you spend.

3. Put your personal savings and income toward college

When it comes to paying for college, first turn to your personal savings and current income to identify what available funds can be used to pay for college.

- Savings: The most important thing is to set aside the amount of savings you feel comfortable with—and can afford. Although you may plan to use as much of your own money as you can to pay for college, make sure that you’re not significantly depleting your personal savings and hurting your financial security.

- Income: Make a budget and set aside a certain percentage of your income each pay period to help increase your college savings over time.

The more money you can set aside now, will mean less money you’ll need to borrow later.

4. Apply for scholarships

Scholarships are invaluable when it comes to offsetting college costs. How America Pays for College 2022 found that 73% of families used scholarships and grants to pay for college; these are sources of free money that you don’t have to pay back.

To get started on your scholarship search, turn to a free scholarship search database. Scholly by Sallie,* the top college scholarship app, has helped students find millions of dollars in scholarships. Best part? It’s free and super easy to use. Simply tell Scholly Search® about your interests, background, and accomplishments and you can get matched with scholarships in just minutes. Then start applying.

Also make sure to review your college’s financial aid website to see what scholarship opportunities they offer or recommend to students. Browse various organizations and financial aid websites to see what other college scholarship opportunities exist out there. You can even call your financial aid office and ask what’s available.

If you feel you might not qualify for some scholarships, don’t let that get you down! Fortunately, there are many easy scholarships that make qualifying and applying for aid a breeze. Any amount of free money you receive to help bridge the gap between the cost of college and your personal savings will be a big help in the long run—even a few hundred dollars can pay for a book or two.

*By clicking the Scholly by Sallie link, you’ll go to our trusted affiliate Scholly’s site. Any information you provide will be shared with Sallie Mae and will be covered under the terms of the SLM NitroCollege, LLC privacy policy.

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5. Apply for financial aid

Along with applying for scholarships, you’ll want to make sure you apply for grants and federal work study programs to help you cover college costs like tuition, room and board, and books and supplies. And to do that, you’ll need to complete the Free Application for Financial Student Aid, or FAFSA®.

The FAFSA® is the most important thing you can do to get money for college. Just as it sounds, it’s a free online application for financial aid. Based on the information you provide, colleges will pull together your federal financial aid offer, which can consist of grants, scholarships, federal student loans, and work-study opportunities.

To get started, create an FSA ID at— this will be your personal code and will serve as your legal signature. You’ll need to gather essential documentation, which includes: your driver’s license and Social Security number, potentially your parents’ Social Security numbers and birthdates, your family’s latest federal income tax returns, W-2 forms, bank statements, as well as any information on your family’s investments (e.g., real estate, stocks, money market funds, etc.). Once you have those documents, get a move on completing the online application and hitting submit!

- Since the FAFSA® opens on October 1 each year and some federal financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, make sure that you complete your application as soon as possible.

- Track the specific financial aid deadlines for the schools you are interested in, as each deadline can vary.

- Finally, make sure that you continue to submit the FAFSA® every year you’re in school, so you can try to get financial aid as long as you need it.

6. Compare and evaluate your financial aid offers

So, you’ve submitted the FAFSA® and have been approved for financial aid…now what?

Fast-forward to springtime when you should start to receive financial aid offers from your schools. Depending on what you’re offered, you’ll want to evaluate and understand your different options.

When you receive your financial aid offer, look for the following types of aid:

  • Scholarships: As previously discussed, this is money you won’t have to pay back. Score!
  • Grants: Also free money that you won’t have to pay back; generally need-based.
  • Work study programs: Money you earn by working a part-time job through your school, such as a tutor, researcher, or library assistant.
  • Student loans: Loans are money that you borrow—and need to pay back.

Before you immediately select the largest financial aid offer, take a step back and review them to determine which is actually best for you. For example, a smaller offer with more free money (scholarships, grants, work-study programs) may be better than a larger financial aid offer with more loans (since these will ultimately have to be paid back with interest).

As you go about evaluating your financial aid offer, deduct your total financial aid received from the total cost of attendance (COA) for your college of choice. The remaining balance may have to be money you cover from your personal savings and income, and potentially student loans.

7. After savings and free money, consider student loans

AAfter you’ve reviewed your financial aid offer and determined that you will need additional funding for school, consider student loans to help you cover the difference. In general, there are two types of student loans: those offered by the government (federal student loans) and those offered by banks or credit unions (private student loans).

If you are paying for college without a parent, there are two main types of federal student loans to consider: Direct Subsidized Loans and Direct Unsubsidized Loans.

  • Direct Subsidized Loans are federal student loans available to students with financial need. Interest doesn’t accrue (grow) while you’re in school, for the first six months after you graduate, or if your loans ever enter deferment (the postponement of payments) after college. Interest rates for these loans are fixed. For these loans, your school will determine how much you can borrow, which may not cover the full cost of tuition.

  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans are federal student loans with a fixed interest rate. Financial need is not required to qualify for these loans, but you are responsible for paying all of the accrued interest on the loan until it is paid off in full. And, in times of deferment or forbearance, interest will continue to accrue on the loan and be capitalized (the interest will be added to the principal of the loan). Like Direct Subsidized Loans, your school will determine the amount you can borrow based on your cost of attendance and the other financial aid offered. 

When you know which type of federal student loan you’ve qualified for, research the various repayment options and see which is the best fit for you.

Once you’ve explored federal student loans, you can turn to private student loans as another option to cover any remaining college costs.

Private student loans are offered by banks and financial institutions, so you’ll need to apply directly with the individual private lender and get approved for a loan. Unlike federal loans, they’re credit-based, so whether you’re approved for a loan depends on a number of factors which could include your credit score, income, any other debt, and whether or not you have a cosigner (a creditworthy individual to share responsibility with you for paying back the loan).

If you are approved for a private student loan, you’ll choose the type of interest rate and repayment option (like deferring till after school, or making in-school fixed or interest-only payments).

If you have trouble getting a private student loan, reach out to your school’s financial aid office to see what other assistance or recommendations they may be able to provide.

8. Get a part-time job or side hustle during college

If you have the time and are looking to keep a steady source of income while in school, consider getting a part-time job. If you can’t find a job that fits your schedule, look to side hustles (e.g., dog walking, babysitting, etc.) as potential income sources.

Not only can the steady income help you with day-to-day expenses, but also you can apply available income toward your tuition, books, or paying down student loans while you’re in school.

Ask for help

Paying for college without the help of a parent or guardian doesn’t mean you have to go on this journey alone. Thankfully, there are many in-person and online resources available that can help you make informed decisions when it comes to paying for college on your own.

Bring questions about paying for college to your high school’s career counselor. Email your college’s financial aid office for more insight into your different options. And keep researching your various financing options online to get exposed to all of your options.

Yes, paying for college on your own can be challenging, but it is not impossible. By planning ahead, taking advantage of financial aid options, and being proactive in the process, you can pay for college and get started on your journey with confidence!

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