Skip to main content

Within Reach home


9 Ways to Pay for College Without Help from Your Parents

College • June 25, 2020 • Chris Morrison


What you’ll learn

  • Learn what options you have to pay for college without help from parents
  • How to apply for financial aid
  • 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 to cover college costs, there are many resources available for prospective college students looking to pay for school with or without the help of their parents.

Whether you or your family are looking to bridge the gap between your savings and the total cost of college, or you’re simply pursuing higher education on your own, paying for college on your own can be done. However, it can also be a significant financial undertaking, which will require you to understand the many options available to you.

So, if you’re looking to pay for college on your own, here are steps 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 all the more 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 you a good deal of money and lower your tuition costs.

    Start by maximizing your high school classes. Does your school offer Advanced Placement (AP) classes? These have the potential of translating 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 a bit 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).

    Alternatively, if AP classes aren’t for you, check out dual enrollment opportunities with local community colleges or universities. These opportunities mean you can 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.

    Next, it’s never too early (or too late) to start saving money 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. 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.

    Then, explore options to make your savings work harder for you. For example, some students choose to save their college savings in a high yield or goal-based savings account, such as SmartyPig, which allows your college savings to grow with interest!

    Overall, be sure to use the time you have while in high school to save as much money as you can for college.

  2. Become familiar with all of 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 will traditionally 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 loan amount of students, etc.

    Fortunately, there are many great, free resources available to help you find valuable information to help you weigh your options. For starters, check out Sallie Mae’s College Planning Calculator: a free online tool to easily see the full cost of attendance of your different post-secondary options and identify various ways to help you pay for it. The U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard is another great resource that can help 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 towards 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. To determine the amount of personal savings you should use to pay for college, be sure that the amount you choose is one you feel most 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.

    As for using your current income to pay for college, set aside a determined percentage of your income each pay period to help increase your college savings over time. Any amount of income and personal savings you can provide towards college will decrease the amount of money you’ll need to borrow.

  4. Apply for scholarships.

    Scholarships are invaluable when it comes to offsetting college costs. With approximately 65% of college students utilizing scholarships last year, they continue to be a great source 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 to access thousands of free scholarships. For example, Scholarship Search is an online scholarship search tool that gives students instant access to more than 5 million college scholarships and allows them to find specific scholarship opportunities that match their skills, activities, and interests. There’s also a scholarship tool specifically for grad students.

    In addition to utilizing a scholarship search tool, make sure to review your college’s financial aid website to see what scholarship opportunities they offer or recommend to students. Also be sure to browse various organizations and financial aid websites on your own to see what other college scholarship opportunities exist out there. You can even call your financial aid office and ask what’s available.

    And if you feel as though 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.

  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 FAFSA.

    The Free Application for Financial Student Aid, or the FAFSA, is one of the best and most important steps to getting money for college. Just as it sounds, the FAFSA is a free online application for financial aid. Based on the information you provide when submitting the FAFSA, colleges will pull together your federal student aid package, which can consist of grants, scholarships, federal student loans, and work-study opportunities.

    To get started, create a FSA ID at studentaid.gov – this will be your personal code, which will serve as your FSA ID and legal signature. Then you’ll need to gather essential documentation, which includes: your driver’s license and Social Security number, potentially your parents’ Social Security number 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 to students 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. Additionally, be mindful of the specific financial aid deadlines for the schools you are interested in, as each deadline can vary. Finally, make sure that you continue to apply for the FAFSA every year you are in school. The FAFSA is used by schools to build your financial aid package for one school year, and you’ll want to apply for financial aid each year that you are, or plan to be, a student.

  6. Compare and evaluate your financial aid offers.

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

    Fast-forward to springtime when you should start to receive financial aid offers (also referred to as merit letters, award letters, or financial aid packages) 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.
    • 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: Money you can borrow that you will need to pay back. Before you immediately select the largest financial aid offer, take a step back and review your offers to determine which is actually best for you. For example, a smaller financial aid 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 and usually 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. Consider student loans.

    After 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 a 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. Direct subsidized loans do not accrue interest 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.

    Similarly to federal student loans, private student loans can offer fixed or variable interest rates. However, as private student loans are offered by banks and financial institutions and are credit-based, you will need to apply directly with the individual private lender and get approved for a loan. In other words, the likelihood that you’ll be approved for a private student loan will depend 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 have the option to choose the type of interest rate and repayment option (like in-school fixed or interest 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 or side hustle started. Not only can the steady income help you with day-to-day expenses that you may encounter at school, but also you can apply available income towards your tuition, books, or paying down student loans while in school.

    From working an on-campus job or finding a paid internship to tutoring fellow students or doing seasonal work, there can be many ways for college students to make money while in college.

  9. 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 both 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.

  10. 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!


Chris graduated from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, where he received a bachelor’s degree in business marketing. An analyst for Sallie Mae, Chris is interested in all things college, personal finance, and the Washington Nationals.


Within Reach home

Sallie Mae does not provide financial, tax, or legal advice and the information contained in this article does not constitute tax, legal, or financial advice. Sallie Mae does not make any claims, promises, or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained in this article. Readers should consult their own attorneys or other tax advisors regarding any financial strategies mentioned in this article. These materials are for informational purposes only and do not necessarily reflect the views or endorsement of Sallie Mae.

External links and third-party references are provided for informational purposes only. Sallie Mae cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information provided by any third parties, and Sallie Mae assumes no responsibility for any errors or omissions contained therein. Any copyrights, trademarks and/or service marks used in these materials are the property of their respective owners.