How to Pay for College Without Your Parents’ Help

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Figuring out how to pay for college can be a real headache, especially if your parents are not the ones paying for it. Even if there is a college fund in the cards for you, chances are, you still need to come up with some amount of money. You have to cover tuition, books, room, board, and food for the next two to four years. Or longer, if you decide to go to graduate school.

It may seem overwhelming, but don’t fret! There are a variety of ways to pay for college, and all it takes is knowing what they are and what you need to do to acquire them.

The first step is understanding the differences between types of colleges, as this will likely affect how much your college education costs.  

Compare Types of Colleges

First, you need to figure out what kind of college you’re going to (if you don’t already know). Some students have a particular college in mind from early on in their high school careers. However, don’t feel pressured to go anywhere just because, for example, it was your parent’s alma mater. 

You should make a list of things you want in a school. Whether it’s a particular program, major, school size, or region, this will help you in your college search. You will, however, find that there are two main types of colleges: public and private. There are pros and cons to both, and determining the right kind of college for you requires a comparison. 

Public Universities

Public colleges and universities are schools that the state government funds, which includes all the “University of [Insert State and/or City Name Here]” schools. Many people are already familiar with these, especially if you live in that state.

The residents of the state pay taxes that go towards state colleges. The state government then takes care of part of the cost. This makes the cost of attendance cheaper for in-state residents than out-of-state. If you want to stay in your state for college, then applying to your state universities is an excellent way to reduce tuition costs. 

However, in general, state colleges tend to be less expensive than private colleges. If there’s a state that you are particularly fond of, researching their colleges might be a good idea. This will especially help when you go to compare schools.

The Pros and Cons of Public Universities

Public colleges tend to have large student bodies. The largest schools in the country are state schools, with enrollment as high as 60,000 students. Because they’re so big, they tend to have a variety of different majors and programs. A university campus tends to be made up of smaller colleges, each one housing a particular field of study. This also means that they have a wide variety of student organizations, clubs, events, and Greek life. If having lots of options within a large institution appeals to you, then you may want to consider a state school.

On the other hand, large class sizes mean less one-on-one instruction with professors, especially for more popular majors. The multi-tiered lecture hall where the instructor speaks to a sea of students is a common occurrence at state schools. However, if you plan to specialize in a particular area, then class sizes tend to become smaller as you go.  

Private Colleges

Private colleges are the opposite. State governments do not fund them, but rather, benefactors, donations, tuition do. This makes tuition significantly more expensive. According to Niche, the average cost of tuition for your first year at private colleges is $25,914. For public colleges, the average is $5,897 for in-state residents and $12,383 for out-of-state residents. However, there are typically several substantial scholarships available at private colleges. If you’re interested in attending one but are put off by tuition costs, look into what kinds of scholarships they offer. 

Additionally, private colleges tend to be smaller, giving you more one-on-one instruction with your professors. If this is a learning style that works for you, this may be ideal. However, a smaller student body means a smaller selection of majors, programs, and organizations. If having a wide variety of activities is essential to you, then a private college may leave something to be desired.

Consider Community College

Community college (or junior college) tends to get counted out. In reality, it’s a more attractive, and cost-effective option than most people realize. First and foremost, community college is substantially less expensive than private or even public colleges, with tuition averaging around the $4,000 range for full-time students. 

Community college is an ideal place to knock out your general education requirements for cheap. Many students choose to go to a junior college for their first one to two years and then transfer to a four-year university to finish their college education. This is especially advantageous if you’re not sure what you want to major in yet. You have two years to take different classes, get your gen eds under your belt, and figure out what interests you. 

Also, it’s often easy to commute, saving you money on room and board. This is especially true since most community colleges don’t have dorm halls anyway. Class sizes tend to be small, and schedules tend to be flexible, allowing you to work part-time or more while still working on your degree. 

Also Read: Best Online Mortgage Lenders

Cons of Community College

As for the cons of community college, in most cases, they only offer two-year programs. If your goal is to get an Associate’s degree, then this is perfect for you. However, if you plan to get a Bachelor’s or higher, you’ll likely have to transfer to a four-year university. Luckily, this is what most students do, anyway, so the process is often straightforward.

Because of its smaller-scale nature, there also tends to be a limited campus life. Though clubs do exist, there’s not likely to be as wide a variety as you’d find at public or even private colleges. Students generally tend to be less involved at a community college, too, as many are only there to complete class requirements and not much else. If a vibrant social scene is something important to you, then community college may not be for you. However, since you’ll likely transfer to a four-year college anyway, it may be in your best interest to focus on your classes for the first two years. Then, you’ll be ready for an introduction to the “college experience.”  

How to Pay for College

Read More: Saving for College

Take Dual-Credit Classes

If you’ve already graduated high school, then there may not be much you can do about this now. However, if you are still in high school, then looking into the kinds of dual-credit (or dual enrollment) classes your school offers could be an efficient way to pay for some of your college tuition.

Dual-credit classes are classes offered in high school or through a community college that count both towards your high school and college graduation credits. Many of these classes are actual college courses, while others are just similarly structured. They are usually the equivalent of taking entry-level requirements, giving you a leg up on your college education. In some cases, you could enter college with a semester or even a year already under your belt.

What Are Your Options? 

These may be physical classes offered in high school, online courses, or courses you can take at a community college. Most states require you to be at least a sophomore in high school with a 3.0 GPA to take them, but be sure to ask your teacher or guidance counselor about other requirements.

AP and IB classes are dual-credit, too, though these require passing an exam, whereas other dual-credit courses just require you to pass the class. When you choose to take a dual credit class, you do have to pay for it. However, it’s a substantially lower rate than what the class would cost in college, saving you money in the long run.

You’ll also want to make sure the credits are transferable to your college of choice, meaning that they’ll count towards graduation. Some colleges are picky about the kinds of dual-credit they accept; others are more laid-back. However, most colleges accept AP/IB credit, so if you can handle those sorts of rigorous classes, it may be worth it in the long run. You’ll have an advantage financially, and be ready for college expectations.

Find Ways to Cut Corners

Once you’ve chosen a college, you’re going to want to figure out how much it’s going to cost you. Not just tuition, but also textbooks, supplies, room and board, and food. Though you can’t do without textbooks, you can keep them from costing you an arm and a leg. Buying used, secondhand, or digital copies, as opposed to physical books, can save you some pretty pennies in the long run. If your college has a textbook rental program, renting is generally cheaper than buying. Besides, what are you going to do with all those books after college, anyway?

When it comes to meal plans, most colleges offer different options depending on the frequency you plan to use it. If you don’t plan to eat on campus often and have the opportunity to opt-out and buy your own food, then this could save you quite a bit. However, if your college requires you to have a meal plan, then breaking down the cost-per-meal of each plan will help you determine which one is right for you. In some cases, if your college offers an unlimited meal plan, this may be the most cost-effective option. The average unlimited meal plan is $1,600 a semester, which breaks down to about $5 a meal if you’re eating 18 meals a week.

More Things to Consider

The other significant cost for college is room and board. Living on campus can cost thousands of dollars a semester. Not to mention, you have to live in close quarters with one or more roommates. Though the proximity to campus may be convenient, if you’re able to commute from home, this can save you a substantial amount of money in the long run. Colleges often offer commuter meal plans at reduced rates (since they figure you won’t be eating on campus as regularly).

However, if you’re too far away from home but still want to live off-campus, then researching apartment rentals near your college may be a cost-effective alternative. If you go in with a few friends, you can split the rent. Compared to living in a dorm, the cost can be significantly cheaper. Plus, you get the added amenities of a kitchen, extra bedrooms, and possibly more than one bathroom. (Or at least one you don’t have to share with twenty other people.) You can likely find apartments that are close to your campus, making the commute minimal. 

Apply for Scholarships and Grants

One of the most lucrative ways to fund your college education is through scholarships and grants. Everyone would love to get a full-ride (meaning the school pays for your tuition), but it’s not something that can always be guaranteed. If you don’t score that high, then there are a myriad of other ways to piece together a substantial amount of funds from scholarships.

Look at What Your School Offers

One of the easiest ways to get scholarships is to apply for the ones your school offers. These will generally revolve around academic, athletic, or other programs, such as music. Have a high GPA? Your college may automatically offer you an academic scholarship. Play a sport? Why not get paid to play in college? Your school may have recruited you because of your athleticism, or you may have to try out. Are you a musician? Audition for the college’s band, orchestra, or choir. Not only do you get to continue to pursue your interests while in college, but you also relieve some of its costs.

If you’re particularly ambitious, you may also want to look into your college’s honors program, if they offer one in your major. Many times, there’s an extra amount of scholarship money available for such rigorous academic pursuits. Usually, you have to meet specific GPA requirements and submit an essay and application. But if you plan on diving deep into your chosen area of study, this may be well worth your time.

Your school is also where you’ll likely find grants. These differ from scholarships because federal or state governments generally give them directly to the school, who awards them based on financial need. However, once you fill out your FAFSA, your college will usually tell you what kinds of grants you’re eligible for.     

Use What Makes You Unique

If you can think of a category, there’s probably a scholarship for it. Perhaps you’re a minority or of a particular ethnic heritage. There are specific scholarships available to you. If you’re passionate about a specific cause or you’ve done charitable work through a volunteer organization or your church, look into scholarships that value community service. 

Additionally, if you have hobbies or areas of interest that your college doesn’t offer scholarships for, there is probably some organization somewhere that does. If you were in any nationally-recognized club (Key Club, Kiwanis, FCA, Rotary… the list goes on), then there are bound to be scholarships for you. Were you a Boy or Girl Scout? Absolutely. Do you like to draw, paint, do photography, or write stories? Some organizations offer scholarships for all of those. Additionally, some organizations offer major- or even college-specific scholarships. If you already know what you’re going to major in, these may be a good option.

Bear in Mind

Many of these will be contests. You will have to submit an application and essay, as well as most likely needing a letter of recommendation. These are usually from teachers with whom you have a good relationship. The sooner you ask them, the better. That means they’ll have more time to write you a good letter. Choose scholarships that represent interests or causes about which you feel strongly. Don’t apply for ones into which you aren’t willing to put a little time and effort. Apply for as many as possible in areas that interest you. 

To help you get started, here is a handy list of scholarship search websites. These can help you narrow it down by category, amount, or application requirement: 

  • Scholarships.com
  • CollegeNet.com
  • FastWeb
  • FinAid.com
  • The College Board
  • ScholarshipMonkey.com 

Ask Around

Finally, be sure not to overlook you and your family’s personal connections for scholarships. If you have businesses that you or your family frequent, they might have scholarships for loyal customers. Perhaps your parents’ employers have scholarships for their employees’ children, or your grandfather is part of an organization that honors their members’ legacy. The point is, you never know until you ask. The more local you can get, the higher chance you have of receiving the scholarship. 

How to Pay for College

Suggested Reading: Your Essential Guide to Personal Finance Management

Optimize Student Loans

One of the biggest and most common sources of funding is the infamous student loan. Of course, the ability to avoid these is a big way to save. However, depending on your situation, the school you choose, and the amount of financial aid you receive, you may have to take out some student loans. That’s okay as long as you understand and can evaluate your options. 

Federal Loans

Federal loans are loans offered by the federal government. When you fill out your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), the results will tell you how much in federal loans you can take out. There are two main types: Direct Subsidized and Direct Unsubsidized. You can take out one or both, but they are considered separate loans.

Direct Subsidized loans do not accrue interest until six months after you leave school (called the grace period) or longer, depending on your circumstances (called deferment). Direct Unsubsidized loans, on the other hand, do accrue interest while you’re in school. However, the interest rates are relatively low and always a fixed rate (for 2019-2020, they sit at 4.53% for undergraduates). 

Payment for federal loans is not due until after you graduate unless you leave school or become enrolled less than half-time. However, you can make payments on your federal loans while in school to offset any interest that accrues. This is particularly helpful for Unsubsidized Loans.  

Private Loans

Private student loans are loans that companies or organizations offer to students. These can be banks, credit unions, or other state-based institutions, including colleges. The interest rates are usually higher than federal loans (around 7.99% on average) and typically variable. This means that they’ll fluctuate throughout the life of the loan. 

However, for private student loans, there is generally a higher borrowing limit. You can also qualify for lower interest rates if you have excellent credit. Just bear in mind that most private loans accrue interest while you’re in school, and some require that you make payments while you’re in school as well.

Get a Job

It is common for college students to have part-time jobs on or off-campus. This can be a helpful way to pay for college while gaining life and work experience. You may even end up doing a paid internship that relates to your major. This will give you a leg up on your resume.

Work-Study Programs

Most colleges and many nonprofits offer federal work-study programs, especially for full-time students. This is a direct way to pay for college, as the money earned through work-study can go directly to your college tuition. It’s also convenient, as many work-study jobs will be somewhere on the campus, though not necessarily. They also tend to be very flexible, since the college knows you have classes at certain times of the day. Although the work-study program does limit how many hours you can work, the program does have to pay you at least minimum wage, and sometimes more.  

Paid Internships

Paid internships are an excellent way to earn money and gain experience at the same time. Companies may offer these over the summer for a fixed period. This ensures you don’t have to skip a beat in your studies. You may also find part-time internships that fit into your after-school schedule, which works well, too. Alternatively, some students decide to take a semester off and dedicate that time to a full-time internship. If this is something you don’t mind doing, then it can be another way to earn money and build your resume effectively.

Not all internships are paid, however, which is why you should do research or ask the company if you’re unsure. There is no harm in turning down an internship because it’s unpaid. It’s your time, and if it’s not worth it to you, then there is likely something else out there. Also, bear in mind that many internships require you to be entering your junior or senior year to apply. Just make sure you understand the application requirements and the job requirements before committing to an internship.  

Jobs That Offer Tuition Reimbursement 

Certain companies offer tuition reimbursement for their employees. This means that they’ll help offset the cost of your college education while you’re working there. Starbucks is a fairly well-known one, which offers full-time tuition coverage if you take classes online at Arizona State University. If you’re interested in going to college online, then this is one heck of a deal.

Other major contenders are Chipotle, which offers tuition reimbursement up to $5,250 a year for part- and full-time employees. Home Depot also provides reimbursement that varies by position. UPS offers tuition reimbursement for their part-time employees, up to $5,250 a year. There are other companies that offer similar programs. If you already work at one of these companies (or want to), then you may want to take advantage of their tuition assistance.

Over to You

With a little savvy strategizing, and leg work, you can find more than one way to pay for college yourself or with minimal help from your parents. The earlier you start searching for college funds, the better. However, remember that you can always apply for more scholarships and grants while in school. You can also add or subtract to your student loans if needed. Keep your eyes peeled for opportunities, and most of all, don’t let it overwhelm you. After all, according to Sallie Mae, scholarships and grants cover 31% of college costs and 24% from borrowing.

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