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18 Ways To Pay for College, Even if You Can’t Get
Scholarships or Grants

College costs are soaring and many families are not prepared with the savings required to bear these expenses. The economic recession left drained savings accounts, lowered salaries and left many struggling, even before including college expenses. Many college students graduate with near unmanageable debt, unable to get a job that pays both the rent and their loan bills in today’s economy. Students may end up returning home after college, without the resources to begin an independent life, creating a situation that neither parents nor students like.

There is help available to pay for college in the form of scholarships, loans, tax credits and grants to pay for two-year and four-year colleges, as well as part and full-time jobs. Smart strategies can cut your overall costs, making the expense of higher education more manageable. While scholarships and grants provide free money, these aren’t an option for every student, but you can still pay for college, even without scholarships.

Navigating the options available to help pay for college is confusing and frightening, from the piles of paperwork to deciphering the options that are best for your situation. Higher education expenses include tuition, fees, books, but also living expenses, including room and board. Many types of aid can be applied to both direct educational expenses and living costs. Using every resource available to you, from options in high school to scheduling to aid will help you pay for your college education.

According to the United States Department of Education, the average cost of a year’s tuition and fees at a public university is more than $7000, while the average at a private 4-year or greater college is more than $22,000. That does not include textbooks, dormitory fees, off-campus rent and utilities or meals. Many colleges require students to live in the dormitories and subscribe to a meal plan, at least the first year of college, limiting the possibilities to save by choosing lower cost housing. The average cost, according to U.S. News magazine, for a year of room and board is $9315; however, these costs are impacted by the regional cost of living.

Many students rely upon student loans to pay for tuition, fees, books and living expenses. Approximately two-thirds of college students take out student loans, with an average debt load of $26,000, according to The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) Project on Student Debt. One in ten students has more than $40,000 in loan debt after college. While student loan payments offer some flexibility, beginning adult life with substantial debt, particularly in a poor job market, can leave young graduates with few opportunities.

While you may not be able to avoid all student debt, creating a smart plan keep costs low and to pay for college will allow you to make use of every possible option and minimize your debt and loan repayment after graduation, allowing you to make the most of your education and adult life.

Get an Early Start

Many high schools offer options to help students start their college education early or gain college credit, often at bargain prices or even at no charge. Starting college with a semester of more of course work under your belt will cut your overall tuition costs and living expenses, letting you graduate and move onto earning an income faster.

    1. Go AP

      AP or advanced placement courses are an affordable way for high-achieving students to gain college credit. Advanced placement courses are taught in the high school and end with an exam, scored from one to five. Many colleges grant course credits for scores above a three on the exam. Others may not offer credit, but will waive specific course requirements.

      The official fee for the advanced placement exam is $89.00 as of 2013; however, fee waivers are available for some students. Some states have programs in place to lower the exam cost. Even at the full price, AP courses and exams result in three or more college credit hours, providing a substantial savings over even a community college.

    2. CLEP Tests

      While AP exams require coursework and an exam, CLEP or College-Level Examination Program exams allow you to test out of college classes. At $80 per exam, CLEP exams may provide as much as 12 hours of college credit per exam, depending upon college policies.

      Available in a variety of subjects, CLEP tests are an option for both traditional and non-traditional students, offering an opportunity to dramatically cut college costs and help you afford your education. Check your college policies to determine how your school handles and credits CLEP test results.

    3. Enrollment Options

      Some high schools offer students the option of dual enrollment or college-level courses in place of high school courses. In many cases, these are paid for by the public school system, saving money on tuition later. Even when courses come with a price tag, it is often significantly lower than typical tuition costs. Students may take classes for college credit in their local school or in a nearby community college. Options vary from school district to school district, but some may result in vocational certificates or an associate’s degree, transferable to a four-year university.

Keep It Short and Sweet

While many of the costs associated with college are tuition, books and fees, living expenses, particularly for students working only part-time, are also a substantial cost. The less time you spend in college, the less it will cost and easier it will be to pay for in the long run.

    1. Summer School

      Students may opt to attend school during the summer. Summer school programs are often rather intense, but offer the opportunity to reduce the total number of years spent in college. Typically, you may take nine to 12 credit hours in the summer, allowing you to take a full year’s coursework in two to three summers. Summer sessions are shorter than standard semesters and may require more class hours; however, summer classes allow the student to enter the workforce sooner, reducing the total living expenses incurred during college. Summer sessions may make the most sense for students that live at home or live away from home year-round, rather than those who would save money by going home for the summer.

    2. Increase Your Hours

      The typical bachelor’s degree requires 120 credit hours of coursework. If you take only twelve credit hours a semester, your bachelor’s degree will take five years, assuming just fall and spring semesters. Increasing this total by one course per semester or three credit hours, saves a full year. High-achieving students can even consider taking 16 to 18 credit hours per term. Combined with summer courses, that four to five year degree may be finished in three years, leaving you ready to join the workforce. Online classes can make this easier for some students, particularly non-traditional students.

Cutting Costs

    1. Live at Home

      Today, more than 50 percent of college students opt to go to school close to home and continue to live at home. Even colleges that require freshmen to live in the dorms allow students to attend while living in the family home, or, in some cases, living with a family member. While parents and students will have to negotiate household expenses, this is one of the most effective cost-cutting measures available to help pay for college. The student remains in the family home, taking on no additional costs. Part time paychecks can be used to help pay tuition and fees, rather than living expenses.

    2. Smart Budgeting

      You can’t cut costs on tuition or fees, but you can limit how much you spend on living expenses, including rent, food, utilities, transportation and entertainment. Many colleges require students live on-campus their first year, but after the first year, students and parents should work together to determine the most affordable option. At some schools, campus housing may be less expensive than off-campus apartments, even when shared with roommates, while the opposite may be true at other schools. On-campus living is typically more predictable, eliminating bills and additional costs. Off-campus apartments offer more space, freedom and access to a kitchen. For more stability and easier budgeting, consider apartments that include utilities, cable and internet access. Some students may opt to cut costs by skipping a vehicle if they live on or near a pedestrian-friendly campus.

Get To Work

Earning an income during college is essential, whether you’re using your income to pay tuition or pay the rent. There are several job options for college students, ranging from working just a few hours a week to tackling both work and school full-time.

    1. Part Time Job

      Most college students will work part-time during their years in college. Part-time jobs can help to provide essential income or spending money, depending upon student needs. Jobs are available both on-campus and off-campus on a part-time basis.

      For students living at home, part time paychecks may help to cover some amount of tuition and fees. For those living in apartments, rather than at home, a paycheck is a necessity for rent and other bills. Smart scheduling can help students maintain time for both work and school, but students may have more difficulty balancing schedules with off-campus jobs.

    2. Work-Study Packages

      A work-study job is typically assigned as part of a financial aid package. While students often get part time jobs, work-study positions are designed to provide students with jobs that fit into their academic schedules. Work-study jobs are subsidized by the federal government and may pay more than other part-time jobs. Most work-study jobs are on-campus; however, some may be at government agencies or not-for-profit organizations.

      Work-study jobs are arranged by the financial aid office, using the data provided in your FAFSA. When possible, your job will be related to your major and work-study jobs can provide valuable work experience. Your work-study payments are most often used to pay living expenses and your paycheck can be distributed directly into your bank account, rather than through the financial aid office. As with other federal aid, you should apply as early as possible for the best chance of receiving assistance.

    3. Working Full Time

      While traditional students typically go to college on a full-time basis and work part-time, changing options at colleges and universities and more flexible work scheduling allow for full-time work and part or full-time college. Full time workers typically rely upon evening, weekend and online classes to attend school while earning a paycheck. Depending upon income, all forms of student financial aid are an option if you’re working full time, but you are more likely to be able to cover your living expenses and may be able to pay your tuition and fees from your regular income. For most non-traditional students, this is the default option when returning to school; however, some traditional students may want to consider combining full time work and school to minimize debt.

    4. Summer Jobs

      Students may opt to live at home and work full time during the summer. Summer jobs in high school can also help provide savings for college costs. This can provide a substantial nest egg to help pay for tuition and fees or living expenses during the academic year. Summer jobs also provide the opportunity to gain needed work experience, improving your chances of employment after graduation.

    5. Military Options

      While joining the military, reserves or Reserve Officer Training Corps or ROTC may not be for everyone, it can offer substantial financial incentives to pay for educational expenses. Tuition assistance of up to $4500 per year is available to those serving in an active duty role, while the Post-9/11 GI Bill provides veterans with substantial financial assistance following their term of service totaling nearly $50,000. Additional support is available for combat veterans entering or returning to college after serving. Some students may find that enrolling in ROTC provides scholarships that cover all of tuition and fees, in exchange for serving as an officer after college in the Navy, Air Force, or Army, depending upon the branch of ROTC chosen by the student.

Saving On School
    1. Choosing Your College

      One of the easiest and smartest ways to cut costs and pay for college is to begin your education at your local community college. Community college costs average, according to the U.S. Department of Education, less than $3000 per year. Students can take their core classes at a community college, transferring to a 4-year program at a university to complete a Bachelor’s degree. Many community colleges have excellent transfer programs in place with nearby universities and offer flexible scheduling. Community colleges typically offer very flexible schedules, allowing you to work easily while you attend school.

      Public, in-state, universities are substantially more affordable than other 4-year options, including private universities. You can begin your education at a public university or transfer from a community college. Costs from school to school vary; however, pricing is often competitive within the state and many offer scholarships to in-state students to help reduce costs. When you’re considering colleges, look at public universities in your state, both large and small. The cost is likely to be significantly lower than private schools or out-of-state universities, while still offering a high quality education. Attending school close to home may also reduce travel costs or allow you to live at home. You may also want to check regulations in neighboring states, as some offer out-of-state tuition waivers.

Paying the Bills
  1. Fill Out the FAFSA

    Your first stop to financing your college education and filling in the funds you can’t afford is the Federal Application for Student Aid or FAFSA. The FAFSA is essential for access to federal Pell Grants, subsidized student loans, unsubsidized student loans, and some scholarships. Even if you don’t expect to qualify for grants, fill out your FAFSA to qualify for student loans.

    You can fill out your FAFSA online between January and June of each year, but will need family financial information, including current tax forms. Students will need information for both parents, unless they meet the criteria for an independent student. If you are unsure if you qualify as an independent student, speak to your school counselor or college financial aid office. Once you fill out your FAFSA, it will be submitted to the colleges you choose and you will receive information about the aid available given your personal financial situation.

  2. Understand the Loans

    Subsidized student loans, guaranteed by the federal government, are a more affordable way to borrow money than options available from private banks. Subsidized loans do not begin accumulating interest until after you graduate and are typically relatively low interest loans. In most cases, loan payments are deferred and interest subsidized if you return to school to pursue a graduate degree, making them a good option for students expecting to remain in school long-term. After graduation, you will have a six-month grace period to begin repayments and flexible repayment options.

    Subsidized loans are typically offered as part of a financial aid package and are awarded on the basis of the FAFSA. When you receive an aid letter, you can choose to accept or refuse offered student loans. Loans will be disbursed to your college or university financial aid office and applied to tuition and fees. The remainder is available for living expenses, books and other needs.

    Unsubsidized student loans are also guaranteed by the government and have a low interest rate, but begin accumulating interest at the time the loan is disbursed. This increases the total amount required for repayment, but like subsidized loans, payments are deferred while you’re in school and you have some amount of flexibility in terms of payment options.

    Like subsidized student loans, unsubsidized loans are awarded on the basis of your FAFSA and you can choose to accept or refuse them.

    While most college loans are intended for students, the PLUS loan is an unsubsidized loan taken out by parents. PLUS loans are intended to cover costs not met by other aid and are also available to graduate and professional students. Loans may be used for tuition, fees, room, board, books and other essential educational expenses. Interest is charged at all times and there are no deferments available, either before or after graduation. Interest for PLUS loans is higher than that for subsidized or unsubsidized loans.

  3. Take Advantage of Tax Options

    The American Opportunity Credit is a tax credit claimed on your annual taxes, using the 1040 form. This credit is available to married couples earning less than $160,000 or single individuals earning less than $80,000. Depending upon your earnings, you may be able to claim a credit totaling as much as $2500. The credit reduces the amount of tax owed, but if you do not owe the full amount of the credit, 40 percent, or up to $1000, may be refunded to you. For parents, this can help alleviate the cost of helping with college expenses for full-time students under 24 years old.

    You can claim not only tuition and fees, but required course materials and the credit may be claimed for all four years of undergraduate study. Colleges and universities provide a form with total tuition and fees paid for the course, but you can also save book receipts to verify your eligibility for the tax credit. Expenses paid by tax-free educational assistance, including grants and scholarships, are not eligible for the American Opportunity tax credit; however, you may claim expenses paid for with student loans or credit cards.

  4. Employer-Supported Tuition Assistance

    Tuition assistance is available from some employers. Most traditional students, entering college right after high school, will not qualify, but some non-traditional students may have this option or may be able to get a job with tuition assistance. Tuition assistance does not usually apply to children of employees, but college and university employees may have benefits, including tuition waivers, which apply to their children. In most cases, tuition assistance is available at large employers, but may only apply to classes or degrees that apply to your current job and may have grade or degree requirements.

    Tuition assistance is not treated as income and is not taxed as such. The Internal Revenue Service allows up to $5250 per year and may be used for tuition, fees, textbooks and required equipment. Amounts may vary, but for students employed full-time, exploring tuition assistance options can help to pay for college.

  5. Making It Work

    The financial aid office will provide you with a breakdown of costs, expected student and parent contributions, and available aid from the school and federal government, including loans, grants and scholarships. While this cost breakdown helps you to understand the expected expenses, once it is in hand, you can explore all options to cut costs and limit your loan debt.

    • Determine how many years you expect to spend in school and decide whether you can work harder and lower that number.
    • Look at your total income and consider ways to increase your income.
    • Cut your costs by staying at home, reducing living expenses and choosing a less expensive school.
    • Factor in tax credits to help alleviate the cost of higher education.
    • With your calculations in hand, accept only the loan amount required to make up the remaining funds. Choose subsidized loans over unsubsidized loans.
Start Now

Your college choices can impact your financial well-being for the rest of your life. A college degree provides you with a better chance of employment, job security and a good salary, but can also bring burdensome debt. Making the right choices can help you to begin adulthood free of substantial debt and with the skills and education you need to succeed.

Parents and students should sit down today and have an honest talk about college plans, expectations and financial ability. Talk to students about ways to gain college credit and work opportunities. For nontraditional students, take a genuine look at your own finances, working with your spouse if you’re married. Many teens lack a real understanding of family finances and may have unrealistic expectations of family support or of the burden of student loan debt. Work together, using these strategies to cut costs and make a plan to pay for college.

Take your 3 favorites from the 6 steps above and write them down on a “to do” list. Out of the your favorite 3, choose which step above would help you choose your college major faster and with the highest level confidence. Take action on it immediately. Don’t delay.

Practice test review if you’re thinking about being a teacher


“American Opportunity Tax Credit.” Internal Revenue Service. (accessed on August 29, 2013).

“AP Program.” College Board. (accessed on September 5, 2013).
“College Affordabilty and Transparency Center.” U.S. Department of Education. (accessed on August 29, 2013).

“Federal Student Aid.” U.S. Department of Education. (accessed on August 29, 2013).

“Getting College Credit.” CLEP. (accessed on September 5, 2013).

“Quick Facts about Student Debt.” Project on Student Debt. (accessed on August 29, 2013).

Dehart, Chris. “How The $1.2 Trillion College Debt Crisis Is Crippling Students, Parents And The Economy.” Forbes Magazine. (accessed on August 29, 2013).