How Do I Pay To Go to College Full-Time and Not Work?

Fund your education through these alternatives to a job

A person looks into a journal.

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Working while in college can help offset your education costs but it may not be an option for you. You might not be able to find the right job, or you might not have the time to hold a job and study at the same time. Moreover, working may get in the way of you earning the grades you need to enroll in a graduate program.

If you don't want to work while you attend college full-time, there are options besides taking out a student loan. Carefully consider all the alternatives to paying for school without working to determine the right course of action for your educational and financial goals.

Key Takeaways

  • Scholarships can finance your education without costing you fees or interest.
  • Federal Pell grants offer financial assistance that you don't have to pay back.
  • Research grants can offer help for students in certain programs, but tend to be in the range of hundreds of dollars instead of thousands.
  • Student loans can help pay for your education, but they often take years to pay back and their interest charges can be expensive.


A scholarship is a financial gift from an organization or individual that you don't have to repay like you would with a loan. Scholarships are one of the best ways to pay to go to school full-time and not have to work.

Depending on the scholarship, you might receive a gift amounting to anywhere from a few hundred dollars to the entire cost of your tuition. If the requirements aren't too cumbersome, it's generally worth applying.

Organizations that offer scholarships include:

  • Universities: Schools offer merit-based scholarships based on your academic achievements, talents, traits, and interests. They also offer need-based scholarships based on your family's ability to pay for school. For example, you might get a merit-based scholarship from your school if you have an above-average grade point average. Contact the financial aid office of your intended university to determine whether it offers any scholarships, what types of scholarships it offers, and how to qualify and apply for them.
  • Professional or social organizations: These include associations related to your field of interest, civic groups, and religious organizations. Many of these scholarships grant gifts for attributes other than grades; you might qualify because of your background or interests (if you come from a military family, for example). Look for these scholarships online or through resources at your library.
  • Employers: Public and private companies also offer scholarships based on your academic profile or non-academic contributions, including an essay, community service, or a willingness to work for the firm after you graduate. Find these scholarships online and reach out to the company directly.

Pell Grants

The federal government typically awards Pell grants to students who have financial need, are enrolled in an undergraduate program, and don't already have a bachelor's, graduate, or professional degree. They're a great option to pay for full-time schooling—you don't have to repay them unless you withdraw from college early, switch to a non-grant-eligible enrollment status (e.g., from full-time to part-time enrollment), or also qualify for an outside grant or scholarship that reduces your financial need.

But keep in mind: Pell Grants count as need-based aid. You can't receive more federal need-based aid than your financial need, which amounts to the cost of attendance minus your expected family contribution (EFC) as determined by a formula established under federal law.


The EFC will be phased out and replaced by the Student Aid Index (SAI) effective with the 2023–24 award year. The SAI uses a slightly different calculation method from the EFC; it reflects an evaluation of the approximate financial resources you could, in theory, use to pay for college. Starting in July 2023, Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) applications will use the SAI to determine eligibility.

If your parents claim you as a dependent on their taxes, your EFC is based on your parents’ income. This may limit your eligibility for financial aid even if your parents cannot comfortably fund your education. If you do qualify, your aid is limited to the maximum grant amount for that year.

The application for a Pell grant is the same as that for a federal student loan; you will need to fill out a FAFSA form and then submit a new one each year to remain eligible for Pell grants.

You can receive a maximum of $6,345 in Pell Grants for the 2022–2023 award year extending from July 1, 2022, to June 30, 2023.

Research Grants

Many universities provide research grants to fund ongoing research and give students in majors aligning with that research the ability to pay for part of their college education and not have to work in a traditional job. Grant amounts vary by school but may range from a few hundred to a thousand dollars per project or academic semester.

In some cases, research grants may be offered only to juniors, seniors, or graduate students. Since they often support a larger project of a faculty member at the college, you may need to be recommended in order to apply. Speak to a professor or faculty advisor to learn more about what you can do to qualify and apply for a research grant.

Student Loans

If you aren't eligible for scholarships and grants, and you don't believe you can work and do well in school, consider using student loans. Unlike the other options for attending school full-time without getting a job, you must repay your student loan with interest. Also, student loans can potentially leave you with debt long after you graduate (repayment periods range from 10-25 years). If possible, limit your student loans to federal student loans, which offer income-driven payments or student loan forgiveness programs once you graduate.

It can be difficult to graduate without a job lined up and maintain a large monthly student loan payment, so understand the financial responsibility you are undertaking when you get a student loan. Pay attention during your mandatory financial counseling. Likewise, review the Master Promissory Note outlining the terms of your loan. Carefully managing your money can help you avoid making financial mistakes in college that can follow you into adulthood.

Tax Breaks

Whether you qualify for a scholarship, grant, summer job, or loan without working, the aid might not be enough to cover all of your expenses as a student. However, you may be eligible for tax breaks like the American opportunity tax credit (AOTC), which can reduce your tax bill by up to $2,500 based on your qualifying educational expenses. Claiming such a credit can help you recoup some of the costs of school, and you can put the savings toward the expenses that financial aid didn't cover.


If you don't owe any taxes because you aren't working, you can get up to a 40% credit for qualifying education expenses up to $2,500.

The AOTC is specifically for undergraduate college students and their parents. You can claim the credit on your taxes for a maximum of four years. Your parents are eligible for the credit if they paid for your education expenses and you're listed as a dependent on their return.

There's also the lifetime learning credit. This credit allows parents and students to lower their tax liability (up to $2,000) to help offset higher education expenses. The amount of the credit is 20% of the first $10,000 of qualified education expenses, or a maximum of $2,000 per tax return.

Unlike the AOTC, this credit is non-refundable, which means you don't get any of the credit if you don't have any taxable income.

Some educational deductions and credits cannot be claimed together, and there are specific rules about which expenses and income levels qualify.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How can I pay for college without working?

Scholarships and grants are two ways that you can pay for college without working. Both options give you money for college that you don't have to pay back.

How do people afford college without financial aid?

In some cases, students are able to pay for college with scholarships and grants. In other cases, their parents may have a college savings plan that can pay for college costs.

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