How to Pay for College on Your Own

Finance your education with grants, scholarships, and loans

young man in blue beanie studying at table, while another young man in green shirt studies behind him

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Families spent an average of $26,373 on tuition and college expenses in the 2020-2021 academic year. More than half of them did it with scholarships and grants, while 47% used student loans.

But what if your parents can't or won't help you? Whether you're just starting college or you're in the middle of attending, you can find a variety of ways to pay for your college expenses, from grants to federal aid to private student loans. 

Complete the FAFSA Form

It all starts with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Submitting this form opens the door to numerous types of financial aid. You can't do much without it, at least in the area of applying for grants, some student loans, and aid provided by schools and your state.

Each year, billions of dollars of financial aid go unclaimed because students and their families failed to complete and submit a FAFSA.

The earlier you deal with this, the better, because many schools have first-come-first-served programs. When the money is gone, it's gone.

But there's one hitch here. If you're classified as a dependent student, you'll need your parents' cooperation. The FAFSA form calls for certain information about their Social Security number, income, taxes, and assets. They're certainly not legally required to pay for your college education, and submitting the FAFSA with their information doesn't put them on the hook to do so. Still, the information will affect your chances of receiving assistance.

You can always submit a FAFSA without this information, but it will limit your opportunities for federal aid. 

Apply for Scholarships and Grants

There are a variety of scholarships available. Some are merit-based, so you must have good grades or fulfill service requirements to qualify. But others are based on your situation, your location, or the school you're attending.

Grants are often needs-based—your income and savings are insufficient for you to manage this on your own, or some other special situation applies to you. The College Grants Database can help you get started and guide your search. 

It can be worth it to apply each year because available scholarships can depend on your college year. Grants or scholarships are often available for participating in things like student teaching, internships, or senior projects as well. 

Work While You Attend School

You might wish you could pay for college without working, but a job should be something you consider. There are several approaches to working and attending school at the same time.

You can work in the summer and save all you earn to pay for your expenses during the school year. But if you can work full time and attend school part-time, you might qualify for tuition reimbursement through your job. Another option is to attend college full time and work part-time. 

The key to making this work is finding a great college job. Work-study jobs, for example, are a great way to make money while gaining valuable work experience. Alternatively, you might want to consider some side hustles to help you raise extra money. You'll have to plan on working at least during the summers if you don't qualify for a Pell Grant.

Pay for College With Student Loans

Another option is to take out one or more student loans, but be careful about how much you borrow. Budget how much you'll need per semester and take on only that much debt. You'll have more financial freedom after you graduate from college if you don't start with huge balances. 

The interest rates on private student loans tend to be higher than for federal student loans, so you might want to avoid them if possible. The government will also work with you on repayment options if you can stick to federal loans, such as the Stafford Loan. 

You might want to talk to a professor or financial aid officer who has access to more information about student loans if you're already in school.

Reduce Your Tuition Costs

Consider choosing a college with lower tuition rates. In-state schools are generally cheaper than out-of-state or private schools. Some schools offer discounts based on how close you live to the campus.

You might qualify for discounts if you're a "legacy" because one or both of your parents went to school there.

Of course, school costs include more than just tuition, but you can save in other areas as well. Buy used rather than new textbooks. Check your college bookstore to find out what's available. A lot of students sell their used books back to these stores when they graduate. Some will even rent textbooks, and online booksellers often offer used copies as well. 

Consider an Online School

Don't overlook the possibility of attending an online school. Tuition can be much less, sometimes as much as 50% cheaper, and in most cases, classes are identical to those you'd undertake in a brick-and-mortar classroom. You can also study and "attend" when it fits your schedule, allowing you to more easily hold down a job as well. 

Work on Lowering Your Living Expenses

Carefully monitor your college spending and your living expenses, so you don't need as much money. You might look into how much it would cost you to live off-campus as opposed to on campus. Get a roommate and share off-campus housing, or live at home to save on costs. 

Avoid contractual obligations like gym memberships and cable bills. Look for affordable options that allow you to cancel at any time. 

And make sure you have your student ID tucked into your wallet at all times. Whip it out whenever you shop or visit a place that's going to cost you money—even that coffee shop down the street. Many commercial establishments offer discounts to students. 

A strict budget can make a huge difference in the amount that you need to borrow. 

Save, Save, Save

The sooner you start tucking money aside in a savings account, the better. It's not too late to start when you begin applying to schools, but you'll have more saved for college if you thought to tuck away your earnings from those high school summer jobs and if you don't spend that money on other things.

Choosing a bank account specifically for a college student can also help to lower your costs because fees are often waived. Or consider certificates of deposit (CD) that offer higher interest rates than run-of-the-mill savings accounts. CDs typically come with a penalty for cashing out early, but this might persuade you not to spend the money before you need it for school.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Sallie Mae. "How America Pays for College 2021."

  2. Form Your Future. "FAFSA for Every Student."

  3. Federal Student Aid. "When I Fill Out the FAFSA Form… Am I Dependent or Independent?"

  4. Federal Student Aid. "Filling Out the FAFSA Form."

  5. Federal Student Aid. "Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans."

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