What to Do When You Can’t Pay For CollegeNovember 18, 2022
Last Updated on December 6, 2023
It’s no secret that going to college is expensive. With tuition on the rise, many people think higher education is simply out of reach. According to a 2022 study by Morning Consult, a data intelligence company, 77% of adults said it would be difficult to afford a college education.
However, options may be available that can make the expense more manageable if you don’t have your parents paying for college. If you can’t afford college right now, keep reading for a few tips that may help.
8 Ways to Pay for School if You Can’t Afford College
If you don’t have enough money to pay for college, don’t give up; there are several financial aid programs and cost-cutting measures you can try:
1. Fill out the FAFSA
If you’re thinking, “my parents can’t afford college,” completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is an essential first step in finding financing options for college. However, many people skip filling it out because of misinformation.
According to the National College Attainment Network (NCAN), just 57% of high school seniors completed the FAFSA in 2021. Some students put off filling out the FAFSA because they don’t think they’ll qualify for aid or they believe the process will be too difficult or time-consuming.
However, 87% of first-year students receive financial aid, and the Office of Federal Student Aid reported that most people complete the FAFSA online in less than an hour.
The FAFSA isn’t used just for federal student loans; it’s also what the government, schools, and organizations use to determine your eligibility for valuable financial aid programs.
The FAFSA is available each year starting on October 1. Although the federal FAFSA submission deadline is June 30, you should aim to submit it much sooner. States and colleges can have their own deadlines, and some financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Submitting the FAFSA early increases the likelihood of getting financial assistance.
Contact your college’s financial aid office to determine their deadline for FAFSA submission and what financial aid options are available.
2. Apply for Grants
Regarding paying for college, grants are an incredibly useful tool. They’re a form of gift aid, so they generally don’t have to be repaid. They’re usually need-based, so you can qualify if you meet the grant program’s income requirements.
Grants are issued by federal and state governments, colleges, and non-profit organizations. For example:
- Federal Pell Grant: With a Pell Grant, low-income undergraduate students can receive up to $6,895 for the 2022-2023 award year. Unlike loans, Pell Grants don’t have to be repaid.
- Florida Student Assistance Grant: This need-based grant is awarded to resident undergraduate students enrolled at eligible colleges. Qualifying students can receive enough money to cover 110% of the clock hours required to complete their programs.
- Washington College Grant: Low- and middle-income students may qualify for the Washington College Grant in Washington state. The maximum award covers full tuition at approved in-state public universities or a comparable amount at approved private colleges.
There are grant opportunities specially designed for military service members and veterans, those pursuing specific degree programs, and students with disabilities.
3. Search for Scholarships
Like grants, scholarships don’t have to be repaid. However, they are usually awarded based on merit rather than financial need and are often designed to help people in very specific situations. For example:
- Bethel Foundation Grace Scholarship Fund: The Bethel Foundation Grace Scholarship Fund provides single mothers up to $1,500 in financial assistance per semester. To qualify, applicants must be at or near the poverty level for their family size.
- Colgate Haz La U Scholarship: In partnership with the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, Colgate awards this scholarship to Hispanic high school seniors with solid GPAs. Qualifying students can receive up to $10,000 for their education.
- Gates Scholarship: The Gate Scholarship is a last-dollar scholarship, meaning it covers the full cost of attendance that isn’t already covered by other financial aid and the expected family contribution. It’s issued to exceptional, low-income students that belong to minority groups.
- Scholarships for Black & African American Students
- Scholarships for Adults Returning to College
- Scholarships for Latino & Hispanic Students
4. Consider a Work-Study Program
Work-study programs are an often-overlooked form of financial aid. But they can be a great way to cover some of your costs if you can’t afford college.
With a work-study program, students with financial needs work part-time jobs related to their fields. Jobs can be on-campus or off, and you can use your earnings to pay for your tuition and other fees.
Contact your college’s financial aid office to see if the school participates in the federal work-study initiative.
5. Pick a Different School
While you may have your heart set on a certain school, the cost is a huge factor, and how much you spend on college can significantly impact your life long after you graduate.
If you can’t afford your dream school, consider attending a public university instead. Or, you can attend a community college for the first two years and transfer to your dream college to finish your degree — dramatically reducing your education costs.
According to The College Board, the average private non-profit college costs $39,400 annually. By contrast, a public in-state university costs $10,940, and the average community college is just $3,860.
6. Commute to College
Tuition and fees only make up a small portion of your education expenses. If you decide to live on campus, room and board can substantially add to your cost of attendance.
At a public four-year school, room and board cost an average of $12,310. At a private school, the cost jumps to $14,030 per year. Room and board can add over $56,000 to your overall education expenses if you graduate within four years.
If possible, living with your parents or family members and commuting to school can be an excellent way to save money. Even if you pay rent and utilities, it will likely be cheaper than the dorms, and you can prepare your own food instead of paying for a college meal plan.
If you’re a parent asking yourself, “how can I afford college for my child?” — allowing your child to live at home while in school and accepting reduced rent can be a huge help.
7. Explore Student Loan Options
After you’ve reduced your education expenses and explored potential scholarship and grant opportunities, you might still need money to pay for some of your college expenses. If that’s the case, student loans can fill the gap.
You can take out federal Direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans as an undergraduate student. However, there are limits on how much you can borrow in federal loans each year and over your lifetime. Depending on what year you’re in and your dependency status, the maximum you can borrow ranges from $5,500 to $20,500 per year.
If you need additional money to pay for school, private student loans can help cover the remaining cost.
8. Look Into Tuition Payment Plans
Some colleges and universities offer tuition payment plans that allow you to spread your payments over several months rather than having to pay an upfront lump sum. Schools usually charge enrollment and semester fees, but the fees are usually small and can be well worth it to take advantage of a payment plan.
For example, Columbia University has a payment plan that splits tuition and fees into monthly installments. It charges a $45 annual enrollment fee and a $25 enrollment fee per semester.
Talk to your college’s financial aid office to see if you can sign up for a tuition payment plan at your school.
Don’t Let the College Tuition Price Scare You Away
When you’re researching colleges, the sticker price of a semester or academic year can be intimidating. While college is expensive, don’t let it scare you away from pursuing higher education. There are many benefits to attending college and earning a four-year degree:
- Higher earnings: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the median earnings for those with a bachelor’s degree was 63% higher than the median earnings for those that completed a high school diploma. The median earnings for college graduates was $59,600, while the median earnings for those with a high school diploma was just $36,600.
- Lower unemployment: High school graduates who don’t attend college have higher unemployment rates than those with college degrees. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher was just 2.2%, while the unemployment rate for those with a high school diploma was 4.3%.
- Better access to health coverage: According to a study released by the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities, those with a bachelor’s degree or higher are 47% more likely to have health insurance through their jobs than those with high school diplomas. Plus, their employers will cover a higher percentage of their premiums.
College is also an incredible opportunity to meet people and build friendships that will last you a lifetime.
What Happens If I Don’t Pay Tuition?
The consequences of not paying your tuition on time can be steep.
When your payment is late, the school will send you a notice and charge you late fees equal to a percentage of the late amount. If you don’t make the payment by the notification’s deadline, your class schedule will be canceled, you won’t be able to register for classes, and you won’t be able to get a diploma or transcripts. You will also be blocked from using campus services and other student benefits.
If you’re having financial problems, talk to a financial aid or student services department representative. Some forms of financial aid, such as emergency grants or loans, may help you until you can secure other financing.
Apply for Private Student Loans with ELFI
Now that you know what to do if you can’t afford college, you can explore all your financing options and devise a plan to pay for the upcoming semester.
If you need to borrow money, ELFI allows you to borrow up to 100% of the school-certified cost of attendance — and you can work with a Personal Loan Advisor throughout the process.* An ELFI undergraduate student loan can help alleviate stress and give you the money you need to complete your degree.