Need to Pay for College Without Financial Aid? Here’s What to Do

Written by: Kristyn Pilgrim
Updated: 5/14/20

To pay for college without financial aid, you’ll need to access a variety of sources.

You can work a part-time job while in college or run a crowdsourcing campaign if you don’t have sufficient college savings. You can also aim to get ahead in high school, so you can take care of a few courses before you even set foot on a college campus.

First Steps to Funding College

Paying for college requires a variety of sources. College fund savings, personal savings, a part-time job, grants, scholarships, student loans, and many other ways of gathering money can help you pay for each semester of higher education.

Whether you are a dependent or independent student, the first step to gathering all your financial resources is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This application goes to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), which calculates your FAFSA number. Then, your financial information is sent to the schools you listed. When colleges send you acceptance letters, they will use your FAFSA information to determine how much financial aid for which you qualify.

Even if you do not qualify for need-based financial aid, most college-bound students qualify for some form of student loans. As the national debate about student loan debt in the United States heats up, you may feel that you should look at how to pay for college without financial aid, especially student loans.

Top 4 Methods to Pay for College Without Financial Aid, Including Student Loans

Federal financial aid includes need-based grants like the Pell Grant, work-study jobs, aid for military families, and both subsidized and unsubsidized student loans. Private sources of financial aid include merit-based and need-based scholarships, along with private student loans.

If you do not qualify for need-based help or merit-based scholarships, and you do not want to take out student loans of any kind, there are some options to pay for college without outside financial aid. 

  1. Build a college fund. Many college-bound students have parents who did their best to set money aside to help them. Since the cost of attending a college or university has skyrocketed in the last several decades, it is difficult for even the most fastidious families to put enough money aside to pay for a four-year degree. If you are an independent student thinking of returning to school, you may not have money set aside for college.

    But it is not too late to set up a college fund for yourself or to get your parents to help you with one. The most common type is the 529 tax-advantaged college savings plan. Money in this plan can count toward your assets when you fill out the FAFSA. Using this to put money aside to plan for your degree can help you feel financially stable.

  2. Get ahead in high school. If you are in high school and you know you want to go to college, even if you do not know what you want to study, you can skip some basic college requirements by taking higher-level courses. Some high schools offer college classes, including intro English, math, psychology, and history. The credit can then count toward both your high school graduation and college.

    Oftentimes, these classes are held on community college campuses. These classes still tend to cost money per course, but they are likely much cheaper than courses at other institutions. As a high school student taking one or two of these college classes per semester, you may be able to find a part-time job or get your parents’ help to cover the cost.

    Accredited advanced placement (AP) classes allow you to take some harder, higher-level classes for college credit. You will need to take an AP exam at the end of the semester or school year. If you pass the exam, most colleges accept these classes toward your bachelor’s or associate degree requirements. Unlike college-level classes that you take in high school, AP classes are free.

  3. Work while in college. Part-time jobs are great for students who can afford tuition and related fees but need more money for other educational or living expenses, like books or off-campus housing.

    If you are a full-time worker and you want to get a credential or higher degree, your job may offer tuition reimbursement programs. In exchange, your company will expect you to stay at the job and for your degree to improve the business. Employee assistance programs (EAPs), like tuition reimbursement, are a great way for you to get more education in a specific career field.

  4. Start a crowdsourcing campaign. One of the most popular methods for new businesses, individual creators, and others to ask for help is via crowdfunding. There are dozens of sites with varying levels of service fees, requirements, and name recognition.

You may design levels of donor benefits to thank potential patrons for supporting your education. You may simply ask for money from friends, family, and associates.

Crowdfunding can work well in an emergency shortfall because you can run a campaign for about a month on most sites. This means you get money sooner, rather than waiting for months for FAFSA information to get back to you or waiting for a committee to determine if your loan or scholarship application is worthy.

Accepting Student Loans and Other Sources of Financial Aid to Pay for Your Education

There is no single, perfect source of money to pay for your entire college career. Finding several sources of financing can help you to manage potential debt.

The best method of paying for school is still to accept free money from grants and scholarships. After you have exhausted these sources, take out student loans. You can also fill in gaps or pay for a semester using some of the other methods listed above.

Many students use a combination of the income sources above, combined with small private student loans. You may not gain enough money to pay for college without financial aid every single year, but for a semester, trimester, or school year, the above methods can work well.

Financial advisers recommend filling out the FAFSA first, so you know which federal student financial aid packages you qualify for. Since you receive this information months before the next semester or year starts, you can use it to determine what other methods you need to use, like private student loans, to manage your upcoming academic year.