Financial Aid and More: How to Pay for College With No Money

how to pay for college with no money

Financial Aid and More: How to Pay for College With No Money

Published November 17, 2022 | Last Updated September 9th, 2023 at 03:53 pm

how to pay for college with no money

For many families, saving up enough money to cover the entire cost of their children’s higher education just isn’t possible. Often, paying for college comes down to a combination of financial aid, scholarships, and loans, but there are some persistent misconceptions about these options. 

If you’re wondering how to pay for college with no money, there are many great options to consider.

Find Colleges Offering Merit Scholarships

Merit-based scholarships are some of the best sources of free money for college. Most of these awards don’t need to be paid back except in rare circumstances, such as a college student going on academic probation or getting expelled. 

There are lots of merit scholarships that are based on a student’s academic performance. Most of these determine eligibility using GPA and/or standardized test scores (SAT, ACT). PSAT scores determine eligibility for the National Merit Scholarship

Most college scholarships are based purely on merit, though there are some that also take financial need into account. Either way, there are many colleges offering merit scholarships ranging from $1000 per year to $40,000 per year. When a college offers a merit scholarships it is usually for all for years of college, as long as the student meets the GPA requirement. There are even “full-ride” scholarships that cover expenses, fees, and room and board costs in addition to tuition.

Students who are outstanding athletes, musicians, innovators, or choose to serve their community may also qualify for merit aid.

Apply for Private Scholarships

It’s never too early to start looking for private scholarship opportunities, and your child’s school counselor is likely a great source of scholarship tips. There are many awards that are open to high school freshmen and sophomores as well as juniors and seniors. Here are some excellent places your child can go to look for scholarships:

  • The internet (scholarship websites and search engine results)
  • The library (for information on state, city, and local awards)
  • The high school counselor’s office (especially for state and college-specific awards)
  • The school’s financial aid office (may colleges have their own scholarships)
  • Local organizations (community centers, charities, and religious groups)

Apply for the Pell Grant

While most scholarships are merit-based, that’s not the only type of financial aid available. There are also many sources of need-based aid, including grants. Generally, a grant is a form of “gift aid” that doesn’t need to be paid back. 

Some grants are contingent upon the recipient maintaining a certain GPA or completing a service obligation after graduation (e.g. the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant). However, there are many other grants that have no strings attached.

One of the most well-known types of need-based aid is the Federal Pell Grant. This grant is offered by the federal government to undergraduate students. To be eligible, a student must demonstrate “exceptional financial need” and not have earned a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree yet.

The first step for your child to qualify for a Pell Grant is filling out and submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The Student Aid Office uses the information on the FAFSA to determine whether your child is eligible for need-based financial aid.

While your child may qualify for a Pell Grant based on their FAFSA, that isn’t the only possible outcome. The FAFSA is also required to determine whether your student is eligible for federal student loans and other need-based grants. Your child must submit an updated FAFSA for each academic year they are enrolled in college to remain eligible for the Pell Grant and other types of need-based aid.

Apply for State-Level Grants

Most people know about federal financial aid for students, but there is also a lot of state-based grant money your child may qualify for. Most states use the information on the FAFSA to determine eligibility for need-based college grants, which is another reason to never skip the FAFSA. Although, your child may need to apply directly to the state’s department of education to be considered for some grants.

In most cases, state-level grants are offered to residents who are attending in-state colleges. In some cases, only certain schools qualify. But there may be exceptions, so it’s always worth doing some research on any state where your child is considering going to school. 

If you’re not sure who to talk to about state-level financial aid, use this list from the U.S. Department of Education to find the point of contact for the state you’re looking at.

Negotiate With the College for Financial Aid

Many people don’t know that it’s possible to negotiate for a better financial aid package, but it certainly is. If your child can present a compelling case as to why they need more financial assistance to attend a college, there’s a good chance the school can increase its offer.

A college bases its financial aid offer on the difference between the Cost of Attendance (COA) and your child’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The federal government calculates the EFC based on the information in your child’s FAFSA. The bigger the difference between the EFC and COA, the more financial aid a prospective school is likely to offer your child.

The college will offer a certain amount of financial aid to your child, but that number isn’t necessarily set in stone. There are several reasons why you may be able to successfully negotiate for more aid:

  • Your family’s financial circumstances are different than what’s reflected on the FAFSA
  • There’s been a significant parental event, such as a death or divorce
  • You or your spouse lost their job
  • You have significant medical bills
  • Your child has received better financial aid offers from other institutions

Once your child gets all of their acceptance letters and financial aid offers, you can compare the numbers to see which school is the most affordable. It’s also possible to use other financial aid offers to negotiate a better aid package at your child’s first-choice school. 

Get a Part-Time Job

Many parents don’t want their child to have to work while attending college. But this option can actually have many benefits. If your child takes on a part-time job while they attend school, they can reduce or even eliminate the need to take out a student loan. 

There can also be some mental health benefits of working part-time while going to school. Many students say that working helped them avoid obsessing about their grades. Students who split their time between school and work may also find it easier to see real-life applications of the subjects they’re studying. 

Many employers offer education benefits to their employees, even those who work part-time. Your child may be able to qualify for tuition reimbursement from their employers as well. Plus, all that work experience will help fill out their resume, making them more competitive in the job market compared to graduates without any career history. 

Depending on the information in your child’s FAFSA, they may qualify for a work-study job. This type of opportunity is available to students who meet financial need requirements, and it gives them the chance to work on campus. Most work-study jobs have very flexible schedules because they’re designed specifically for enrolled students.

Another option is a co-op program — or cooperative educational experience — which offers students a chance to earn income and academic credit for actual job experience during their undergraduate career.

Lower Expenses

The only way to lessen the cost of college tuition and fees is through a financial aid package, but there are many other expenses that contribute to the overall cost of attendance. For example, the cost of room and board is generally very expensive, especially for students who live in on-campus housing. 

If your child wants to save money on the cost of room and board, the best thing to do is to live at home or in an off-campus housing complex. For most students, the least-expensive option is living at home, but off-campus housing is usually still more affordable than an on-campus dorm.

Some universities require freshmen to live on campus unless the student qualifies for a housing waiver. You may be able to secure a waiver for your child to live at home if your house is close enough to the campus. It’s best to verify housing requirements with the universities your child is considering.

The cost of textbooks and supplies can also add up quickly. To save money on textbooks, encourage your child to buy used versions when possible. 

Consider Taking Out a Loan

Sometimes, there just aren’t enough cost-cutting options or financial aid funds to cover the entire cost of college. In this case, the right call may be taking out loans to cover the gap. 

Federal student loans are the most common option, and your child must submit their FAFSA to access them. The U.S. Department of Education is the lender for federal student loans, and there are four types:

  • Direct Subsidized Loans: Available to undergraduate students who meet the government’s financial need eligibility requirements.
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans: Available to undergraduate, graduate, and professional students, and there is no need to demonstrate financial need.
  • Direct PLUS Loans: Available to grad students, professional students, and parents of undergraduate students. A PLUS loan is for expenses that aren’t covered by other types of financial aid. There isn’t a financial need threshold, but borrowers do need to pass a credit check.
  • Direct Consolidation Loans: An option to consolidate multiple eligible student loans into a single loan.

There is a limit to how much your child can borrow each year. This depends on their dependency status and which year of school they are funding.

Another option is to take out a private loan to pay for college. You or your child can take out a private student loan. In most cases, the interest rate for a private loan will be higher than the rate for a federal student loan, but private loans may have lower fees. 

If you or your child is considering a loan, it may be worth researching private loans and comparing them to federal student loans to find the best deal.

Start at a Community College

Another excellent way for your child to reduce college expenses is to attend a community college for the first two years. Tuition and fees for community colleges are generally far less than other schools, even in-state public institutions. Here are some other potential advantages community college offers:

  • Lower living expenses: Community colleges typically don’t require students to pay room and board to live on campus.
  • More flexibility: Many community colleges offer online and night classes, which can make scheduling easier for students who are also working.
  • Minimal degree restrictions: Many students who attend community college use the time to complete their general education requirements, which is especially efficient for students who aren’t sure what they want to major in.

Most states have been making changes to help ensure community college credits transfer equally to four-year universities, minimizing the chance students will have to retake courses. 

Additionally, some states have programs that allow high school juniors and seniors to take some of their classes at community colleges. This allows students to earn high school and college credits at the same time, which is time- and cost-efficient.


Higher education is expensive, but there are many ways to pay for college, even without a lot of savings. Grants and scholarships are available based on financial need and merit. Your child can also lower the cost of college by starting at a community college or living at home.

Other Articles You Might Like:

10 Ways a Parent Can Help Their Student Prepare for College

College Planning Mistakes: Common Pitfalls Parents Can Avoid

College Countdown Gift Ideas for Parents of Seniors




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