One of the biggest factors in higher-ed planning is figuring out how to pay for college without loans.
Here are some of our top tips for lowering the out-of-pocket cost of higher education.
9 Ways to Pay for College Without Loans
As you begin researching ways to pay for school, be aware that there are a number of common misconceptions about debt-reduction strategies. Most of them have to do with the assumptions parents and students make about how scholarships are awarded, the role of grades and test scores in lowering college costs, and a school’s actual sticker price.
1. Choose Your College Wisely
The cost of tuition, living expenses, fees, and textbooks can vary wildly among schools. Generally, public schools are less expensive than private ones, in-state tuition is cheaper than out-of-state, and community colleges are less expensive than four-year universities.
According to survey results from U.S. News, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2021-2022 school year at a public college is $10,338 per year for in-state students, compared to $22,698 per year for out-of-state students. The 2021-2022 average cost for a private university is $38,185.
And yes, while a community college or in-state public school is usually more affordable than a private university, this isn’t always true. For example, some schools offer excellent financial aid packages to out-of-state students with good grades. In other cases, a student can qualify for more merit scholarships at a private college than they would get at a public one.
2. Find Merit Scholarships
Scholarships can make a big dent in the overall cost of college. Merit scholarships are awarded based on a student’s achievements or excellence in academics, athletics, music, or other areas.
Merit scholarships may be available from the federal government (e.g. the National Merit Scholarship), state government, and/or the university itself. There are also many private (merit) scholarship awards offered by charities, religious groups, community centers, and professional organizations.
The Army, Navy, and Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) offer scholarships as well. Not all ROTC candidates qualify for scholarships, but many do. Students who accept a ROTC scholarship must serve in the military after graduation.
Generally, the most merit aid will come directly from the school itself. To see which schools are the most generous with merit scholarships, try an online tool such as College Insights.
3. Find Colleges That Offer Need-Based Scholarships
Need-based scholarships are sometimes called grants. Recipients are generally chosen based on financial need, so most of these awards go to students from middle- to lower-income families.
Grants may be offered by state or local governments, religious or social groups, charities, and universities themselves. Remember, it is possible to negotiate a school’s initial financial aid package to get more funding.
4. Determine if Your Income Qualifies You for Federal Government Grants
Federal financial aid is available through student loans, but there are also grants. Unlike a student loan, a grant doesn’t need to be paid back.
Common examples are Pell Grants, which are based on financial need, and TEACH Grants, which are available for students who plan to teach in a high-need field following graduation. There are even some grants that are offered to international students.
The TEACH Grant Program provides qualifying students with grants up to $4,000. The maximum Pell Grant award changes annually. For example, it’s $6,495 for the 2022-2023 school year. Pell Grant recipients can only receive this grant “for no more than 12 terms or the equivalent (roughly six years),” according to studentaid.gov.
To be eligible for federal government grants, your student must fill out and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form is available on the studentaid.gov website, and it’s free to apply. After your child submits the FAFSA, the government will calculate their EFC: Expected Family Contribution. This is the number that schools use to determine eligibility for financial aid.
Be aware that unless your EFC—specifically the amount of money the government thinks your family can afford to put toward your student’s higher education—is at or below a certain amount, you won’t be eligible for a Federal Pell Grant.
5. Apply for State and Local Grants
Federal college grants may be the most well-known, but many states and communities also offer grants to local students. Some states use a student’s FAFSA results to determine eligibility for grants while others have a separate application process.
Local governments may offer grants to students with outstanding performances in athletics or academics. There may also be programs that award students who have given back to their community through service projects or volunteering. Local libraries are great sources of information on state and local scholarships and grants.
6. Ask About College-Specific Financial Aid
Many colleges have their own grants and scholarships, and it’s possible to earn multiple awards. According to the College Board, undergraduate and graduate students received a total of $71.1 billion in institutional grant aid in the 2020-2021 school year.
There are some universities that offer automatic merit aid to students who have high GPAs and/or standardized test scores. There may also be scholarships available for outstanding athletes, musicians, and even entrepreneurs.
Some colleges provide need-based student aid as well, which is usually based on financial eligibility requirements.
If your child is a member of an underrepresented group (e.g. first-generation college students), there may be additional scholarships and grants available.
7. Research Tax-Deductible College Savings Plans
It’s never too early to start saving for college. One of the best ways to build a college fund is with a 529 savings plan. This program allows you to put away money for college tax-free.
You can start and contribute to a 529 plan for your child, and it’s also possible for your child to contribute to their own 529 account. Grandparents can create and contribute to a 529 for a grandchild as well.
There are some important tax policies surrounding 529 plans, so you may want to work with a CPA or financial advisor to determine the best savings strategy. The money in this type of savings account must be reported on the FAFSA, so it can affect your EFC and eligibility for financial aid.
8. Apply for Student Jobs
Not all students can or want to rely on their families for help with college costs. Earning their own income can help cover the cost of higher education.
For an undergraduate student who wants to cover their own college expenses, without taking out a student loan for thousands of dollars, the best option is to work. Students may want to take a gap year or two after high school to work full-time and save up for college.
Another option is to take night classes or attend an online university while working full-time. Some employers offer tuition reimbursement to their workers, even for part-time employees.
Filling out the FAFSA can help your student qualify for work-study programs. Universities use EFC calculations to determine whether students qualify for on-campus work-study jobs.
If a student wants to work and go to school concurrently, but doesn’t qualify for work-study, a part-time job can be ideal. Students who work can graduate college with a full, diverse resume that’s ready to catch an employer’s attention.
9. Get Through College Quicker
Reducing the time it takes to get a degree can drastically lower the overall cost. Shaving even one year off the typical four-year plan for a bachelor’s degree can save thousands of dollars in tuition alone.
How can your child complete their degree credits faster? Here are some possibilities:
- Take AP classes. Earn college credits in high school by taking Advanced Placement classes. (Generally, a student must score at least a 3 on the AP exam to earn college credit for that subject.)
- Take CLEP exams. Earn college credits with College-Level Examination Program® tests from the College Board.
- Enroll in more college classes. Take the maximum number of credits allowed each semester.
- Take summer and winter break classes. These shorter courses are intense, but they cost less per credit and can reduce the time it takes to graduate.
- Take online courses. Virtual classes can allow more flexibility for students who are juggling commuting, work and school, or other issues that might delay their degree completion.
- Attend community college for the first two years. Many universities count community college credits toward bachelor’s degree requirements. (Some high schools allow students to attend community college during their junior and senior years to simultaneously earn high school and college credits.)
Another great benefit of attending community college is that your child won’t need to live on campus, something many universities require of freshmen. Living at home can save money.
Can You Go to College Without a Loan?
While it will take some time and research, it is possible to go to college without taking on debt. There are many programs and opportunities that can help reduce or eliminate the out-of-pocket cost of a college degree.
For some options, like a 529 savings plan and AP credits, starting early is essential. But even if your student is already into their senior year of high school, you can use tools like College Insights to find colleges and universities that offer merit scholarships and have lower costs of attendance.
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