As the second-youngest of six kids, it was clear to me long before I graduated from high school that my parents wouldn’t be able to help me pay for college. Even if my parents would’ve helped, chances are I would’ve been on the hook for the majority of my expenses.
So whether you’re like me and plan to make it work on your own or your parents are footing part of the bill, it’s crucial that you know how to pay for college without your parents’ help. Here are seven ways you can get started.
7 ways to pay for college without your parents’ help
The average annual cost of college can range from $3,520 to $33,480, depending on the type of school you choose.
Although it’s hard to determine what percent of parents pay for college completely, Sallie Mae found in its 2017 “How America Pays for College” study that parents cover 31 percent of college costs through either income and savings or loans.
Regardless of how much you’ll owe for tuition, fees, materials, and living expenses, figuring out how to pay for college without your parents’ help can help you get the education you need without falling into deep student loan debt. See how you can pay for college with the following options.
1. Fill out the FAFSA
On average, undergraduates received $8,440 in grant money during the 2016-2017 school year, according to College Board. The best way to qualify for grants and federal financial aid is by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
For the most part, grants are awarded based on financial need, but some are also merit-based. Do your due diligence and learn about which grants you might qualify for and eligibility requirements you’ll need to meet.
2. Apply for scholarships
If you’ve earned it, you might qualify for an academic scholarship. Depending on your college of choice and your grades in high school, an academic scholarship could even cover the cost of tuition for your entire undergraduate degree.
If you don’t qualify for an academic scholarship out of high school, you can work toward becoming eligible for one during your first year in college.
You also can look to other organizations and companies for scholarship opportunities. The more time you spend researching your options and applying, the better your chances of getting more cash. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to apply for the Student Loan Hero $5,000 scholarship.
3. Get a part-time or full-time job
During my first two years of college, I worked full time in addition to a full schedule of classes. It wasn’t conducive to an active social life, but it made it possible for me to afford school and save some money.
But it’s not always possible to maintain that kind of lifestyle, and I ended up working part time for the second half of college. My part-time income wasn’t enough to cover all my expenses, but it made a huge difference combined with the scholarships and grants I received.
There are often work opportunities on campus for college students. But if you have a car or access to public transportation, consider looking off campus for potentially higher-paying jobs.
4. Look into tax credits for qualifying college expenses
When you file your taxes, you have two options for tax credits available for qualifying college expenses.
American opportunity tax credit
The American opportunity tax credit (AOTC) offers a tax break up of to $2,500 per year based on your qualified education expenses. Qualified expenses include:
Tuition and fees
You don’t have to buy your books, supplies, and equipment from your school for the expenses to qualify.
You’ll get a credit of 100 percent of the first $2,000 in qualified expenses you incurred and 25 percent of the next $2,000. Keep in mind, though, that only 40 percent of it is refundable, up to $1,000. So if you get a tax refund, you could get up to $1,000 back from this credit alone.
Lifetime learning credit
The lifetime learning credit (LLC) is worth up to $2,000 — or 20 percent of the first $10,000 spent on qualified education expenses. This credit is nonrefundable, so it might not be worth trying for if you expect to get a refund.
Qualifying expenses include tuition, fees, and other related expenses that are required for enrollment. That means books, supplies, and equipment don’t qualify because they’re not required to attend your university. Also, your qualified expenses must be paid directly to the school.
To be clear, you can’t take advantage of both credits in the same year, so do the math to determine which one is better for you. Also, you can’t claim either credit if your parents plan to claim you as a dependent on their tax return. So double-check with them before you file.
5. Minimize your college costs
If you’re trying to figure out how to pay for college, bringing in more income isn’t always the best answer. For example, you might choose a more affordable college or start at a community college and switch to a university later.
For smaller ways to cut back, create a budget and keep track of your spending. Each month, consider areas where you can cut back to make it easier to get by.
6. Research tuition assistance programs
If you’re interested in joining the armed forces, the sooner, the better. The Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard all offer tuition assistance programs. Most of them cover up to 100 percent of your tuition and fees.
Don’t do it just for the money, though. These programs are an investment for the military, so your chosen branch will require a certain number of years of service to qualify.
Alternatively, some other employers offer tuition assistance programs for their employees, even part-time employees. Keep that in mind when you’re looking for a job.
7. Consider taking out federal student loans
Federal student loans can help bridge the gap when other ways to pay for college don’t cover everything. What’s more, they don’t require a credit check, so you won’t need your parent’s credit history to take out a loan.
With features such as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and income-driven repayment plans, you can access flexible repayment options after you graduate.
If, however, federal student loans aren’t enough to cover all your college costs, private student loans are another option. Make sure to take the time to compare several private student loan companies before choosing one. You also might need a cosigner if you’re new to credit or don’t have a great credit history.
Learning how to pay for college can set you up for success
It can be stressful to learn that you’re on your own when it comes to paying for your college costs. But there are plenty of opportunities to make it work.
More importantly, learning how to pay for college on your own can help you establish good financial habits. When you graduate and enter the real world, these habits will help you become financially successful because you’ve learned how to make the most of the resources available to you.