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April Maguire
5 Financial Aid

How to Pay for College Without Student Loans

For many applicants, college tuition rates have become prohibitively high. While many students take out loans to help pay for school, the consequences of this choice can be long lasting. In fact, today more than 44 million Americans have student loans, with many having to make payments for up to 30 years before the debt is satisfied. The good news is that there are ways to reduce your loan burden in the coming years without sacrificing your education. Here are some tips on how to pay for college without loans. 


Types of Financial Aid


One of the best ways to pay for college without loans is to apply for financial aid. Current and aspiring college students can receive two types of aid: merit and need based. 


A form of federal aid, need-based grants are based solely on the income and assets of a student and their family. With need-based aid, your grades, test scores, talents, and hobbies will have no bearing on the amount of money you receive. Loans and work-study also fall under need-based aid.


On the other hand, merit aid is awarded based on a student’s abilities. While many merit-based scholarships are given because of a student’s academic achievements, others are awarded for athletic accomplishments, artistic endeavors, or efforts in the community. Students don’t have to demonstrate financial need to qualify for a merit-based scholarship from a school or other institution. 


Ways to Avoid Student Loans


Wondering how to avoid student loans? While you might not be able to eliminate loan debt entirely, these options can help reduce the cost of your degree and protect your financial health in the coming years.


1. Start saving early


Saving money is one of the most obvious answers to how to pay for college without loans. While many families put money in a traditional savings account, using a 529 plan is usually more beneficial. A tax-advantaged college savings plan named for Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code, a 529 plan allows families to save for qualified educational expenses. 529 savings aren’t subject to state or federal taxes, and you won’t have to pay taxes upon withdrawal. You can use these funds for tuition, room and board, books, and fees at just about any college in the U.S.

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2. Apply to schools where your profile is especially strong


Families often mistakenly assume that external scholarships will provide more funding than internal college scholarships. As a result, they may encourage students to spend hours filling out applications for highly competitive private scholarships. While there’s no harm in applying for a few external scholarships if you think you’re qualified, the truth is that students can net far more college funding by applying to schools where their profile is strong.


When you apply to less selective colleges with generous merit aid, you have a greater shot at receiving a large amount of funding. Moreover, you should choose schools that are seeking students with your background, academic goals, and talents. If you’re looking for how to avoid student loans, aim to include at least a couple safety schools on your list. Learn more about maximizing your merit aid in our post: The Secret to Winning Merit Scholarships.


3. Look for colleges with generous financial aid


While colleges regularly offer more financial aid than external scholarship programs, certain schools are known for having generous policies. Students sometimes apply only to public institutions, assuming the overall tuition cost will be lower. However, the truth is that private schools generally have more money available to give out. To that end, attending a private college may actually be less expensive than going to your local public school. 


Additionally, students should research schools with different financial aid policies. If you’re looking for ways to pay for college without loans, you may want to target no-loan schools, which provide all of their assistance through grants and work-study, rather than loans. Additionally, students should consider colleges that meet 100% of demonstrated need, though it’s worth noting that this package can include federal loans in some cases. Finally, students concerned about affording college should look at need-blind schools, which make their admissions decisions without factoring in a student’s ability to pay tuition. 


4. Submit your FAFSA and other documents on time


It might sound simple, but submitting your financial aid documents on time is one of the most important steps in avoiding loans. Also known as the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is widely regarded as the most crucial financial aid form. Along with determining student loans, the FAFSA assesses your eligibility for grants and work-study funding. 


Additionally, students may need to fill out a CSS Profile or submit forms to the Institutional Documentation Service, or IDOC. The College Board-administered CSS Profile is used to award students institutional aid. Another College Board form, the IDOC allows students to submit important financial documentation directly to their target schools. You can learn about all these forms in our guide to financial aid.


Deadlines to submit financial aid forms vary from year to year. Typically, the official FAFSA deadline is in late June. However, many colleges and universities require students to submit the form earlier if they plan to apply for aid. You can view current FAFSA deadline information on our site.


5. Negotiate with colleges


Just like job seekers don’t have to accept a first salary offer from an employer, students don’t have to accept a first financial aid offer from a college. In fact, families are encouraged to speak with the college’s aid department if the funding being offered doesn’t meet their needs. 


To that end, CollegeVine created a financial aid calculator tool based on our years of industry experience. After entering income information and other data, you can get an estimate of what your family will be expected to pay at hundreds of different schools. 


Additionally, students and parents can take advantage of our Advocate tool. All you have to do is upload your financial aid offer letters at your top two colleges; the colleges will see the competing offers, and many come back to you with even better aid packages.


6. Start at community college


Students sometimes make the mistake of assuming that they need to apply to a four-year college right out of high school. However the truth is that many community colleges offer an exceptional education at a discounted rate. Moreover, a majority of students go on to transfer to four-year schools to finish their degrees. By attending community college for the first two years of their education, students can save up to $64,000.


Just keep in mind that guaranteed transfer programs come with some caveats, so be sure to research your university’s requirements. There are also some benefits and drawbacks to starting at a community college, so weigh those carefully before committing.


7. Work a job during college


Working during college is a great way to minimize the amount of money you’re taking out in loans. However, it can be hard to hold down a full-time job while attending classes and participating in extracurriculars. That’s where work-study programs come in.


Part of a financial aid package, work-study allows students to earn money for educational fees and general expenses. Not only are work-study jobs generally located on campus, so students don’t have to commute to a job, but many also afford students time to read or study. 


Unfortunately, not all students qualify for work-study as part of their aid package. In these cases, working a part-time job at a local shop or restaurant may be a good way to pay for college without loans.


At CollegeVine, we understand that paying for college can be stressful and challenging. With that in mind, we created our free financial aid tool to help you estimate the cost of attendance. Simply enter your family income and some other details to find out what you can expect to pay. Our goal is to minimize confusion while ensuring families fully understand their college investments.

Short Bio
A graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at USC, April Maguire taught freshman composition while earning her degree. Over the years, she has worked as a writer, editor, tutor, and content manager. Currently, she operates a freelance writing business and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their three rowdy cats.