How to Pay For College Without Help From Parents
- Can You Apply for Financial Aid as an Independent?
- Tips for Paying for College Without Help from Parents
- How Much Can You Expect to Pay for College?
When applying for financial aid, you’ll need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine your expected family contribution (EFC), or the amount a college expects your family to pay toward the cost of your education. But what if your parents can’t or won’t assist with the expense?
Don’t worry, it’s still possible to fund your tuition and expenses—even without your parents’ help.
Can You Apply for Financial Aid as an Independent?
The FAFSA considers students to be dependents, even if their parents aren’t contributing to their tuition. Moreover, the EFC is calculated according to your family’s ability to pay, not their willingness.
However, there are some circumstances in which you may be considered an independent, meaning you can leave your parents’ information off the FAFSA and their financial circumstances won’t factor into your financial aid.
To qualify as an independent, you must meet at least one of the following conditions:
- You are 24 or older.
- You are legally married.
- You are an active duty member of the U.S. armed forces (training doesn’t qualify) or are a veteran.
- You are or will be working on a master’s or doctoral program or degree.
- You have dependents who are or will be receiving more than half of their support from you during the academic year for which you need aid. (If this is not your child or spouse, they must also live with you.)
- You lost both parents, lived in foster care, or were a dependent of the court at any time since the age of 13.
- You have been legally emancipated or had a legal guardian who wasn’t a parent or stepparent.
- You have been determined to be an unaccompanied youth, homeless, or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless.
Tips for Paying for College Without Help from Parents
If the above cases don’t apply to you, there are still some options for maximizing your aid and scholarships if your parents can’t afford to pay:
1. Apply for the Questbridge National College Match
Via QuestBridge’s National College Match Program, students can earn a full ride to 40 top colleges, including:
- Amherst College
- Brown University
- California Institute of Technology
- Dartmouth College
- Davidson College
- Northwestern University
- Tufts University
- University of Chicago
- Yale University
This college scholarship program covers all expenses at the college with which students are matched, for all four years. There is no parental contribution involved, although students may be expected to perform work-study or contribute from their savings.
2. Apply to schools that meet 100% need
The sticker price of a college is not the same as its net price. Many prestigious colleges, including all members of the Ivy League, commit to meeting 100% of students’ demonstrated need through generous financial aid packages, often without student loans.
This means that low-income students who get accepted may actually pay less to attend an elite school than what they’d pay at a public in-state university. Some students even have all expenses covered by financial aid.
Of course, all these schools are extremely selective, and these options are only need-based. So, if the schools aren’t a good fit for you academically, or if your parents can afford to pay, but aren’t willing, there are other options.
3. Look for schools with automatic scholarships
There are a number of schools that automatically award scholarships based on factors like standardized test scores, GPA/class rank, and more. Many are state schools, such as Alabama State University, Georgia State University, Texas State University, and the University of Oregon. However, some private schools, such as Howard University, also award generous automatic scholarships.
Keep in mind that you may have to apply before a priority deadline for consideration, so stay on top of your applications and be ready to submit them as early as November or December.
4. Apply for full-ride scholarships and external scholarships
It’s usually easier to get large scholarships, including full-ride awards, from the colleges themselves. This is because universities have much more scholarship money to offer than external organizations.
Scholarships from external organizations are still a good option, however. They’re often extremely competitive, but you can improve your chances by applying to more local, niche awards.
5. Become a National Merit semifinalist
The highly prestigious National Merit Scholarship Program recognizes the achievements of high school students through a multi-stage process, beginning with the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT), more commonly known as the PSAT.
Taking the PSAT in 11th grade means you’ll be automatically entered into the competition. The top 1% scorers in each state will advance and will be expected to submit an application, letters of recommendation, and an essay to compete for finalist status. The final award amounts to $2,500 toward your education, and many colleges offer additional scholarships to finalists and semifinalists. Some schools, like the University of Alabama, even offer full-tuition scholarships to semifinalists.
6. Look into tuition waivers
Tuition waivers are available to students at many schools and are awarded for a variety of reasons, which are often unique to the school and the region its located in. Active-duty military members and veterans are common recipients of tuition waivers, however, they’re regularly available to first responders and children of first responders as well.
Tuition waivers are also often available to members of certain groups, like American Indians, and to students who commit to entering an in-demand position for a set amount of time and/or in a particular area.
7. Become an RA
Depending on the college, being a resident advisor (RA) can help save you money. While typically not an option for freshmen, you may be able to become a RA as an upperclassman. RAs are often entitled to free or heavily discounted room and board.
8. Work a part-time job in college
Many financial aid packages include work-study, where you’ll work an on-campus job and be paid directly by your school. You can then apply that money towards your educational expenses. Jobs can range from working in the dining hall to being a library aide. Some jobs are even pretty passive, like working the help desk at the campus gym, allowing you to study and get paid.
In addition to work-study, you can always apply for a part-time job. Part-time jobs that are relevant to your schoolwork and discipline will help with your costs, while also building your resume. Make sure you have time for both work and school, though—you don’t want to fall behind because you’re having trouble juggling the two.
9. Work for a company with a tuition assistance program
Many companies (like Chick-fil-A, Starbucks, Target, and UPS, to name a few) offer tuition reimbursement or tuition assistance to their employees—even part-time ones, in some cases. A job at one of these generous businesses can make a significant dent in paying for college.
10. Cut down on college costs
While a part-time job increases the amount of money coming into your pocket, cutting down on college expenses reduces the amount of money going out and is a great way to stretch limited funds. Attending a lower-cost four-year university, starting at a community college, and living at home are all common strategies for minimizing college costs and making college more affordable.
11. Take out student loans (unfortunately)
Student loans, although not ideal, can help you pay for college without a financial contribution from your parents. If you do end up applying for loans, just make sure you understand the terms and timetable for repaying them. Try to maximize your federal loan eligibility before applying to private loans, as federal loans tend to offer lower interest rates, and some don’t start accruing interest until after graduation.
12. Apply to a college with fixed-price tuition
Fixed-tuition pricing locks in the cost of tuition throughout the entirety of an undergraduate program, eliminating any tuition hikes. This not only makes it easier to budget for college but can also add up to hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars saved over the course of a college career—especially considering that college tuition inflation averaged 4.63% annually from 2010 to 2020.
13. Start saving
Students planning on attending college, but not yet enrolled, will want to start saving money as soon as possible. The more money a student socks away before college means the less money they have to earn or borrow while in college.
14. Start a business
College has been the home for the launch of numerous industry-forming/shaping enterprises—from Facebook to Dell to Napster. Even if you don’t have a billion-dollar business idea, a simple Etsy shop or tutoring service can bring in much-needed income and help cover college costs.
15. Consider tax credits for college expenses
Tax credits are available to some college students and provide considerable financial relief. There are two educational tax credits available for college students: the American Opportunity Tax Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit.
- The American Opportunity Tax Credit can lower a student’s tax bill by up to $2,500 if they paid that much in educational expenses—which includes tuition, fees, books, and supplies. The credit is aimed at undergraduate students and can be claimed for up to four years as long as they’re not claimed as dependents and make less than $80,000 annually.
- The Lifetime Learning Credit allows students to claim a $2,000 tax credit on the first $10,000 spent on qualifying expenses, which include enrollment-related costs like tuition and fees, but not other expenses like room and board and books and supplies. This tax credit is available to students with modified adjusted gross incomes (MAGI) below $69,000 and there is no limit to the number of years a student can claim it.
If students are paying student loans, they may also be able to deduct the student loan interest from their taxable income.
How Much Can You Expect to Pay for College?
Wondering how much you should expect to pay for college? Your cost of attendance will depend on many factors, such as the price of the college, their financial aid policies, your family’s income, and more. You may be expected to pay very different sums at similar colleges.
You can find out your expected college costs by using each individual school’s net price calculator, or by using CollegeVine’s free financial aid calculator. Just enter your information once and see your estimated cost of attendance at hundreds of schools. We’ll also provide you with your estimated chances of acceptance, plus tips to improve your profile. For more advice and information, you can also check out our Paying for College community forum.