There are many paths to paying for college. You could secure scholarships, qualify for state-based grants, and take out federal or private student loans.
There’s always asking for mom and dad’s help, too.
In fact, the average family spent $23,757 on the cost of college in 2017, according to Sallie Mae*†. About 23 percent of it was covered by parents’ income and savings.
But if you’re unable to get help paying for college from your folks, there are other options.
How your parents factor into paying for college
One of the first steps to financing your four years of higher education is filling out the FAFSA. You supply details about your family’s income, and the FAFSA spits out your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC is the amount of money you and your parents are expected to put toward your education.
The EFC is important because it partly determines how much financial aid you can receive. If you have a high EFC, you might be less likely to be eligible for a Federal Pell Grant, for example. If your EFC is on the low end, you might qualify for both grants and Direct Subsidized Loans from the federal government.
The problem with the EFC is that the federal government uses it to determine whether your parents can help, not whether they will. You might see a high EFC on your FAFSA results and then learn that mom or dad would rather you take out student loans than borrow from the family’s piggy bank. That’s where problems arise.
You might think you can work around the EFC by becoming financially independent. After all, if you’re 18 or older and have no income, it stands to reason that you’d be handed a low EFC. Unfortunately, the federal government sets a high bar to go from a dependent status to an independent one. You’d have to be one of the following:
- At least 24 years of age
- An orphan
- A veteran
- A graduate or professional student
- A parent
If you don’t meet one of those criteria, you’d be classified as a dependent student. The status is decided regardless of your relationship with your mom or dad, whether it’s strong or strained.
Being a dependent lessens the amount you can borrow from the federal government to fund your education. In fact, independent students can borrow $4,000 to $5,000 more than their dependent peers each year they’re enrolled.
So if you’re a dependent student with parents who can’t (or won’t) contribute to your cost of attendance, you’ll need to finance your path to campus in other ways.
Are parents obligated to pay for college?
You might be wondering what percent of parents pay for college. Or just as likely, you could be questioning how many students pay for their own college. The answer might surprise you.
There’s one possible exception in about half of America’s state legislatures. In the case of divorce, your post-high school education expenses could fall under the umbrella of child support owed to the parent you live with.
It’s an unlikely but possible way for your mom or dad to be forced to help pay for your college expenses.
6 steps to paying for college without your parents’ help
More than 90 percent of parents save for their child’s future college expenses, according to a 2016 Fidelity survey. If your mom and dad are in the minority, you might see your friends’ parents covering tuition payments and become frustrated.
But you’re not on your own. No matter the reason why your parents won’t be paying for college, here are six steps to receive the help you need.
1. Ask your parents to complete the FAFSA anyway
Although not required, completing the FAFSA is a must if you need any aid to cover your cost of attendance. Without it, you won’t be eligible for many federal grants and loans. Your school’s award package will also likely rely on the FAFSA to assess your financial need.
Tell your parents that supplying their income tax returns for the FAFSA will allow you to receive outside help to pay for college. You can also make clear that it doesn’t force them to contribute to your college costs.
2. Set your sights on a school at the right price
Cost is an important factor to consider when you build a college list. If your family isn’t supporting your move to college, it becomes even bigger.
Make affordability a priority when narrowing down your list of safety, target, and reach colleges. You can do this by employing the Department of Education’s (DOE) College Scorecard to compare schools by:
- Average annual cost
- Percent of students receiving federal loans
- Average debt upon graduation
Using the College Board’s search tool, focus in on schools that fit within a customizable range of costs or financial aid support. You can even filter out schools that don’t offer college application waivers or work-study programs.
If you’re already zeroed in a particular school, talk to the campus financial aid office about your options. You might be able to negotiate your school’s financial aid package if a family member recently divorced or passed away, for example.
3. Apply for need- and merit-based gift aid
There are two types of gift aid for college that, unlike loans, do not need to be repaid. Scholarships are most often awarded for merit like a high SAT score, and grants are given based on financial need.
If you have a high EFC but unwilling parents, you’ll have to rely more on merit-based awards. If you have a low EFC, you can more successfully apply for grants whether your parents are along for the ride.
It’s important to rack up as much gift aid as possible because it will lessen your need to borrow money you’ll have to repay later.
4. Borrow from your parents directly
If your mom or dad don’t have the cash to pony up for tuition, inform them about all the other ways parents can help their kids afford college. For one, you could take out a loan from them. You could even make it official using a company like LoanBack. It allows you and your parents to set the terms of your loan, even setting an interest rate.
A more common solution is to resort to a Parent PLUS Loan from the federal government. If your mom or dad is hesitant to take out a loan on your behalf, you could make a handshake deal to be responsible for payments. The loan will be in their name, but you could informally assume responsibility for repayment.
Review with your parents the consequences of a Parent PLUS Loan. If you struggle to keep up with payments on their behalf, for example, your parents’ credit report would suffer. If your mom or dad needs to keep their finances fluid, this might not be the right option for your family.
5. Maximize your federal loan allotment
If you don’t have your family’s financial support, you could at least have the government’s.
If you’re a dependent undergraduate, the DOE allows you to borrow $5,500 for your first year of college. At most, $3,500 of that amount can be in Direct Subsidized Loans.
Subsidized loans are preferable to unsubsidized loans because you won’t be responsible for interest that accrues on them while you’re in school. You’ll have to prove financial need via the FAFSA to be eligible for subsidized loans.
6. Consider a private loan with a cosigner
Unlike federal loans for undergraduate students, private loans will likely require you to find a cosigner. That’s because private lenders offer loan terms based on the borrower’s credit history. If you don’t have one, you could ride the coattails of a cosigner to secure a lower interest rate.
It’s possible to find a cosigner who’s not your parent, but check with your mom or dad before evaluating your other options. A good cosigner has a strong credit history, debt-to-income ratio, and meets lenders’ other requirements.
The conventional wisdom is to prioritize federal loans over private loans. Even if you can score a better interest rate from a private lender, you’ll lose out on protections specific to federal loan servicers. One such protection is the ability to change your repayment plan when you graduate.
Find non-parental help paying for college
If your parents are out of the picture and you feel alone — don’t. Other students are in the same situation, even if it seems like 100 percent of your friends are receiving free rides.
There are plenty of ways to find help paying for college. But you might have to step outside your home to find them.
Choosing the right school, applying for gift aid, and borrowing only what you need are just some of the best ways to get you to campus. If you put in the effort now, you can focus on your studies later.
*Sallie Mae Disclaimer: Click here for important information. Terms, conditions and limitations apply.
†The Sallie Mae partner referenced is not the creditor for these loans and is compensated by Sallie Mae for the referral of Smart Option Student Loan customers.
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1 = Citizens Disclaimer.
2 = CollegeAve Autopay Disclaimer: All rates shown include the auto-pay discount. The 0.25% auto-pay interest rate reduction applies as long as a valid bank account is designated for required monthly payments. Variable rates may increase after consummation.
* The Sallie Mae partner referenced is not the creditor for these loans and is compensated by Sallie Mae for the referral of Smart Option Student Loan customers.
3 = Sallie Mae Disclaimer: Click here for important information. Terms, conditions and limitations apply.
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