How to Get Help Paying for College When You Don’t Have Any Money

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You want to earn your college degree, but you don’t have the savings to cover tuition. Fortunately, there are ways to pay for school even if your bank account is empty. If you’re wondering how to pay for college with no money, read on for some helpful advice.

How to pay for college with no money

Here are six methods to try out if you don’t have the funds to pay for college. Not all of these will fit perfectly with your specific situation, but most (if not all) are worth considering:

1. Identify schools that are or almost tuition-free
2. Apply for federal and state grants
3. Seek out merit-based scholarships
4. Ask for help
5. Trim your academic expenses
6. Consider federal and private loans

1. Identify schools that are or almost tuition-free

When you build your college list, prioritize affordability. You can use the College Board to search for schools by the percentage of financial aid you’d like to receive. You can also check out the Department of Education’s College Scorecard to compare schools by average annual cost.

If you’re hoping to learn how to attend college for free, check in with the financial aid office of your top choices. Some prestigious schools offer a free education.

If you’re unable to find a four-year school that’s a fit economically and academically, you might consider delaying your decision by two years. Enrolling at a community college would give you more time to identify the right school. You’ll also save money along the way.

The average public two-year college costs $3,730 in tuition and fees, according to the College Board. A public four-year university would set in-state residents back an average of $10,440. And the price would increase if you opt for an out-of-state or private school.

2. Apply for federal and state grants

To truly compare your cost of attendance at different schools, you’ll have to wait and see the award packages they offer you.

It’s possible to have most or even all of your cost of attendance covered by need-based aid. For that to happen, your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) would have to result in an especially low Expected Family Contribution (EFC).

To fill out the FAFSA, you’ll submit your family’s latest tax return and other financial information. The lower your resulting EFC, the more likely you could receive a Pell Grant or Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) from the federal government. Your school might also be a source of need-based financial aid.

Don’t forget to search for need-based grants in your state. Contact the education agency listed on the handy map from the Department of Education.

3. Seek out merit-based scholarships

There are cases where you might rely more heavily on merit-based gift aid. You could be a dependent student with a high EFC, for example, but have parents who are unwilling or unable to help you pay for college.

No matter your situation, apply for both grants and scholarships to help you pay for college. Unlike loans, they don’t need to be repaid.

Scholarships can be found at your prospective schools, via online search tools, and from local and national organizations. There are many ways you could differentiate yourself from other scholarship applicants. You might highlight community service efforts or academic accomplishments.

4. Ask for help

If you win a no-strings-attached scholarship for college, you can stow it away in your growing savings account. The same could be said for any money offered by family and friends.

Of all the ways to pay for college, you might consider this one to be the hardest. But shed your pride, because it doesn’t hurt to ask for some help.

You can strengthen your pitch to potential donors by describing the work you’ve put in to apply for grants and scholarships. Explain that you’re still coming up short and are trying to avoid student loans.

A relative – or a relative stranger – could be convinced to help you fill in the gaps. You might try starting a crowdfunding campaign.

You could also return to your top schools’ financial aid offices and explain your situation. Try to negotiate your award packages.

You never know what might come of your efforts. If an office representative can’t set you up with a work-study program, for example, they still might help you find a job on campus.

5. Trim your academic expenses

You might be motivated to fundraise to cover the cost of your prospective schools’ tuition. But your other college expenses could be more expensive.

In fact, students attending in-state, four-year public schools spent an average of $26,590 during the 2019-2020 school year. Just 39% of that cost of attendance — or $10,440 — went toward tuition, according to the College Board.

So if you’re still scrounging, brainstorm ways to be thrifty and consider these tips for three major expenses:

  • Room and board: Choosing a school near home would allow you to commute, skipping the costs of on-campus dorms and meal plans. If you’re determined to have the full college experience, becoming a resident assistant (RA) could at least help cover your living expenses.
  • Books and supplies: In college, you might have to buy one or more new books for each of your classes. Instead, look into sharing with classmates and buying used or digital copies. At the end of every semester, you could also sell any hard copies you purchased via a website like TextbookRush.
  • Transportation: Living off campus might save you money on room and board, but don’t spend those savings on transportation. Explore your options, from taking the bus to biking, to find the most cost-effective solution.

6. Consider federal and private loans

Unless you’ve made the decision to attend a no- or low-cost school, it’s possible that you’ll need to borrow money to pay for college.

But student loans from the federal government or a private lender should be your last resort. Unlike grants and scholarships, loans need to be repaid to the lender over time and with accruing interest.

It’s generally recommended you rely on federal loans first, which you become eligible for after completing the FAFSA. Federal loans are the easy answer to how to go to college with no money and/or bad credit. They don’t require a credit check. They also come with repayment protections that private lenders don’t match.

If you have a parent or another creditworthy adult to serve as a loan cosigner, you might consider recommended private lenders, too. You could score a better interest rate than what the federal government offers. Just be sure that you won’t miss the government’s protections.

Start saving whatever you can

If you don’t have a healthy savings account to dip into for college costs, it’s never too late to start building one. There are relatively easy steps to opening a bank account. Your opening deposit could be as little as $1, depending on your bank.

From there, start contributing to your account a little bit at a time. If you have a job, save a cut of your paycheck. If you don’t have income, consider starting a side hustle.

Don’t worry about saving every cent of your future tuition costs. It’s more important to get started. Set aside as much as you can without taking away from everyday expenses like food and rent.

Your savings, however small, could eventually help you afford secondary academic expenses like books and supplies.

And remember to deposit every cent you earn into your new or improved bank account. When you’re ready to get started, here is a list of our favorite banks for college students.

Rebecca Safier contributed to this report.

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Check out our top picks below or learn more about other ways to pay for college.
Variable APRDegrees That QualifyMore Info
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