If you have an empty bank account and a desire to attend college, you’re not alone. You’re actually in the majority.
In fact, more than 60 percent of current undergraduates’ families failed to make a financial plan for college, according to Sallie Mae*†.
But there are other ways to pay for college.
6 ways to pay for college when your bank account is empty
Only 11 percent of college students reported that they weren’t responsible for any of their college costs, according to an ABODO survey.
If you’re among the 89 percent who must figure out how to pay for school with no money in your bank account, check out these six options.
1. Identify schools that are tuition-free or close to it
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 (DOE) 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 $3,570 in tuition and fees, according to the College Board. A four-year university would set you back an average of $9,970. 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 spit out an especially low Expected Family Contribution (EFC).
To fill out the FAFSA, you’ll supply 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 Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant from the federal government. Your school might also be a source of need-based financial aid.
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 some extra 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 $25,290 during the 2017-2018 school year. Just 39 percent of that cost of attendance — or $9,970 — 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 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.
How to pay for college with no money saved
The benefit of these six ways to pay for college is that they could be read as a list of six steps.
Some these options might be better suited for your situation, and you should prioritize those first. Applying for gift aid, for example, could be done before you resort to student loans.
And remember to deposit every cent you earn into your new or improved bank account. It could help you pay for your sophomore year.
*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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