Options for When You Can’t Afford Your Child’s College

By Janet Schaaf · December 20, 2023 · 7 minute read

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Options for When You Can’t Afford Your Child’s College

These days, college is a pricey proposition. The average annual cost of attendance for a student living on campus at a public four-year college is $26,027 (in state) and $27,091 (out of state). The average cost of attending a private, nonprofit university is $55,840 per year.

If you’re worried about how you’ll cover the cost of sending your child to college, know that you’re not alone. Also know that you (and your student) have a number of funding options, including grants, scholarships, work-study, and student loans. Read on for tips on how to pay for college when your savings isn’t enough.

Steps to Take if You Can’t Afford College

Here’s a look at five things you can do to make sending your child to college more affordable.

Complete the FAFSA

The first thing every college-bound student is encouraged to do is fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). This automatically gives your student access to several types of financial aid, including grants, work-study, and federal student loans.

Even if you don’t think you’ll be eligible for federal student financial aid, it’s still a good idea to complete the FAFSA. Colleges often use the information from the form to determine eligibility for their own student financial aid, including merit aid.

Federal student financial aid can come in several forms:

•   Grants A grant is a form of financial aid that typically does not have to be repaid. Many grants, such as the Pell Grant, are awarded based on financial need. However, some are based on the student’s field of study, such as the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant.

•   Work-Study Eligibility for Federal Work-Study is determined by information provided on the student’s FAFSA. Not all schools participate in the program, so check with a school’s financial aid office to see if it does. Work-study jobs can be on or off campus, and an emphasis is placed on the student’s course of study when possible.

•   Loans Federal student loan eligibility is another type of student aid determined by the FAFSA. There are three basic types of federal student loans : Direct Subsidized Loans, Direct Unsubsidized Loans, and Direct PLUS Loans. Direct Subsidized Loans are for eligible undergraduate students who have financial need. Direct Unsubsidized Loans are for eligible undergraduate, graduate, and professional students, but eligibility is not based on financial need. Direct PLUS Loans are for graduate or professional students, or parents of dependent undergraduate students, and eligibility is not based on need.



💡 Quick Tip: You can fund your education with a low-rate, no-fee private student loan that covers all school-certified costs.

Speak With the Financial Aid Office

Getting comfortable with the school’s financial aid office staff is a good thing. The office staff can be a font of knowledge for parents and students navigating the complex world of student financial aid. Not only can they help you understand what federal student financial aid you might be eligible for, they can also let you know what student aid is available through that particular school.

Financial aid office staff may also be able to point you toward other offices or departments on campus that may have job opportunities for students, or that offer emergency services for current students in the form of food or housing assistance.

Recommended: What Kind of Emergency Funding Is Available for College Students?

Let Your Student Take on a Part-time Job

Asking your child to work part-time while they are in school can help offset expenses. If Federal Work-Study isn’t a part of their financial aid package, they can still look for a job on or off campus to earn some money to put toward books and living expenses. Learning how to manage responsibilities is also an excellent out-of-the-classroom lesson.

Some ideas for jobs that may offer part-time, flexible hours for students include:

•   Babysitter or nanny

•   Coffee shop barista

•   Retail sales

•   Restaurant server or cook

•   Gym/fitness associate

Some part-time jobs might offer perks in addition to pay. Food service jobs might come with a discount on food during a shift, retail sales associates might get a discount on the store’s products, and working in a gym might come with a free gym membership. A visit to the campus career services office is often a good place to start looking for a part-time job.

Encourage a Gap Year

It’s not at all uncommon for a student to take a gap year between high school and college. Some students might not feel ready for college right out of high school. Others might want to have a specific experience, like travel or working in a specific field. Gap years can also allow students to earn money to pay for their future college expenses.

AmeriCorps is a federal program that pairs individuals with organizations that have a need. Volunteers can work in a variety of places and situations, from teaching to disaster relief to environmental stewardship, and more. Some AmeriCorps programs offer stipends, housing, or educational benefits like federal student loan deferment and forbearance, or a monetary award that can be used to pay for certain educational expenses.

Taking a gap year can give both you and your student time to build savings. It can also give your child an opportunity to gain work experience, or explore different professions. Of course, there can be drawbacks to taking a break from academics. It might be difficult to get back into the flow of studying after a year without that type of structure. Taking a year off without any structure or purpose might leave your child without a sense of accomplishment, so it’s generally a good idea to have a plan for how a gap year will be spent.

Consider a Less-Expensive College

Going to an in-state school vs. an out-of-state or private college is one obvious way to cut costs. Here are some other options to consider.

•   Community college Community colleges often charge much less tuition than their four-year counterparts. Choosing a community college close to home can also save on room and board. Your student might be able to start at a community college, then transfer to the college of their choice to complete their bachelor’s degree.

•   Tuition-free colleges There are some colleges that don’t charge tuition at all. Students at no-tuition schools may be required to maintain a certain grade point average, live in a certain region, or participate in a student work program. For example, service academies associated with branches of the U.S. military offer free tuition in exchange for a certain number of years of military enlistment.

•   Professional school Another option might be to bypass a traditional college degree for training in a specific career field instead. Training for non-degreed positions might last anywhere from a few months to a few years, depending on the job. For example, commercial airline pilots aren’t required to have a bachelor’s degree, but they are required to have a pilot’s license and pass exams specific to the airline they work for. Jobs in the construction industry generally don’t require a bachelor’s degree, either, but might have apprenticeship programs or on-the-job training lasting several years.



💡 Quick Tip: Would-be borrowers will want to understand the different types of student loans that are available: private student loans, federal Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized loans, Direct PLUS loans, and more.

The Takeaway

Paying for college is a major expense, no matter how you look at it. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to cover the cost of higher education, including scholarships, grants, work-study, part-time jobs, and federal student loans.

If those options aren’t enough, you can also look into private student loans. These are available through banks, credit unions, and online lenders. Loan amounts vary but you can typically borrow up the full cost of attendance at your child’s school. Interest rates are set by individual lenders. Generally, students (or their parent cosigners) with excellent credit qualify for the lowest rates.

Just keep in mind that private loans don’t come with the same protections, like income-based repayment plans and forgiveness programs, that are offered by federal student loans.

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.


Cover up to 100% of school-certified costs including tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and transportation with a private student loan from SoFi.


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