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

By Janet Schaaf · July 25, 2023 · 7 minute read

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

If you’ve ever worried that you can’t afford college for your child, you’re not alone. Even though you want to help your child succeed, when it comes to paying for college, it’s not always possible.

Fortunately, your family has several options to help you pay for school. Here’s what to consider when exploring ways to pay for a college degree.

Steps to Take if You Can’t Afford College

The first thing every college-bound student is encouraged to do is fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form. This is the first step to exploring eligibility for federal student financial aid and should be completed every academic year. Federal student financial aid can include loans, grants, and Work-Study, depending on a student’s eligibility. We’ll look at the FAFSA in more detail below.

Even if you don’t think you’ll be eligible for federal student financial aid, the FAFSA should still be completed. Colleges often use the information from the form to determine eligibility for their own student financial aid.

Complete the FAFSA

This is the first step that every college-bound student is encouraged to make. It not only serves to determine eligibility for federal student financial aid, it can also determine individual college-based financial aid. Federal student financial aid can come in several forms:

•   Grants. A grant is financial aid that does not have to be repaid, under most circumstances. Grants may have special eligibility criteria, so it’s important to know the details about any grant applied for. Some federal student grants are the Pell Grant, the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG), and the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant. Individual states and U.S. territories may offer grants for residents — the U.S. Department of Education is a good place to start looking. There are also grants offered by nonprofit organizations, colleges and universities, private companies, and other organizations.

•   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.

Speak With the Financial Aid Office

Getting comfortable with the school’s financial aid office staff is a good thing. They can be fonts of knowledge for parents and students navigating the winding roads of student financial aid. Not only can the staff 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, emergency federal financial aid , or other assistance not necessarily covered by standard student financial aid packages.

Let Your Student Take on a Part-time Job

Asking your child to take an honest look at their schedule might uncover some time that could be filled with a part-time job to supplement shortcomings in their education budget. If Federal Work-Study isn’t a part of their financial aid package, looking for a job on or off campus might be a good way to earn some money to put toward tuition, books, or fees, in addition to possibly paying for their own entertainment. Learning how to manage responsibilities is an excellent out-of-the-classroom lesson.

Some ideas for part-time jobs for college students are:

•   Babysitter or nanny: Consider asking professors who have small children if they ever need extra help in addition to their regular child care provider.

•   Barista: Shifts at a coffee shop might be scheduled before or after classes.

•   Retail sales: Part-time shifts at retail stores are often during evening hours, which can be convenient with a typical college class schedule.

•   Restaurant server or cook: Food service jobs can be found at fast-food or fine-dining establishments, and can often be worked around a class schedule.

•   Gym/fitness associate: Students who are fitness minded might enjoy working at a local gym.

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 for a variety of reasons. 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 be taken to earn money to pay for upcoming, expected education expenses.

AmeriCorps is a federal program that pairs members with organizations that have a need. Members 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 be a time to build savings, 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 you without a sense of accomplishment, so having a plan for the year might be the best bet.

Consider a Less-Expensive College

There are options for getting a college education that might be easier on the budget than others.

•   Community colleges often charge much less tuition than their four-year counterparts. Average annual in-state tuition at a two-year school is one-third of the cost of in-state tuition at a four-year school. Choosing a community college might also cut out the cost of room and board that a four-year school might include because continuing to live at home is a viable option.

•   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. Service academies associated with branches of the U.S. military offer free tuition in exchange for a certain number of years of military enlistment.

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.

The Takeaway

Success in college is really up to the student, but parents can play a big role, too. Students often depend on parents to pay for all or part of the cost of college attendance, in addition to being available for encouragement during college years. Paying for college is a major expense, no matter how you look at it, and is often done with a combination of sources. If there is still a financial need after exhausting all federal student aid, scholarships, or just plain cost cutting, a private student loan might be another option to consider.

SoFi Private Student Loans can be used to pay for any school-certified costs, which typically include tuition, books and supplies, room and board, transportation and personal expenses. When looking at options for financing post-secondary education, it’s important to keep in mind that private student loans typically do not have the same benefits and protections as federal student loans do. But if a private student loan is one of the ways you choose to pay for your child’s education, those from SoFi have no fees, low fixed or variable rates, and a variety of repayment options.

Find out more about SoFi Private Student Loans.

SoFi Private Student Loans
Please borrow responsibly. SoFi Private Student Loans are not a substitute for federal loans, grants, and work-study programs. You should exhaust all your federal student aid options before you consider any private loans, including ours. Read our FAQs. SoFi Private Student Loans are subject to program terms and restrictions, and applicants must meet SoFi’s eligibility and underwriting requirements. See SoFi.com/eligibility-criteria for more information. To view payment examples, click here. SoFi reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at any time. This information is subject to change.

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