How to Pay for College Without Federal Loans

By Jacqueline DeMarco · July 18, 2022 · 8 minute read

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How to Pay for College Without Federal Loans

It’s not a secret that the cost of attending college is more expensive than most people can afford to pay for in cash. Many students turn to federal student loans to help pay for college. But what can someone do if they’ve already tapped out their federal student loan resources or don’t want to take on any federal loans?

Thankfully, there are a variety of resources available to help students pay for their education. From scholarships to savings — continue reading for 14 ways to make college tuition more affordable. It may even be possible to figure out how to pay for college without loans.

14 Ways to Make College Tuition More Affordable

The key to figuring out how to pay for college without loans or financial aid is to make the overall cost of college a lot less expensive. Here’s a few ways someone can make the cost of college more affordable.

1. Apply for FAFSA

It’s always a good idea to apply for federal financial aid — even if you don’t think you’ll qualify. That’s because the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®), is absolutely free to fill out. This form helps determine the type and amounts of aid a student qualifies for. While it’s not a guarantee that students will get financial aid granted to them, it’s worth applying to try to lower the overall cost of pursuing higher education.

Federal financial aid includes both need-based aid like Direct Subsidized Loans or Pell Grants and non-need based aid like Direct Unsubsidized Loans. After submitting the FAFSA, schools will use the information to determine your financial aid package — which will detail the aid you qualify to receive for the school year. The FAFSA must be completed annually.

Sometimes, federal financial aid isn’t enough to allow a student to pay for the full cost of college. The following tips can help students find other ways to lower the costs of attending college in the event they didn’t receive enough financial aid to make it easy to pay for school.

2. Qualify for Merit Scholarships

Because scholarship funds don’t need to be paid back, they can be a valuable tool to help pay for school. While there are need-based scholarship opportunities there are also merit-based scholarships that focus on giving money to students that meet or exceed certain standards set by the person or organization issuing the scholarship — such as academic excellence or athletic ability.

Merit scholarships may be available from your college or university, from local companies or nonprofit organizations, and other institutions. Contact your school’s financial aid office for information on scholarships available at your academic institution.

3. Apply for Private Scholarships

While colleges often offer scholarship opportunities, so do private companies, nonprofits, and other organizations such as religious groups. Both school-based and private scholarship opportunities are worth looking into. You can find information on private scholarships from both your school’s financial aid office and by searching online databases, like, that aggregate information on available scholarships.

4. Apply for ROTC Scholarships

If someone is considering joining the military they may be able to receive up to 100% in tuition assistance if they do so. College’s may have ROTC programs that make it possible to qualify for scholarships before joining the military — unlike the GI Bill which gives education money to those already enrolled in the military.

5. Attend a Community College

Attending a community college before transferring to a four-year university is another option to cut tuition costs. Some community colleges even offer tuition-free programs. Not to mention, when attending a local community college it may be easier to remain living at home with mom and dad which can cut down living expenses massively.

6. Earn College Credit in High School for Free

Some community colleges partner with local school districts to give high school students the opportunity to take college classes for free which allows them to earn college credits in high school. Taking advantage of free college classes while in high school can make the cost of attending college later cheaper — especially if the student can graduate early as a result.

7. Ask for Family Donations

While there’s no guarantee family will be able to or willing to help pay for someone to go to college, it can be worth asking parents, grandparents, and other close family members for assistance. Together, their contributions may help lighten the overall load of attending college.

8. Consider Private Student Loans

If someone wants to take out loans but didn’t receive enough federal student loans to fully cover their education and living expenses while in college, they can apply for private student loans to help make up the difference. Unlike federal student loans which are awarded based on the FAFSA, private student loans are awarded from individual lenders and require their own application. Because private student loans tend to be more expensive than federal loans, it’s a good idea to exhaust any potential federal options before applying for private student loans.

9. Choose an Affordable School

Usually, attending an in-state public school is more affordable than attending an out-of-state public school. Additionally, private universities tend to cost more to attend than public universities. If a student can go to an in-state public university, that is likely the most affordable route they can pursue. Especially if they attend community college first to get some general education classes out of the way.

While public schools are generally more affordable than private institutions, financial aid packages can potentially even the playing field. When evaluating colleges, be sure to factor in the actual costs after any scholarships or grants and other aid.

10. Work During School

It can be challenging, but if a student can work part time while enrolled in college, they can pay some if not all of their way as they go. If they took out loans, they may be able to use their earnings to start paying them down early so they can avoid paying interest after they graduate.

11. Budget for College With Parent’s 529 Plan

If a student’s parents set up a 529 plan (which is a tax-advantaged investment account that can be used to pay for qualifying educational costs) they can budget out those savings to see how much of their education they can pay for — a budgeting app could help.

Though some students may not have the benefit of supportive parents. Students figuring out how to pay for college without their parents’ help may want to focus on finding an affordable school, filling out the FAFSA, applying for private scholarships, working while in college, and wisely using student loans.

12. Complete College Earlier Than Four Years

If a student hustles, even shaving off one semester of college can save them a decent chunk of change in tuition, fees, and room and board. If they can take an extra class each semester, they may be able to graduate early and save a lot of money.

13. Live Off Campus and Commute

As convenient as living on a college campus is, it can also be expensive. The cheapest living option is to live at home with parents if that’s possible and commute to school. If a student does need to live on their own, renting an apartment or a room in a house off campus may still be more affordable than living on campus. Cost out the different options to see which is most affordable and in-line with your budget.

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14. Negotiate With College Campus

Some colleges offer tuition payment plans that don’t necessarily reduce expenses but can make it easier to pay for tuition by spreading payments out over several months instead of expecting one lump sum payment up front. This can be an especially good option for students working to pay for school.

The Takeaways

Paying for college is a big endeavor, but one that can be made easier if a student takes certain steps to reduce the overall costs of college. Figuring out how to pay for college without loans is challenging, but starting by applying for scholarships and financial aid can help.

To make it easier to reach major financial goals like paying for college, SoFi can help. With SoFi’s money tracker app, it’s possible to connect all accounts on one mobile dashboard to get a bird’s-eye view of all account balances, to track spending and set monthly spending targets, and to work with a financial planner to set goals.

Learn more about how SoFi makes meeting financial goals easier.


What can I do if my parents won’t pay for college?

Students can apply for financial aid by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), can take out federal or private student loans, or can work their way through school. It may be challenging, but students do have options outside of their parents for financing higher education.

How can I pay for college by myself?

If someone needs to pay for college on their own, they’ll want to fill out the FAFSA each year to see how much financial aid they qualify for and how much federal student loan coverage they can get. If they need more money to pay for school, they may consider applying for private student loans.

Is Sallie Mae a federal loan?

Sallie Mae student loans are not federal student loans. They offer private student loans.

Photo credit: iStock/AntonioSolano

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Third-Party Brand Mentions: No brands, products, or companies mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third-party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.


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