With the average annual cost of college now $36,435, figuring out how to pay for college as a low-income student can be daunting. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that students from low-income backgrounds often qualify for grants and scholarships (which you don’t have to pay back), as well as student loans.
Federal student loans are available to all college students, regardless of income, and don’t require a credit check. If you still have gaps in funding after tapping financial aid and federal loans, you may also be able to qualify for private student loans, even with a low income.
Read on to learn more about the financial aid options available to you if you qualify as a low-income student and how to apply for student loans.
What Are Student Loans?
Student loans are an often-used option to help pay for college. In fact, nearly 52% of students who complete their undergraduate programs take out federal loans at some point during their college years, according to the Education Data Initiative.
Student loans can be used to pay for tuition, room and board, and other fees, as well as other associated costs of college like books and rent.
Students can use either federal or private student loans to pay for college. Students who take out federal student loans borrow money from the government, through the U.S. Department of Education. Federal student loans typically offer low, fixed interest rates and other benefits, such as income-driven repayment plans and access to forgiveness programs.
Private student loans, by contrast, are available from banks, credit unions, and other private lenders. These lenders set their own interest rates and conditions for their student loans. To qualify for a private student loan, you need to fill out an application and disclose personal financial information, such as your income and credit score.
Since students typically don’t have well-established credit histories, many private student loans require a cosigner. A cosigner is someone who agrees to pay back the loan if the primary borrower is unable to do so. Because private student loans don’t offer the same borrower protections that come with federal student loans, you generally only want to consider them after you’ve depleted all of your federal student aid options.
💡 Quick Tip: You’ll make no payments on some private student loans for six months after graduation.
Can You Get Student Loans With a Low Income?
Yes, you can get student loans if you have a low income. If you can’t cover the full cost of college with scholarships and grants, student loans can help you take care of the remaining costs of college.
You can access federal student loans no matter your income level, but you do need to meet specific qualifications. You must:
• Have a high school diploma or a recognized equivalency, such as a GED, or have completed a state-approved home-school high school education.
• Be a U.S. citizen or an eligible noncitizen
• Have a valid Social Security Number
• Be enrolled or accepted for enrollment as a regular student in an eligible degree or certificate program
• Maintain satisfactory academic progress in college
You may also be able to qualify for some private student loans if you have a low income (more on that below).
Recommended: Finding Free Money for College
Low-Income Financial Aid Options
Students and their families pay for college in a variety of ways, including savings, scholarships, grants, work-study, and student loans. Indeed, paying for college often looks like a puzzle — all the pieces fit together in different ways to make everything “fit.”
Here’s a look at how to access low-income student aid options.
Every student (whether they’re low-income students or not) can file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA is the free form you can fill out to apply for financial aid for undergraduate or graduate school, and is one of the most important steps students and their families can take to pay for college.
In conjunction with the school you plan to attend, the FAFSA determines your eligibility for need-based and non-need-based financial aid. The FAFSA results determine the amounts you receive for federal grants, scholarships, work-study, and/or federal student loans. In addition to subsidized federal student loan (which are need-based) and unsubsidized federal student loans (which are not need-based), there are two other types of federal aid low-income students may qualify for based on the FAFSA:
• Federal grants Students who demonstrate financial need may qualify for federal grants, which you do not need to pay back. Some examples of federal grants include Federal Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants, and Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants. Each grant has its own eligibility requirements. Some, like the TEACH Grant, even have requirements you must fulfill after you attend school. Look at each grant’s eligibility requirements to determine whether you qualify.
• Work-study Colleges and universities offer part-time work-study opportunities through the Federal Work-Study program. Graduate and undergraduate students who demonstrate financial need can get it whether they are part- or full-time students, as long as your school participates in the Federal Work-Study Program.
How Do You File the FAFSA?
Typically, the FAFSA becomes available on October 1 for the following academic year. The 2024-2025 academic year, however, is an exception. Due to upcoming changes to the FAFSA (and some adjustments to how student aid will be calculated), the application will be available some time in December 2023.
Since some aid is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, it’s a good idea to complete the FAFSA as soon after its release as possible. Here’s how:
1. Create your Federal Student Aid ID, also called an FSA ID. You can do this in advance of getting your materials ready and filing the FAFSA.
2. Make a list of schools you’d like to attend. You can add up to 20 schools on the 2024-2025 FAFSA.
3. Gather financial documents you’ll need. You’ll need information for both yourself and your parents, such as your Social Security numbers, Alien Registration numbers (if you’re not a U.S. citizen), most recent federal income tax return, W-2s, details of any untaxed income you’ve received, current bank statements, records of any investments you have.
4. Complete the FAFSA. Using your FSA ID, log in to the website, read the directions, and submit your information.
5. Review your FAFSA Submission Summary to make sure your information looks correct. The FAFSA Submission Summary, formerly known as the Student Aid Report (SAR), is a document that summarizes the information you provided when filling out the FAFSA. It includes your Student Aid Index (SAI), previously called Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Colleges and universities receive your SAI to determine your eligibility for federal and nonfederal student aid.
Federal Pell Grant
Your SAI will determine your eligibility for a Federal Pell Grant, so you have to file the FAFSA in order to qualify.
Undergraduate students who qualify for a Federal Pell Grant must show exceptional financial need. These grants are usually reserved only for undergraduate students, though some students enrolled in a post-baccalaureate teacher certification program might qualify.
How much can you receive from a Pell Grant? The amount varies, depending on your SAI, the cost of attendance of your school, whether you are a part-time or full-time student, and whether you will attend for a full academic year or not. The maximum Pell Grant award for the 2023-2024 academic year is $7,395. (The amount for 2024-2025 has not been announced yet.)
Scholarships for Low-Income Students
Colleges and universities may offer need-based scholarships. The money is yours to use for education — you do not need to pay it back. The results of the FAFSA help colleges and universities determine your eligibility for need-based scholarships and scholarships for low-income students.
You can also find need-based scholarships through employers, individuals, private companies, nonprofit organizations, religious groups, and professional and/or social organizations. There are a number of online search tools that can help you find scholarships you might qualify for.
Student Loans for Low-Income Families
As mentioned above, you can tap into either federal or private student loans for low-income students. Here’s a closer look at both.
Federal Student Loans
Based on the results of the FAFSA, you may qualify for a few types of federal student loans. Subsidized federal loans are need-based, while unsubsidized federal student loans are available to all students regardless of income or financial need.
Here’s a quick overview of three main types of federal loans:
• Direct Unsubsidized Loans can go to undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. They are not need-based but you are responsible for paying all interest, which begins accruing as soon as the loan is dispersed.
• Direct Subsidized Loans are for undergraduate students who demonstrate financial need. The government pays the interest on these loans while you’re in school, during any deferment, and during the six-month grace period after you graduate.
• Direct Plus Loans are available for graduate or professional students or parents of undergraduate students and are not need-based or subsidized. Borrowers must undergo a credit check to look for adverse events, but eligibility does not depend on your credit scores.
Private Student Loans
Federal student loans don’t fully cover the cost of attendance for many students, and some students may consider tapping into private student loans as well.
Private lenders set their own requirements, however, and some students may find it challenging to qualify for a private loan if they have:
• Little to no income
• A negative credit history
• A bankruptcy on file
• A low credit score
How do you get around these issues? You may need to get a job while in school to prove you have some income. You may also want to work on building your credit before you apply for a private student loan. While you may be able to qualify with low income and low credit, you may make up for it by paying more in interest.
Another way to qualify for a private student loan with a low income and/or poor (or limited) credit is to apply with a cosigner. A student loan cosigner is a creditworthy adult who signs for a loan along with you. It’s a legally binding agreement stating that they’re willing to share the responsibility of repaying the loan on time and in full. Many borrowers turn to a family member for cosigning.
How to Apply for Student Loans
How to apply for student loans will differ depending on whether you are interested in federal or private student loans.
To apply for federal student loans, the first step is to fill out the FAFSA. Once you’ve filed the FAFSA, you basically sit back and wait to see what the school you’re planning to attend will offer you in federal aid, which may include a mix of grants, scholarships, and federal student loans. Your school will tell you how to accept all or a part of the loan.
Before you receive your loan funds, you will be required to complete entrance counseling, a tool to ensure you understand your obligation to repay the loan, and also sign a Master Promissory Note, agreeing to the terms of the loan.
Applying for private student loans involves directly going to a lender website or simply talking to your college or university’s financial aid office. Many institutions put together what they call “preferred lenders.”
Even if your school makes it easy for you to apply for a private student loan, it’s a good idea to do your research outside of the preferred lender list to find low interest rates and compare interest rate types (fixed or variable), repayment schedules, and fees. You want to find the terms and conditions that best fit your needs.
As you are researching private student loans, you’ll want to make sure that you (or your cosigner) meets the requirements to qualify for the loan.
💡 Quick Tip: Federal student loans carry an origination or processing fee (1.057% for Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized loans first disbursed from Oct. 1, 2020, through Oct. 1, 2024). The fee is subtracted from your loan amount, which is why the amount disbursed is less than the amount you borrowed. That said, some private student loan lenders don’t charge an origination fee.
Even if you’re a low-income student, you can access student loans. To find out what federal student loans you are eligible for, you’ll need to fill out the FAFSA. As a low-income student, you may qualify for subsidized federal student loans, which won’t accrue any interest while you’re in school and for six months after you graduate. This makes them more affordable than unsubsidized federal student loans and private 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.
What qualifies as a low-income student?
The U.S. Department of Education defines a low-income student as an individual whose family’s taxable income for the preceding year did not exceed 150% of the poverty income level established by the Census Bureau. For example, a student from a family of four living in the contiguous U.S. with a household income of $45,000 or less is considered low-income.
Do low-income students get free college?
Some low-income students are able to go to college for free through financial aid or merit scholarships. But even without a full ride, low income students can often pay for college through a combination of scholarships, grants, and loans.
Does FAFSA help low-income students?
Yes. Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as the FAFSA, gives low-income students access to financial aid, including grants, scholarships, work-study programs, and federal student loans.
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