Paying for College With No Money in Your Savings

By Jennifer Calonia · May 31, 2022 · 7 minute read

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Paying for College With No Money in Your Savings

With the high cost of a college education, affording college with no money set aside might feel impossible. However, there are many forms of financial aid — whether from federal, state, school, or private organizations — that can help you pay for your college degree.

Learning how to pay for college with no money might require approaching your higher education costs from different angles. This includes cutting your college expenses, finding alternate financial aid sources, or both.

Average Cost of College

How much you can expect to pay for college varies, depending on the school you choose, your degree level, whether you’re a state resident, and other factors.

According to the CollegeBoard’s 2021 Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid report, the average tuition and fees for a full-time, in-state undergraduate student attending a public four-year school in 2021-22 is $10,780. Out-of-state students can expect to pay an average of $27,560 in tuition and fees for the same academic year. And students attending a nonprofit four-year private institution are charged an average $38,070 in tuition and fees.

Institution Type

Average Annual Tuition and Fees

Public Four-Year College, In-State Student $10,740
Public Four-Year College, Out-of-State Student $27,560
Private Four-Year College, Nonprofit $38,070

Keep in mind that these figures are exclusively for tuition and fees. This cost doesn’t account for additional expenses that college students often face, like textbooks, school supplies, housing, and transportation.

Ways to Pay for College

The cost of being a college student can seem overwhelming when you don’t have savings or out-of-pocket funds available to directly pay for school.

If you want to go to college but have no money or are a parent who’s helping your child pay for college, here are a few ideas on how to go to college with no money saved.

Fill Out FAFSA® to See if You Qualify for Financial Aid

The best way to pay for college with no money — and really, the first step you should always take — is submitting a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA.

The FAFSA is the first step in finding out if you qualify for a federal financial aid program. For example, you can see if you’re eligible for the Pell Grant, Federal Work-Study, and Direct Loans. The information on your FAFSA is also commonly used to determine your eligibility for state, school, and other privately sponsored aid.


In addition to federal grants, search for grants from your state and school for additional funding. Grant funds generally don’t need to be repaid as long as you meet the grant program’s requirements.

Some organizations — nonprofit and for-profit — also host their own need- or merit-based grant programs for college students.


Scholarships are considered gift aid, meaning they typically don’t need to be repaid. There are a plethora of scholarship opportunities that are awarded due to financial need or merit.

You can search for scholarships online from various companies, organizations, community groups, and more. Ask your school’s financial aid office for help finding these advantageous sources of aid.

Negotiate With the College for More Aid

If your financial circumstances have changed since you submitted your FAFSA, request a professional judgment to have your school reevaluate your financial aid package.
Not all schools accept this request, but if yours does, this process gives you a chance to provide additional documentation that’s used to recalculate your financial need.

Start With Community College and Transfer

If you want to go to college but have no money, one option is to attend a community college for the first two years of your college education. According to the same CollegeBoard report, the average 2020-21 cost for tuition and fees at a local two-year college is $3,800 for a full-time undergraduate student.

After completing your general education courses at a junior college, you can then transfer to a four-year school.

Choose a Less Expensive University

The type of school you choose can also help you afford college if you don’t have money saved. As mentioned earlier, the cost of college varies widely between a public versus private institution.

Additionally, choosing a public school in your home state generally costs less than attending an out-of-state school. When reviewing cost, be sure to factor in the scholarships and grants you may qualify for.

Live at Home

Room and board is one of the largest expenses facing students. Instead of having to account for costs toward a dorm room or off-campus housing, living at home and commuting to school can help you keep expenses lower.

Talk with your parents about whether living at home while you earn your degree is an option.

Study Abroad

Some students may explore pursuing their degree abroad, as one solution to cut expenses. Thanks to government subsidies in some countries, attending university abroad can be less expensive than staying in the U.S. In some cases, American students may even qualify for free tuition.


The Federal Work-Study program allows you to earn financial aid with part-time work through an employer partner.

Federal Student Loans

If you need to borrow money for college, a federal student loan is the first choice for students. The Department of Education offers subsidized and unsubsidized federal loans to students. These loans need to be repaid.

Undergraduate students might be eligible for subsidized federal loans in which the government pays for accrued interest while you’re enrolled in school, during your grace period and while in deferment. These are awarded based on financial need.

Private Student Loans

After exhausting all of your federal student aid opportunities, students may apply for a private student loan if they need additional cash to pay for college.

Private student loan rates and terms differ from federal loans. Generally, private student loans don’t offer borrowers income-driven repayment plans, or flexible deferment or forbearance terms when you’re having trouble repaying your loan.

Also, loan details often differ between lenders. To find a competitive private student loan, compare rates from a handful of lenders before choosing one.

Working Part-Time

To supplement the financial aid you’ve received, consider working part-time while you’re enrolled in school. Funds from a part-time job can help you pay for day-to-day costs as a student, like groceries, transportation, or general living expenses while you’re studying for your degree.

Borrowing From Family Members

If you have a money gap between the financial aid you’ve received and your college expenses, an option is to ask a close family member if they’re willing to offer you a loan.

Depending on your family’s financial resources and your relationship with your parents or relatives, you might have access to this alternative low-interest financing option. When borrowing money from family, be clear about how much you need, how the funds will be used, and expectations regarding repayment after you leave school.

Is College Right for You?

Attending a degree-granting, four-year college isn’t the only choice you have for furthering your education and career prospects. Enrolling in a trade school or seeking vocational training can help you advance your skills for more job-focused opportunities.

Trade School

A trade school offers programs that teach students the hands-on skills for a technical or labor-based profession.

Vocational Training

Vocational schools provide students with the education to earn a certification or formal training quickly for service-oriented professions.

SoFi Private Student Loans

If you’ve decided that a traditional college education is for you, you might still need additional funds, despite exploring alternatives to afford college with no money. A SoFi private student loan can help by offering easy financing through a fast online process.

It provides competitive rates and flexible terms to suit your repayment needs. Plus, checking your rates can be done in just three minutes.

Interested in seeing how a private student loan from SoFi can help you pay for college? Learn more and find out if you pre-qualify in a few minutes.*


Is there any way to go to college entirely for free?

Yes, but financial aid is highly variable and is determined based on your unique situation. Students might be eligible to enroll in college at no cost, depending on their financial need. Similarly, some students might be able to attend college for free based on merit, like with a full academic or athletic scholarship.

Is relying completely on student loans for college a good idea?

No, relying completely on student loans for college isn’t a good idea. To keep your student loan debt out of college as low as possible, it’s generally wise to seek out a mix of financial aid options. Prioritize aid that you don’t have to repay, like grants and scholarships, and use student loans as a last option when funding your college education.

Why is the cost of college so high in the US?

The high cost of college in the U.S. can be attributed to various factors. An increased demand for higher education, and unrestrained administrative and facility costs have been cited as reasons for the ongoing rise of college costs.

*Checking Your Rates: To check the rates and terms you may qualify for, SoFi conducts a soft credit pull that will not affect your credit score. However, if you choose a product and continue your application, we will request your full credit report from one or more consumer reporting agencies, which is considered a hard credit pull and may affect your credit.

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Photo credit: iStock/Passakorn Prothien

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