ELFI | What to Do When You Can’t Pay For College (2023)

It’s no secret that going to college is expensive. With tuition on the rise, many people think higher education is simply out of reach. According to a 2022 study by Morning Consult, a data intelligence company, 77% of adults said it would be difficult to afford a college education.

However, options may be available that can make the expense more manageable if you don’t have your parents paying for college. If you can’t afford college right now, keep reading for a few tips that may help.

8 Ways to Pay for School if You Can’t Afford College

If you don’t have enough money to pay for college, don’t give up; there are several financial aid programs and cost-cutting measures you can try:

1. Fill out the FAFSA

If you’re thinking, “my parents can’t afford college,” completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is an essential first step in finding financing options for college. However, many people skip filling it out because of misinformation.

According to the National College Attainment Network (NCAN), just 57% of high school seniors completed the FAFSA in 2021. Some students put off filling out the FAFSA because they don’t think they’ll qualify for aid or they believe the process will be too difficult or time-consuming.

However, 87% of first-year students receive financial aid, and the Office of Federal Student Aid reported that most people complete the FAFSA online in less than an hour.

The FAFSA isn’t used just for federal student loans; it’s also what the government, schools, and organizations use to determine your eligibility for valuable financial aid programs.

The FAFSA is available each year starting on October 1. Although the federal FAFSA submission deadline is June 30, you should aim to submit it much sooner. States and colleges can have their own deadlines, and some financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Submitting the FAFSA early increases the likelihood of getting financial assistance.

Contact your college’s financial aid office to determine their deadline for FAFSA submission and what financial aid options are available.

2. Apply for Grants

Regarding paying for college, grants are an incredibly useful tool. They’re a form of gift aid, so they generally don’t have to be repaid. They’re usually need-based, so you can qualify if you meet the grant program’s income requirements.

Grants are issued by federal and state governments, colleges, and non-profit organizations. For example:

  • Federal Pell Grant: With a Pell Grant, low-income undergraduate students can receive up to $6,895 for the 2022-2023 award year. Unlike loans, Pell Grants don’t have to be repaid.
  • Florida Student Assistance Grant: This need-based grant is awarded to resident undergraduate students enrolled at eligible colleges. Qualifying students can receive enough money to cover 110% of the clock hours required to complete their programs.
  • Washington College Grant: Low- and middle-income students may qualify for the Washington College Grant in Washington state. The maximum award covers full tuition at approved in-state public universities or a comparable amount at approved private colleges.

There are grant opportunities specially designed for military service members and veterans, those pursuing specific degree programs, and students with disabilities.

Visit your state education agency, contact your college’s financial aid office, and use tools like CareerOneSource to find grants offered by companies and non-profit organizations.

3. Search for Scholarships

Like grants, scholarships don’t have to be repaid. However, they are usually awarded based on merit rather than financial need and are often designed to help people in very specific situations. For example:

  • Bethel Foundation Grace Scholarship Fund: The Bethel Foundation Grace Scholarship Fund provides single mothers up to $1,500 in financial assistance per semester. To qualify, applicants must be at or near the poverty level for their family size.
  • Colgate Haz La U Scholarship: In partnership with the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, Colgate awards this scholarship to Hispanic high school seniors with solid GPAs. Qualifying students can receive up to $10,000 for their education.
  • Gates Scholarship: The Gate Scholarship is a last-dollar scholarship, meaning it covers the full cost of attendance that isn’t already covered by other financial aid and the expected family contribution. It’s issued to exceptional, low-income students that belong to minority groups.

Sites like FastWeb and The College Board’s Scholarship Finder can help match you to potential scholarship opportunities.

Learn More:

  • Scholarships for Adults Returning to College

4. Consider a Work-Study Program

Work-study programs are an often-overlooked form of financial aid. But they can be a great way to cover some of your costs if you can’t afford college.

With a work-study program, students with financial needs work part-time jobs related to their fields. Jobs can be on-campus or off, and you can use your earnings to pay for your tuition and other fees.

Contact your college’s financial aid office to see if the school participates in the federal work-study initiative.

5. Pick a Different School

While you may have your heart set on a certain school, the cost is a huge factor, and how much you spend on college can significantly impact your life long after you graduate.

If you can’t afford your dream school, consider attending a public university instead. Or, you can attend a community college for the first two years and transfer to your dream college to finish your degree — dramatically reducing your education costs.

According to The College Board, the average private non-profit college costs $39,400 annually. By contrast, a public in-state university costs $10,940, and the average community college is just $3,860.

6. Commute to College

Tuition and fees only make up a small portion of your education expenses. If you decide to live on campus, room and board can substantially add to your cost of attendance.

At a public four-year school, room and board cost an average of $12,310. At a private school, the cost jumps to $14,030 per year. Room and board can add over $56,000 to your overall education expenses if you graduate within four years.

If possible, living with your parents or family members and commuting to school can be an excellent way to save money. Even if you pay rent and utilities, it will likely be cheaper than the dorms, and you can prepare your own food instead of paying for a college meal plan.

If you’re a parent asking yourself, “how can I afford college for my child?” — allowing your child to live at home while in school and accepting reduced rent can be a huge help.

7. Explore Student Loan Options

After you’ve reduced your education expenses and explored potential scholarship and grant opportunities, you might still need money to pay for some of your college expenses. If that’s the case, student loans can fill the gap.

You can take out federal Direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans as an undergraduate student. However, there are limits on how much you can borrow in federal loans each year and over your lifetime. Depending on what year you’re in and your dependency status, the maximum you can borrow ranges from $5,500 to $20,500 per year.

If you need additional money to pay for school, private student loans can help cover the remaining cost.

8. Look Into Tuition Payment Plans

Some colleges and universities offer tuition payment plans that allow you to spread your payments over several months rather than having to pay an upfront lump sum. Schools usually charge enrollment and semester fees, but the fees are usually small and can be well worth it to take advantage of a payment plan.

For example, Columbia University has a payment plan that splits tuition and fees into monthly installments. It charges a $45 annual enrollment fee and a $25 enrollment fee per semester.

Talk to your college’s financial aid office to see if you can sign up for a tuition payment plan at your school.

Don’t Let the College Tuition Price Scare You Away

When you’re researching colleges, the sticker price of a semester or academic year can be intimidating. While college is expensive, don’t let it scare you away from pursuing higher education. There are many benefits to attending college and earning a four-year degree:

  • Higher earnings: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the median earnings for those with a bachelor’s degree was 63% higher than the median earnings for those that completed a high school diploma. The median earnings for college graduates was $59,600, while the median earnings for those with a high school diploma was just $36,600.
  • Lower unemployment: High school graduates who don’t attend college have higher unemployment rates than those with college degrees. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher was just 2.2%, while the unemployment rate for those with a high school diploma was 4.3%.
  • Better access to health coverage: According to a study released by the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities, those with a bachelor’s degree or higher are 47% more likely to have health insurance through their jobs than those with high school diplomas. Plus, their employers will cover a higher percentage of their premiums.

College is also an incredible opportunity to meet people and build friendships that will last you a lifetime.

What Happens If I Don’t Pay Tuition?

The consequences of not paying your tuition on time can be steep.

When your payment is late, the school will send you a notice and charge you late fees equal to a percentage of the late amount. If you don’t make the payment by the notification’s deadline, your class schedule will be canceled, you won’t be able to register for classes, and you won’t be able to get a diploma or transcripts. You will also be blocked from using campus services and other student benefits.

If you’re having financial problems, talk to a financial aid or student services department representative. Some forms of financial aid, such as emergency grants or loans, may help you until you can secure other financing.

Apply for Private Student Loans with ELFI

Now that you know what to do if you can’t afford college, you can explore all your financing options and devise a plan to pay for the upcoming semester.

If you need to borrow money, ELFI allows you to borrow up to 100% of the school-certified cost of attendance — and you can work with a Personal Loan Advisor throughout the process.* An ELFI undergraduate student loan can help alleviate stress and give you the money you need to complete your degree.

Learn more about the requirements for private student loans, and use the Find My Rate tool to get a student loan rate quote without affecting your credit score.


ELFI | What to Do When You Can’t Pay For College? ›

Grants, work-study, loans, and scholarships help make college or career school affordable. Financial aid can come from federal, state, school, and private sources to help you pay for college or career school. Learn more about the different types of financial aid.

What to do when you can't pay for college? ›

Grants, work-study, loans, and scholarships help make college or career school affordable. Financial aid can come from federal, state, school, and private sources to help you pay for college or career school. Learn more about the different types of financial aid.

What if parents can't afford to pay for college? ›

If your parents or guardians refuse to pay for college, your best options may be to file the FAFSA as an independent. Independent filers are not required to include information about their parents' income or assets. As a result, your EFC will be very low and you will probably get a generous financial aid offer.

Is it possible to not pay for college? ›

There are thousands of programs, institutions, companies and organizations that give away free money. In general, grants are based on need, while scholarships are based on academic, artistic or athletic merit. You can apply for grants and scholarships at the federal and school level by completing the FAFSA.

How do you pay for college if you have nothing saved? ›

8 Ways to Pay for College With No Money Saved
  1. Attend a school with low (or no) tuition fees. ...
  2. Work your way through school. ...
  3. Apply for federal and state scholarships and grants. ...
  4. Raise funds from friends and loved ones. ...
  5. Ask your school's financial aid office for help. ...
  6. Seek out scholarships and grants from other sources.

How many people don t go to college because they can t pay for it? ›

38% of College Students Drop Out Because of Finances – How to Lower That Number. Bridging the gap between financial literacy and financial capability.

Do I get student loan forgiveness? ›

Who qualifies for student loan forgiveness? To be eligible for forgiveness, you must have federal student loans and earn less than $125,000 annually (or $250,000 per household). Borrowers who meet that criteria can get up to $10,000 in debt cancellation.

Are parents forced to pay for college? ›

Even though it's only fair for you to pay for your child's tuition, you don't have any legal obligation to do so in California.

What percentage of parents can afford college? ›

Recent studies show that 85%³ of parents pay at least a portion of their child's tuition.

How many people can't afford to go to college? ›

A college education is widely perceived as unaffordable for most Americans, with 77% of U.S. adults saying a college degree would be difficult for someone like them to afford. 82% of women said a college degree would be difficult to afford, compared with 73% of men.

How do I get around paying for college? ›

Here are the six best ways to pay for college that might be relevant to you and your family.
  1. College Savings Plans. Families can save for future college costs using a 529 plan. ...
  2. Federal Financial Aid. ...
  3. Grants and Scholarships. ...
  4. Cash From Savings. ...
  5. Work During School. ...
  6. Private Loans. ...
  7. Choosing a Cheaper College. ...
  8. Studying Abroad.
Nov 10, 2022

How do middle class families pay for college? ›

Students and families who do not qualify for Federal Pell Grants and Institutional need-based aid have several different options including scholarships, Federal Work Study, Federal loans for students, Federal loans for parents, private educational loans, and family savings and out-of-pocket payments, including payment ...

How do most people pay for college? ›

Most undergrads have help from parents to pay for college. Many also receive grants, borrow student loans, or work part time. Find out how the average student covers the cost.

How do broke people pay for college? ›

Students from low-income backgrounds can pay for college by filling out the FAFSA and applying for grants and scholarships. Getting a job and taking out loans are other strategies. Making smart choices in high school and during the college application process can help make a degree more affordable.

Can you apply for financial aid without parents? ›

If you can't provide information about your parent, you can indicate that you have special circumstances that make you unable to get your parents' info. You'll then be able to submit your application without entering data about your parents. Although your FAFSA form will be submitted, it won't be fully processed.

Can I get student loans without my parents? ›

You can get a private student loan without a parent, as well, but there's a pretty big catch. Private student loans generally require a creditworthy cosigner, but the cosigner does not need to be your parents. Someone else with a good or excellent credit score can cosign the loan.

Is it OK not to go to college? ›

You don't necessarily need to go to college to earn big. There are plenty of high-income earners who did not go to college, and many high-paying industries that welcome non-college graduates. Start-ups in technology, for example, may be more interested in your skillset and potential than a degree.

How much is too much to pay for college? ›

Whether you're a student or parent, you may be grappling with some tough decisions about student loans. The general rule is to make sure you don't borrow so much that you'll be paying more than 10% of your expected gross income. The best way to cut down on the total cost of college is to plan ahead.

What is the average income of someone who didn t go to college? ›

The average American with a bachelor's degree earns about $80,500 per year, while the average American with only a high school diploma earns about $40,000 per year.

Who qualifies for loan forgiveness? ›

What is the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program? The Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program forgives the remaining balance on your federal student loans after 120 payments working full time for federal, state, Tribal, or local government; the military; or a qualifying non-profit.

How do I know if I'm eligible for loan forgiveness? ›

You may be eligible for discharge of your federal student loans based on borrower defense to repayment if you took out the loans to attend a school and the school did something or failed to do something related to your loan or to the educational services that the loan was intended to pay for.

How do I know if I qualify for any student loan forgiveness? ›

The income limits are based on your adjusted gross income (AGI) in either the 2020 or 2021 tax year. People who earned less than $125,000 annually (or $250,000 if filing taxes jointly) are eligible. If you qualify in either of those years, you can get forgiveness.

What is the maximum income to qualify for FAFSA? ›

There is no income cut-off to qualify for federal student aid. Many factors—such as the size of your family and your year in school—are taken into account.

Will I get financial aid if my parents make over $200 K? ›

The good news is that the Department of Education doesn't have an official income cutoff to qualify for federal financial aid. So, even if you think your parents' income is too high, it's still worth applying (plus, it's free to apply).

Can a student file FAFSA without parents? ›

The application explains that if your parents don't support you and refuse to provide their information on the application, you may submit your FAFSA form without their information. However, you won't be able to get any federal student aid other than an unsubsidized Direct Loan—and even that might not happen.

Do most kids pay for their own college? ›

85% of parents pay for a portion of their child's college tuition, according to Sallie Mae's How America Pays for College 2021. The reality is, even a percentage of the total college bill can be tough for most families to pay. How much exactly should parents be saving?

How many kids want to go to college but can t afford it? ›

Thirty-four percent of young adults who aren't currently enrolled in college say it's because they can't afford it.

How many kids pay for their own college? ›

Report: 67% of college students fully paying for their own education - University Business.

Is the cost of college worth it? ›

Despite the high costs associated with going to college, it can be worth it for many people. You may very well find that your investment pays off in the long run, by allowing you to build a well-paid, successful career. Not to mention the invaluable life experience and connections you gain at school.

What is the average American student loan debt? ›

The average student loan debt, currently $37,574, did not grow as much in value in 2021 as it has in previous years. Private student loan debt grew at a much faster rate than federal debt. The average federal student loan debt is $37,574 per borrower. Private student loan debt averages $54,921 per borrower.

Why is college unaffordable? ›

Enrollment is too fast for state funding

“States provide less, and students and parents pay more,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. “Studies have shown that when state support is level or increasing, tuition is flat. But when state support declines, tuition goes up.

What is the easiest way to pay for college? ›

Some types of financial aid are better than others, so use the following advice in this order when planning how to pay for college:
  1. Fill out the FAFSA. ...
  2. Search for scholarships. ...
  3. Choose an affordable school. ...
  4. Use grants if you qualify. ...
  5. Get a work-study job. ...
  6. Tap your savings. ...
  7. Take out federal loans if you have to.
Dec 7, 2022

What are 6 ways to pay for college? ›

  • Scholarships. Scholarships offer money for college that does not need to be paid back. ...
  • Grants. Grants, like scholarships, do not need to be repaid. ...
  • Work-Study. A work-study program provides part-time employment opportunities while you're in school. ...
  • Your Own Income and Savings. ...
  • Federal Student Loans. ...
  • Private Student Loans.
Nov 1, 2022

How can I pay for college and live on my own? ›

No parental support for college students? 7 ways to pay on your own
  1. Fill out the FAFSA.
  2. Apply for scholarships.
  3. Get a job.
  4. Look into tax credits for qualifying college expenses.
  5. Minimize your college costs.
  6. Research tuition assistance programs.
  7. Consider taking out federal student loans.
Jan 27, 2023

How much money is a middle class family? ›

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median income in 2021 was $70,784. So American families earning between $47,189 and $141,568 are technically in the middle class, according to the Pew Research Center's definition. However, other factors must be considered.

How much money should a middle class family have? ›

Pew defines "middle class" as those earning between two-thirds and twice the median American household income, which in 2021 was $70,784, according to the United States Census Bureau. That means American households earning as little as $47,189 and up to $141,568 are technically in the middle class.

Do middle class get FAFSA? ›

The short answer is: YES!

What pays the most in college? ›

  • Petroleum Engineering. Average Salary: $102,300 to $176,300. ...
  • Actuarial Mathematics. Average Salary: $60,800 to $119,600. ...
  • Nuclear Engineering. Average Salary: $67,000 to $118,000. ...
  • Chemical Engineering. ...
  • Electronics and Communications Engineering. ...
  • Computer Science Engineer. ...
  • Aerospace Engineer. ...
  • Electrical Engineer.

What happens if you run out of money in college? ›

If you won't have enough money for the upcoming semester, contact your school's financial aid office. The financial aid office may be able to help you find alternative funding options to pay for school. Some options might include: School-based loans.

How do you survive college financially? ›

Here are some of the most important personal finance tips for students.
  1. Create a Budget. Budgeting is key to saving and growing money in college. ...
  2. Open a Savings Account. ...
  3. Take a Personal Finance Class. ...
  4. Apply for Unemployment Benefits. ...
  5. Consider a Side Hustle. ...
  6. Local and State Resources. ...
  7. Your Creditors.

What happens if parents refuse to fill out FAFSA? ›

Get a Dependency Override

A student may already be financially independent, but they're not considered legally independent for the FAFSA until they reach 24 years old — unless they qualify for a dependency override. In that case, you can fill out the FAFSA without your parents' or guardians' financial information.

What age do you not need parents income for FAFSA? ›

You can only qualify as an independent student on the FAFSA if you are at least 24 years of age, married, on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces, financially supporting dependent children, an orphan (both parents deceased), a ward of the court, or an emancipated minor.

Is FAFSA based on parents income? ›

The FAFSA formula doesn't expect students or families to use all of their adjusted available income to pay for college. The formula allocates 50 percent of a dependent student's adjusted available income to cover college expenses and anywhere from 22 to 47 percent of parents' available income.

What if my parents will not pay for college? ›

File the FAFSA as an independent student

If your parents or guardians refuse to pay for college, your best options may be to file the FAFSA as an independent. Independent filers are not required to include information about their parents' income or assets.

What loans can a student get without a cosigner? ›

Federal direct unsubsidized loans are available to all undergraduate and graduate borrowers regardless of financial need, and there's no co-signer required. They don't come with a break on interest like subsidized loans do, so as an undergraduate, be sure to max out subsidized loans before turning to unsubsidized ones.

Can a 20 year old get a student loan without a cosigner? ›

Federal student loans do not require a cosigner and come with several benefits not available through private lenders. These benefits include low interest rates and access to income-driven repayment plans and forgiveness programs.

How do you go to college if you owe money? ›

First, you'll need to make the requisite back payments on each loan and work out a repayment plan with your lender. Once your loans are back in good standing, you'll be free to return to school. You might even be able to obtain new federally-backed student loans to cover your tuition costs.

What happens if you get FAFSA money and don't go to school? ›

Does my aid "expire" if I don't use it? Yes, aid will be canceled if a student does not enroll in classes within the term or year that aid is offered. For loans to be reinstated students must request reinstatement of loans via askfas email or student can complete the request loan form.

Is it too late to get money for college? ›

While the March 2 priority deadlines for both the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the California Dream Act Application (CADA) have passed, it's not too late to apply. If you submit your application beyond the priority deadline, you will be considered for whatever aid is still available.

Will I get financial aid if my parents make over 100k? ›

There is no set income limit for eligibility to qualify for financial aid through. You'll need to fill out the FAFSA every year to see what you qualify for at your college. It's important to make sure you fill out the FAFSA as quickly as possible once it opens on October 1st for the following school year.

What happens if you ignore college debt? ›

Not paying student loans could lead to late fees, a damaged credit score, wage garnishment and more. Speak to your lender about repayment alternatives if you're struggling to keep up.

How long can you go without paying college debt? ›

For federal student loans, you typically enter default when your loans are 270 days past due, though your loans can go into default immediately for a Federal Perkins loan. In the case of private student loans, you generally enter default when your loans are 120 days past due.

How long can you owe a college money? ›

Private Student Loan Statute Of Limitations Timelines
StateStatute of Limitations
Arkansas5 years
California4 years
Colorado6 years
Connecticut6 years
47 more rows
Jun 28, 2022

Who gets student loan forgiveness? ›

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program forgives the remaining balance on your federal student loans after 120 payments working full time for federal, state, Tribal, or local government; the military; or a qualifying non-profit. Learn more about PSLF and apply.

What disqualifies you from getting financial aid? ›

Incarceration, misdemeanors, arrests, and more serious crimes can all affect a student's aid. Smaller offenses won't necessarily cut off a student from all aid, but it will limit the programs they qualify for as well as the amount of aid they could receive. Larger offenses can disqualify a student entirely.

Can you decline FAFSA money? ›

You have the right to turn down a loan or to request a lower loan amount. If you accept less than the full amount of the loan you're offered, you can increase the amount (up to the offered amount) later on. Was this page helpful? Tell us why not.

How to afford college at 25? ›

  1. Choose the Right College. Once you know what degree you're going after you'll have to make the decision of where to pursue your education. ...
  2. Apply for Scholarships and Grants. ...
  3. Exchange Work Experience for College Credits. ...
  4. Take Advantage of a 529 Plan. ...
  5. Check for Employer Benefits. ...
  6. Utilize Student Loans.
Oct 18, 2022

Can you get FAFSA at 34? ›

Is there an age limit for receiving federal student aid? No, there's no age limit. Almost everyone is eligible for some type of federal student aid. The adult student still needs to complete the FAFSA form, and make sure not to miss any deadlines, just like any other student.

How many students struggle with paying for college? ›

The Ohio State University's National Student Financial Wellness Study found that 72 percent of college students experience financial stress stemming from the fear of being unable to meet tuition costs (60 percent) and meet monthly expenses (50 percent).

Does FAFSA check your bank account? ›

Students selected for verification of their FAFSA form may wonder, “Does FAFSA check your bank accounts?” FAFSA does not directly view the student's or parent's bank accounts.

What is the income limit for FAFSA aid? ›

Students qualify for the program if they have household income and assets under a specified ceiling ($191,000 in 2021‑22). The maximum award under the original program is worth 40 percent of systemwide charges when combined with all other public financial aid.


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