How to Pay for College Without Student Loans: 22 Tips

If you’re not sure how to pay for college without going into debt, you’re not alone. Today, the average American takes on $37,574 in student loans in pursuit of an undergraduate degree. That’s a serious chunk of money, and it can take a long time to pay back. According to one 2019 study, it took borrowers an average of 18.5 years to completely pay off their student loans.

The good news is that it’s possible to fund your higher education without having to take out loans in the first place. Even with the cost of tuition rising, there are more options than ever to pursue a degree without borrowing. It just takes a little bit of creativity — and a lot of careful planning — to pull it off.

How to afford college without student loans 

Many aspiring college students turn to student loans to help them pay their tuition. But just because loans are a popular choice doesn’t mean they’re strictly necessary. Here are some of the best ways to pay for your bachelor’s degree without going into debt. 

Fill out your FAFSA® 

Each year, students leave a collective $2 billion in federal grant money on the table by not completing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). The FAFSA® is what the federal government uses to apportion federal aid. That aid includes federal grants, like the Pell Grant, as well as work-study programs and student loans. (Note: The student aid report generated by FAFSA® will also include federal loan opportunities, but students are not required to borrow.)

The FAFSA® outlines each student’s “expected family contribution,” or EFC. Your EFC determines your financial need, which is the amount of additional money you’ll need to pay for school on top of any savings or family funds you might already have access to. Knowing your financial need is a key step to applying for many need-based scholarships and grants. You can use a net price calculator to determine your actual cost of college. But to get a ballpark number, use this basic formula:

 Your school’s cost of attendance – EFC = financial need

The  FAFSA® is free to fill out and submit, but it’s not always straightforward. As you get started, consider using Going Merry’s FAFSA® Made Easier tool, which walks you through the process and automatically flags any errors. 

Consider a “No-Loan” School 

Over the last few years, a number of colleges have instituted “no-loan” policies. These policies mean that a school’s financial aid office has promised to help students afford tuition using scholarships and work-study jobs instead of federal student loans. To qualify, your family must meet a specific annual income threshold. The list of “no-loan” schools continues to grow each year. It currently includes a diverse array of options, from four-year universities to small private colleges. 

Take advanced placement tests 

Taking advanced placement (AP) tests is another great way to save money on tuition. If you perform well on an AP test, you could earn college credit for a course without having to pay for it at your university. Walking onto campus with a handful of credits already under your belt means it’ll take less time — and less money — to obtain your undergraduate degree. 

Get a prior learning assessment 

Similar to AP tests, prior learning assessments (PLAs) help students earn credit for work they’ve done before college. PLA credits usually apply to education that happens outside the classroom, like in a traditional job setting or in the military. 

While PLA credits are most often utilized by adults returning to college after a break, they’re available to students of all ages. You can obtain PLA credits by taking an exam given by the College Board®’s College-Level Examination Program (CLEP). In some cases, you may also be able to create a portfolio demonstrating your knowledge of a particular subject matter. 

Try dual enrollment 

Dual enrollment” describes an alliance between school districts and community colleges that allows students to take college-level courses while finishing up their high school diplomas. When you pass a dual-enrollment class with a C or better, that class will count for both high school and college credit.

Not all high schools offer dual enrollment, and not all colleges accept it. But if it’s available to you, be sure to take advantage. If you play your cards right, it could help you graduate early.

Go to a public college

Because public universities receive significant government funding, they’re able to offer a high-quality education at a much more affordable price than private colleges can. For that reason, going public is another great way to avoid having to take out student loans. Plus, private colleges remain expensive for both in-state and out-of-state students alike. Public universities, on the other hand, offer steep discounts for local students.  

Go to school in-state 

On average, an undergraduate degree costs about $9,900 per year at an in-state public university and more than $26,000 at an out-of-state public program. One of the easiest ways to reduce the cost of college is to go to an in-state school. And don’t forget to fill out your state financial aid applications, which can make in-state schools even more affordable.

Get into a regional exchange program

Regional exchange programs offer in-state tuition to out-of-state students within the same region. For example, if you live in New Mexico but want to attend Arizona State University, you could pay in-state tuition thanks to the Western Undergraduate Exchange program. These programs are a great way to expand your list of options without having to expand your budget. You can explore the schools that participate in regional exchange programs at

Consider a trade school

If you already know what career you want to pursue, consider attending a trade school. Trade schools, also called tech or vocational schools, prepare students for a career in a specialized industry. From carpentry to cosmetology, vocational schools offer technical training at an accelerated speed. This means you can hit the ground running in your chosen career without spending too much time or money pursuing a degree you might not need. 

Live off-campus 

While dorm living can certainly be a unique experience, it’s not always affordable. Consider exploring off-campus housing options instead. If you’re going to school close to home, living with your family could save you thousands of dollars in expenses. If you’re planning to study in a large metropolitan area, you may find subsidized housing options nearby. Sharing a lower-cost apartment with a friend can also be much more affordable than on-campus housing in many areas.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to live in a dorm to have the full college experience. At many schools, students even prefer living off-campus since it comes with fewer restrictions, more space, and lower costs. 

Go to a satellite campus 

Many universities have several smaller, “satellite” campuses in addition to their main campus. Satellite campuses share many of the same resources as the main campus, but they are almost always less expensive to attend. Some satellite campuses may also offer specific benefits in certain degree programs. For example, if you’re pursuing a degree in marine biology, Texas A&M’s Galveston campus, which is right on the Gulf of Mexico, may provide more hands-on learning than the main campus 150 miles inland. 

Consider community college first

Community college is an excellent place to kick-start your higher education, save on college expenses, and improve your GPA. While community college enrollment is sometimes stigmatized, many programs offer an excellent education at a fraction of the price of a large university. The average cost of a semester of community college is only about $2,000 — much less than many public four-year schools.

A popular strategy for cost-conscious students is to attend community college for the first two years of college. This provides an opportunity to complete general education requirements at a much lower price. When those are done, you can then transfer to a larger university to complete your degree program (and earn a prestigious diploma). Another perk? Community college classes can be easier, giving your overall GPA a boost.  

Participate in a work-study program

Work-study programs are federally-funded jobs that offer students employment in exchange for financial aid. Students can only qualify for work-study by completing the FAFSA® and then receiving a financial aid package that offers a work-study program. Unfortunately, it’s not something you can apply for without a federal offer.

Look for employer assistance programs 

Seek out companies that offer educational assistance programs. Many corporations offer subsidies or reimbursements to help their employees complete their higher education. Each company has different requirements, but you never know if you qualify unless you ask. Be sure to inquire about employer assistance programs during the interview process, whether you’re applying for a part-time job, a full-time job, or an internship. 

Apply for internships

Many internships offer compensation in the form of a salary or a stipend. Plus, by using an internship to gain experience in the field, you’ll likely get some clarity on what you might want to pursue after college. This could help you be more efficient with your degree plan, which can also help you save money in the long run. 

Search for scholarships

Unlike student loans, scholarships come with no strings attached — they’re free money that you never need to repay. One of the best places to start your scholarship search is Going Merry. Our platform will automatically match you with thousands of high-quality scholarship opportunities that match your eligibility profile. 

You can also search for scholarships on other websites, ask your high school guidance counselor for suggestions, or search within your local community. Reach out to local business leaders, churches, and non-profit organizations, many of which offer scholarships. Local scholarships generally have a much smaller pool of applicants, which means you have a much better chance of winning. 

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Apply for grants

Like scholarships, grants are obligation-free awards that don’t require repayment. The biggest difference between grants and scholarships is that grants typically come from the state or federal government. Most grants are awarded based on financial need. One of the best ways to apply for grants is to complete the FAFSA®. Submitting your FAFSA® will automatically enter you to win a number of federal grants sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, including the valuable Pell Grant. 

Use a 529 plan 

A 529 plan, also called a Qualified Tuition Program, is a savings account specifically designed for education. It’s a great way to save for college and take advantage of tax benefits at the same time. Almost anyone can open a 529 plan, including a parent, grandparent, friend, or even the student. Contributions to your 529 plan must be made after tax. However, you can withdraw any interest earnings tax-free as long as you use them for qualified educational expenses. The other good news: these savings will not affect your eligibility for federal financial aid. 

Formulate a budget 

Creating a budget allows you to take charge of your personal finances and makes it easier to stay on track with tuition payments. Get a handle on how much money you have saved, how much you’re bringing in, and what kind of cushion you need to have saved for emergencies. Then, calculate how much you’ll need each month for room and board, supplies, and other expenses. Don’t know where to start? Check out some online templates to help you plan for college costs.

Get a part-time job

If you have spare time between classes and studying, consider working your way through college. It can be relatively easy to fit in some babysitting, waitressing, or lifeguarding on nights and weekends. You may also be able to find an entry-level, part-time job in an industry you’re interested in. Part-time jobs of all kinds look great on a resume. They show ambition and independence, and they could help you stand apart from other students when you’re applying for graduate school or other jobs after college. 

Ask your parents for help

The average American student relies on their family to pay for 54% of their education expenses, according to data from national financial institution Sallie Mae. So, don’t be scared to ask your parents for help. Even if your family can’t cover all your college tuition, they may be able to help reduce the amount of student loan debt you’ll have to take on. Some parents elect to chip in for room and board. Others agree to take out Parent PLUS loans to help shoulder the burden. While not all parents want to help their students pay for college, it’s worth having a conversation to see what makes sense for your family. 

Join ROTC 

If you’re interested in joining the armed forces, consider enrolling in a Reserve Officers’ Training Program (ROTC). With ROTC, you could receive a scholarship to pay up to 100% of your college tuition and related expenses. In exchange for the financial support, you’ll pledge several years of future to the U.S. Army, Navy, or another military branch of your choosing. 

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While the majority of American college students take advantage of either federal or private student loans, borrowing isn’t the only way to afford a college education. The best way to avoid student loan debt is to start preparing early. Throughout high school, take AP classes if you can, look for relevant jobs and internships, and take advantage of programs like 529 college savings plans. When you’re getting ready to attend college, be sure to fill out the FAFSA® to gain access to grants and work-study programs. 

Applying for scholarships should also be a priority throughout high school and college. No matter what type of student you are or how great your financial need is, there’s a scholarship out there for you. Sign up for Going Merry to create a profile and start getting matched with high-quality awards today.


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