Paying for College Without Parents

Finding employment is becoming increasingly difficult for those without a college degree. A recent CareerBuilder survey shows that employers are not only raising their educational requirements, but up to 41% are now hiring college-educated employees for positions traditionally held by those with high school degrees. The implications are clear: a college degree significantly improves one’s chances for employment.

For many individuals, however, the cost of college tuition remains an obstacle to higher education. Roughly 45 million Americans have some form of student loan debt, and that number continues to grow each year. Today, the average student graduates with around $29,800 in debt — a 6% increase over the past year. Despite these numbers, taking out loans can often seem like the only option for low-income students, who are more likely to drop out of school due to financial pressure and a lack of access to wealth through family or financial assets. Students from low-income households also tend to default on their loans at a higher rate than other borrowers, which results in further interest and late fees.

The thought of paying for a college degree can seem overwhelming, especially without financial help from one’s family. Are you wondering how to pay for your college on your own? Don’t know where to start? The following guide explores the many options available.

How To Pay for College Without Parents

  • Choose an affordable college

    Learn what factors influence the cost of tuition, and what features to look for in an affordable school.

  • Use scholarships and grants to pay for college

    Scholarships and grants are both sources of free money. We’ll explain where and how to get them.

  • Take out loans to pay for college

    Discover the major types of student loans, how they differ, and which kind best fits your financial situation.

  • Work while you attend college

    Work-study programs and part-time jobs are a great way to build skills and network as you earn money towards college tuition.

  • Cut costs while in college

    There are hundreds of ways to save money while you study. We’ll cover some tricks, large and small, to save on expenses.

Choosing an Affordable College

If you’re paying for college without parents, choosing an affordable institution should be your top priority. There are several factors that directly influence the overall cost of a college experience, including location, whether a school is public or private, and the format of your chosen degree program. In the following section, we break down some of the most important factors to consider as you compare schools and explore your options.

Public vs. Private Colleges

What’s the difference, anyway? Is a private college better than a public one, or vice versa? Those wondering how to afford college without parents’ help should know that a school’s status as a public or private institution can greatly influence its tuition rates. The primary difference between the public and private designation is the source of their funding, which is tied directly to the cost of tuition. Public colleges receive the bulk of their financial support from state governments. With funds from the state covering major expenses such as operations and faculty salaries, public schools can charge less for tuition. Private colleges, however, receive no government funding. These institutions are supported by donations, endowments, and tuition, often making them significantly more expensive than public schools.

While attending a public college may ostensibly seem like the most affordable choice, there are other factors to consider before making a decision. Over the last decade, dwindling government funding has led to a 136% increase in the average annual cost of public school tuition. Additionally, many private universities offer need-based financial aid packages that significantly reduce the cost of attendance. Academic programs can differ, too, between public and private schools, with public colleges typically offering a wider range of degree programs. Private colleges are more likely to specialize in particular fields of study, and often have smaller classes and lower student-to-faculty ratios as a result.

If attending a private college suits your academic goals but not your budget, our list of affordable private colleges can help you locate a quality school at an affordable price.

In-State vs. Out-of-State Colleges

In general, public four-year institutions offer the most economical educational opportunities, but the cost of tuition at public schools can still vary widely according to your state of residence. At most public colleges, out-of-state tuition can be double or even triple the price of in-state tuition. Receiving financial aid can be a competitive experience, as well, with public colleges offering aid on the basis of merit rather than need. Out-of-state applicants may also find that their school of choice is much more selective in admitting nonresidents. As interest in public colleges grows, the out-of-state acceptance rate at many schools, such as UNC Chapel Hill, has dropped to as low as 20%.

Looking for an affordable out-of-state college? Choosing a school out of your home state can open up a world of new and exciting experiences, but it can also have a profound impact on the cost of education. As the table below demonstrates, nonresidents pay, on average, more than double the tuition of in-state students. Fortunately, there are many inexpensive alternatives that offer quality degree programs closer to home.

College Tuition Prices
  2015-2016 2016-2017
Public 4-year In-State College $9,420 $9,650
Public 4-Year Out-of-State College $24,070 $24,930
Private 4-Year Nonprofit College $32,330 $33,480
Source: CollegeBoard

Online vs. On-Campus Colleges

As tuition rates at public and private colleges continue to rise, online degree programs are increasing in popularity — and for good reason. In the US, over 5.8 million students are currently enrolled in one or more web-based course, and growing numbers of students are choosing to complete entire degree programs online. Are you concerned with the price of higher education, and wondering how to pay for college without parents? An online college program might be the most cost-efficient option for you.

The majority of accredited online programs are nearly identical to their on-campus equivalents, and are frequently taught by the same instructors as brick-and-mortar courses. Web-based programs, however, offer flexible schedules that allow students to work part-time as they study, and they can typically be completed in less time than traditional degrees. They’re also significantly cheaper, with tuition for some programs costing half of what traditional colleges usually charge. In online programs, residency may or may not influence tuition fees — as the table below demonstrates, some schools charge out-of-state rates for distance learners, while others offer a fixed rate for all online students.

University of Florida Tuition + Fees
UF On-Campus Tuition for Residents $212.71/credit hour
UF Online Tuition for Residents $129.18/credit hour
UF On-Campus Tuition for Non-Residents $955.28/credit hour
UF Online Tuition for Non-Residents $552.62/credit hour

In addition to significant tuition savings, students enrolled in online education avoid many of the fees and additional costs associated with living on campus. Transportation, health and facility fees, and housing can all add to one’s financial burden. The following table shows just how much the average student spends on room and board per year:

Room and Board Fees
  2015-2016 2016-2017
Public 4-Year In-State/Out-of-State College $10,150 $10,440
Private Nonprofit 4-year College $11,890 $11,540
Source: CollegeBoard

Web-based programs can help you save time and money without sacrificing your academic goals. If you’re looking for an alternative to the traditional college experience, check out our list of the 50 most affordable online colleges for guidance and inspiration.

Two-Year vs. Four-Year Colleges

Depending on your area of study, earning an associate degree can be an affordable first step toward your bachelor’s. Two-year associate programs are typically completed at community colleges, which cost far less to attend than four-year institutions. Through associate degree programs, students can fulfill numerous general education and major requirements before transferring to a four-year college to complete their bachelor’s. Below, we compare the annual cost of tuition for in-state students at public two-year and private four-year schools.

Room and Board Fees
  2015-2016 2016-2017
Public 2-Year In-State College $3,440 $3,520
Private 4-year In-State College $9,420 $9,650
Source: CollegeBoard

Concerned about transferring credits? Many community colleges develop transfer agreements with local public universities, which allow graduates to transfer their associate degree toward a bachelor’s. Earning an associate degree through an online community college program can help reduce costs even further, and is often the most economic option.

Completing the FAFSA

How can I get money for college without parents’ help? Completing a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is the first step. Most prospective students qualify for some form of financial aid, and submitting a FAFSA determines your eligibility for federal grants, loans, and work-study programs. While funding is disbursed according to financial need, it’s also awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis. For this reason, it’s important to complete your form as soon as it becomes available on October 1.

Still have questions about FAFSA and how to pay for college on your own? Our guide will walk you through the process, step by step.

Do I Need My Parents to Fill Out the FAFSA?

Even if your parents aren’t contributing financially to your college education, you may still be required to report their information on your FAFSA. Students considered dependents must provide information about their parents’ earnings. How do you know if you’re a dependent or independent student?

Dependent vs. Independent Student
Dependent Student Independent Student
  • Born after January 1, 1994
  • Unmarried
  • Not active-duty military or a veteran
  • Not an orphan, in foster care, or ward of the state
  • Not an emancipated minor or self-supporting homeless individual
  • Born before January 1, 1994
  • Married or separated
  • Active-duty military or veteran of US armed forces
  • Supporting children
  • Emancipated minor or unaccompanied/self-supporting homeless youth

What Information Will My Parents Be Asked to Provide on the FAFSA?

Are parents legally obligated to pay for college? No, but they do need to provide their information on your FAFSA form. While this doesn’t bind them to any financial responsibility, it does help the government determine your eligibility for financial aid. In addition to basic information such as name, social security number, and date of birth, you’ll be asked to report your parents’ marital status, household size, and state of residence. You’ll also enter certain financial information regarding your parent’s taxes, assets, and income.

What if your parent has no social security number, or isn’t a US citizen? Having a noncitizen parent won’t affect your eligibility to receive financial aid, but it will change the way you’ll report their information. You can find a guide to completing the FAFSA with a noncitizen parent here.

What if I Can’t Use My Parents’ Information on the FAFSA?

If you’re a dependent student and your parents are unwilling or unable to provide their information, you can still submit a FAFSA without it. Choosing this option, however, greatly reduces your eligibility for federal financial aid. Students who fail to provide parental information are only eligible for unsubsidized loans, which may or may not be offered to you. If you’ve submitted a FAFSA without parental information, the financial aid office at your chosen school will ultimately determine whether you receive an unsubsidized loan.

Need more information about how to get financial aid without parents? A detailed explanation of federal funding, including the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans, can be found in our Financial Aid Guide.

Filling Out the FAFSA as an Independent Student

Students who qualify as independent are assumed to be paying for their own education, regardless of actual parental contributions. For this reason, need-based financial aid for independent students is often more readily available than funding for dependents. Keep in mind that even if your parents refuse to provide information for your FAFSA or help fund your education, you’re not necessarily considered an independent. FAFSA’s dependency status guide can help determine if you qualify as an independent student.

Paying for College With Scholarships and Grants

Student loans aren’t the only way to pay for college without your parents’ help. Grants and scholarships can help finance your education, and unlike loans, they don’t need to be repaid. Both types of award are offered through numerous sources of funding, including the government, schools, religious and cultural organizations, nonprofit groups, and individual donors. While scholarships are typically awarded according to merit (e.g. academic or artistic achievement), grants tend to be income- or need-based. When researching funding options, grants and scholarships should be the first source of financial aid you seek. Apply for as many as possible — it can’t hurt!

Federal Grants

The U.S. Department of Education offers several grants to apply to tuition at community colleges, four-year universities, and career schools. The following are available to students with a completed FAFSA, and, with the exception of the TEACH grant, are awarded based on financial need. Qualifying students must work with advisors at their school to determine the amount of money they are eligible to receive.

Type of Grant Maximum Grant Amount Eligibility Requirements
Federal Pell Grants $5,920 Awarded to undergraduate students who have not previously earned a degree, and are not incarcerated at the time of application.
Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants Up to $4,000 Awarded only to students pursuing a career in teaching. Recipients must sign an agreement to complete a service obligation, which includes teaching in a high-need field or low-income area.
Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants Up to $5,920 Available exclusively to applicants whose parent or guardian died because of military service in Iraq or Afghanistan.

State Grants

Those attending in-state public colleges have additional funding opportunities to pursue. Most states offer student financial aid through their educational departments, including grants, scholarships, and tuition exchange programs, and some even extend to state residents at out-of-state institutions. While the size and type of awards vary widely, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators has compiled a handy state-by-state database of the grants and programs offered around the country.

Finding Scholarships

Undoubtedly, scholarships are one of the best forms of financial aid a student can receive. These merit-based awards often cover a significant portion of your annual tuition, and best of all, they never need to be repaid. Though frequently awarded on the basis of academic, athletic, or artistic performance, many other scholarships are intended for members of minority, religious, cultural, and ethnic groups, residents of certain locations, or hobbyists. Whatever your talent, academic focus, or personal background, there’s likely a scholarship out there for you.

While it’s best to apply for as many scholarships as possible, finding the right one among thousands can sometimes feel overwhelming. In addition to scholarships based on your major or area of study, look for awards offered by companies, public organizations, and special interest groups. With a little research, you’re likely to find many relevant scholarships. Here are a few guides to help get you started:

Calculating Your Financial Need

Using information provided on your FAFSA, school financial aid staff can calculate your financial need by determining your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC takes into consideration several factors, including your family’s size, annual income, and assets, but does not indicate how much money (if any) your parents intend to contribute. Instead, your EFC is used to determine the amount of need-based aid you may be eligible to receive.

Financial need is also determined by factoring in the Cost of Attendance (COA). Your COA is the overall amount it will cost you to attend college, including tuition, room and board, books, and other expenses. While the COA usually shows the total cost for one school year, it may be calculated differently if your program length differs, such as an accelerated online degree program.

The following formulas can help you calculate your financial need and the amount of non-need-based aid you may be eligible to receive:

Calculating Your
Financial Need

Calculating Your
Non-Need-Based Aid

Financial Need


Example: “If your COA is $16,000 and your EFC is 12,000, your financial need is $4,000; you aren’t eligible for more than $4,000 in need-based aid.”

COA – Financial Aid Awarded So Far* = Eligibility For Non-Need-Based-Aid


Example: “If your COA is $16,000 and you’ve been awarded a total of $4,000 in need-based aid and private scholarships, you can receive up to $12,000 in non-need-based aid.”

*Includes combined aid from school, private scholarship providers, etc.

The amount of your financial aid package is ultimately determined by your EFC — even if your family isn’t actually contributing financially to your education. If your EFC is determined to be greater than zero but you’re paying for college without parents, covering the EFC becomes your responsibility. While students in this situation have numerous options for financing the remainder of their tuition, it’s important to consider the pros and cons of each. Are you willing to go into debt? By how much? Is there an alternative to taking out private loans? Let’s examine a few of the options available.

Taking Out Loans to Pay for College

How can I pay for college on my own? For many students who are financing their education without parental help, the answer to this question involves taking out a loan. While some try to avoid this option, increasing tuition costs have made it a necessity for most students, and approximately 70% of college students graduate with some form of student loan debt. Some loan programs, however, are more economical than others, and careful research of loan options is important to avoid future financial difficulties. Should you take out a federal or private loan, and what’s the difference? Let’s take a look.

Federal Loans:

When you take out a federal student loan, you’re borrowing money directly from the government. While federal loans do accrue interest, they offer several advantages over private loans, including a low, fixed rate of interest which is often tax deductible. Unlike private loans, they require no cosigner or credit check, making them an ideal source of independent student financial aid. Students who demonstrate financial need may also be eligible for subsidized federal loans, in which the government pays all interest for the duration of your studies. Alternatively, unsubsidized loans require the lender to pay for interest out of pocket. You will not be required to make payments on any type of federal loan until six to nine months after graduation.

Federal student loans are offered through two programs: the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program — the largest loan program in the nation — and the Perkins Loan Program. Through the Perkins Program, the school itself becomes the lender. It is important to note, however, that some institutions choose not to participate in this program. For an in-depth look at the advantages and disadvantages of both programs, check out the handy chart in our financial aid guide that compares and contrasts aspects of each.

Private Loans:

Private loans are borrowed from lenders such as banks and credit unions instead of the federal government. Unlike federal loans, all private loans are unsubsidized, and interest begins to accrue as soon as the money is borrowed. All conditions, including interest rates and repayment terms, are set by the lender, and can change during the life of the loan. While these conditions vary between financial institutions, they are rarely flexible, and borrowers have fewer repayment options. For these reasons, private loans are typically used as a last resort by students who require additional funding to fill gaps left by federal aid.

What is the Best Type of Loan to Take Out?

Lower interest rates and more flexible terms should make federal loans the first choice of any student borrower. In contrast to their private counterparts, federal loans provide borrowers with a grace period after graduation — six months for Direct Loans and nine months through the Perkins Program — before repayment is required. Subsidized federal loans are especially attractive, as the government will pay any interest accrued while the borrower is still in school, leaving students with less overall debt. By contrast, unsubsidized loans begin to collect interest as soon as they’re borrowed.

Those who take out Perkins loans may be eligible, under certain circumstances, for loan forgiveness. Graduates who pursue select careers in the public service sector may receive full cancellation of their Perkins loans after a designated period of employment. Depending on your area of study and career goals, this may be your most affordable option.

Even if you have unexpected college expenses, taking out a private loan should be your last resort. High interest rates and strict repayment terms make private loans a poor option for most individuals, and getting approved can be difficult without a cosigner. There are many other ways to pay for college, and it’s wise to explore all options available before applying for a private loan.

Other Ways to Pay for College

Think you’ve exhausted all of your options for financial aid? There’s still hope! A work-study program doesn’t just help cover expenses; it can help you develop new skills and connections.

Work Study

Many colleges offer work-study programs that allow students to earn money for tuition and other expenses through jobs on campus. While these programs tend to vary between institutions, some schools assign students to positions in their field of study (e.g. jobs in labs or libraries) that provide valuable work experience. Other schools commonly give students desk jobs that allow them to study during slow work periods. Additionally, students who work on campus have extra opportunities to build and nurture connections with faculty and staff members.

Even if you’re still in high school, it’s not too early to consider putting aside money for college. A part-time job can be a great way to earn money toward your education, and develop important life skills you’ll use in college and beyond.

A Gap Year

While the phrase gap year may call to mind wealthy high-school grads backpacking around the world, plenty of students take a year off between high school and college to work and save money, and some even do both. As gap years become more popular in the U.S., many organizations, such as AmeriCorp, are developing programs that allow students to earn money for college by performing service work.

Taking a year off to save up money may be a tempting choice, but studies show that students who take a gap year are less likely to complete a degree. If you’re considering taking a year off for any reason, developing a solid academic plan for the future can help you to avoid becoming sidetracked while transitioning to college life. Our guide to gap year planning is full of ideas and tips for making the most of your year off.

Cutting Costs While in College

Living frugally is one of the easiest ways to avoid further debt as you attend college. In this section, we explore economical alternatives to some of the most costly aspects of college life.

Live at Home

How can I pay for college with parents’ help, even if they’re not paying my tuition? The average student living on campus spends up to $10,000 a year on room and board. If you’re attending a local college, living at home with family is an easy way to avoid fees associated with campus housing. If staying with relatives isn’t an option, some students find that paying rent for off-campus apartments or shared housing is still more affordable than living in a dorm. Thoroughly exploring your housing options can potentially save you thousands of dollars a year.

Buy Used Books

Aside from tuition, textbooks are one of the most costly aspects of the college experience. Depending on your major, you could spend hundreds of dollars every year on new textbooks, with some science titles costing as much as $400. Fortunately, most college bookstores sell used books at a significant discount, and some provide the option of renting copies for a semester. Even lower priced texts can often be found through online booksellers. And don’t forget the eBook option! Textbooks are being increasingly published in digital formats, and they typically cost less than half the price of a bound copy. eBooks save room and resources, as well as money.

Save Money on Your Laptop

There are plenty of alternatives to spending hundreds — or even thousands — on a new laptop. Most electronics stores and computer companies sell used or refurbished laptops with superficial blemishes for a fraction of the typical cost. As owning a laptop becomes more and more of a necessity for college students, some companies and organizations have begun awarding need-based scholarships to students unable to pay for a computer on their own. Some colleges even provide students with free laptops or tablets. We’ve compiled a short list of online colleges that give students a laptop at no cost or a heavy discount.

Use Public Transportation

Whether you plan to live at home, in a dorm, or off-campus, you’ll need to factor the cost of transportation into your budget. Is owning a car worth the cost of gas, parking, and maintenance? For students living on or near campus, public transportation offers an inexpensive alternative. Most larger colleges operate a campus bus or shuttle system with free or discounted fare for students, and many universities charge a substantial fee for student parking.

Saving on transportation is also another benefit of online degree programs. Through web-based learning, you can earn a degree without ever leaving home.

Take Advantage of Student Discounts

Your student ID can unlock hundreds of money-saving discounts and deals, such as museum memberships, clothing, low-cost laptops, and a percentage off your monthly phone bill. Some sites offer free shipping, discounted purchases, or special software bundles to students who register with a .edu email. Looking for entertainment? Most public museums, zoos, and other institutions offer student memberships at discounted rates, and you can receive reduced rates on movie tickets at participating theaters. While not every site or store advertises its student discount policy, it’s often worth the ask. When it comes to saving money, every little bit helps!