Paying for school is daunting enough when you have the financial support of your family. But for students whose parents can't or won't contribute to expenses, figuring out how to pay for college on your own becomes a whole different challenge.
In this guide, I'll lay out everything you need to consider about how to pay for college without parents and all the steps you need to take.
Table of Contents
Fair warning: we're going to be talking about a lot of stuff in this article. So here's a table of contents for you to use as a quick reference:
- Paying for College On Your Own: Why it Matters
- What Does College Even Cost?
- Minimizing Your College Costs: Instructions for Any Cost-Conscious Student
- Steps to Take if Your Parents Won't Pay
- What You Should Do if You're an Independent Student
- Closing the Gap: How to Cover Your Remaining Costs
- Creative Ways to Fund Your Education
- Example Scenarios
- What's Next?
Paying for College on Your Own: Why It Matters
The most significant sources of student financial aid are need-based. This means that family financial need is the main criterion taken into account when determining aid eligibility. Your finances are not considered separately from your family's finances when aid sources determine financial need. This is the case even if your parents can't or won't help you pay for college. So why is it such a big deal if you can't count on your family to contribute to expenses?
- First, it's assumed that your parents are your family's primary earners. As a student, you likely earn little to no money. If financial need were only based on a student applicant's finances, everyone would be eligible for financial aid (spoiler art: not everyone is eligible for need-based financial aid).
- You're considered a dependent of your parents, which means they're the ones primarily responsible for funding your education. This is the case even if your parents don't claim you as a dependent when they do your taxes. This is also true even if you can show that you're self-sufficient and don't depend on your parents for financial support, or if your parents are divorced. If families across the country could pay less for college by claiming that their kids are financially independent, financial aid sources would be overwhelmed.
- The conclusion here? Federal and school-based financial need are based on your family's overall finances. If your parents don't submit their financial information for consideration, you won't be eligible for most forms of aid. If they do submit their financial info and they're low-need, you won't be eligible for most forms of aid. You'd think that aid sources would have different aid eligibility criteria for students whose parents don't want to pay for school, but this isn't the case. If your parents refuse to pay, the federal and institutional funding sources will likely wash their hands of the problem.
This is a frustrating and unfair situation for any student to be in. You may feel you're at a disadvantage here—and to be honest, you are. But whatever the reason that your parents won't be contributing to your college education, there are steps you can take to maximize your aid eligibility. It won't necessarily be as easy as paying for college with familial support, but it's definitely not impossible.
One of the best parts of going to college is the sense of freedom and independence that comes with adulthood. You have options and autonomy here as a young adult—so let's get started figuring out how to pay for college without parents.
What Does College Even Cost?
For the 2019-2020 academic year, the average annual cost of tuition and fees was:
- $35,087 at private colleges
- $9,687 for state residents at public colleges
- $21,184 for non-state residents at public colleges
The cost of tuition and fees is usually the first expense that comes to mind when people think about paying for college. Unfortunately, there's a lot more to the picture than just tuition costs—there are hidden or implicit expenses associated with spending a year at college. Here are some of the biggest hidden costs you might encounter based on average amounts from 2018-2019:
- Room and board: averages $12,680 at private 4-year colleges, $11,140 at public 4-year colleges
- College textbooks: about $1,240
- Travel costs: vary widely based where you are and where you're going. For example, if you're going to an urban college, you might be able to take public transportation anywhere you want to go. But if you go to school across the country, you'll probably have to buy plane tickets to travel home over holidays or summer break.
- Lab fees and supplies: about $50 per class if they're not already rolled into fees
- Personal expenses: about $2,000, but this cost will fluctuate drastically based on a) the cost of living of your area, b) your budgeting skills, and c) your standard of living.
Lumping together all of these expenses (especially if you can estimate travel costs and personal expenses) will give you a school's real sticker price—also known as the Cost of Attendance, or CoA. It's pretty easy to get an estimate of a school's CoA—just google "[school name] cost of attendance." To get a more detailed explanation of all these expenses, including tips and strategies for reducing costs, check our guide to what college will really cost you.
Just a quick glance at these numbers will tell you that college is probably too expensive for you to cover on your own. What's more important than sticker price, however, is your "net price" at a particular school: it's what you pay after all financial aid is taken into account. This is what you actually owe out of pocket for a year of college.
Want to estimate your net price at almost any college? Just google "[school name] net price calculator." Many schools have a tool built into their websites that will give you an estimate of how much you'll pay out of pocket. These calculators take financial need and sometimes merit-based factors into account.
Sometimes, though, the net price is still daunting, especially if you'll be tackling it on your own. The rest of the post will be focusing on minimizing this net price, starting with smart college application strategies.
Minimizing Your College Costs: Instructions for Any Cost-Conscious Student
What do you do if you don't have access to a ton of resources? You try to minimize your costs from the start.
If you're applying to schools with price in mind, your strategy should focus on lowest net price, not necessarily lowest sticker price. Naturally, the best way to decrease your costs is to apply to schools that will offer you low net prices. Once you've been accepted to schools, you'll receive official financial aid packages. You can then determine which packages you're most comfortable with. Here are the types of schools that will give you the best deals.
Top Private Schools
A lot of well-ranked schools (including Ivy League universities and top liberal arts colleges) have especially generous financial policies. The bulk of financial aid at these schools tends to be need-based, not merit-based, so you may not get much aid if you come from a wealthy background. Notably, the Cost of Attendance (or sticker price) for these schools will likely be higher than those of public schools.
Top schools—think Harvard, Princeton, Yale—sometimes give aid to families who make $150,000 and up. For families who are wealthier than that, Harvard asks them to contribute no more than 10% of total income. The bottom line is that these competitive schools can even afford to help out families who are relatively well-off. This means that even if your parents don't pay for school, you could still be eligible for generous aid based on your family's financial situation.
Schools That Offer Generous Merit-Based Aid
If you're a high-achieving student but don't think you'll qualify for much need-based aid based on your family's finances, you should look into schools that offer generous merit scholarships. Schools with generous merit-based aid programs often offer scholarships to attract competitive students.
If you have a particular talent (e.g. if you're an athlete or musician), or if you have high grades and test scores, you could be offered some pretty large scholarships. If you're interested in a particular school, just google "[school name] scholarships" to see what sort of aid they offer. You can also start by checking our list of schools with the best financial aid.
Public colleges and universities can be reasonably priced for in-state students but very expensive for out-of-state students. They also offer much less generous financial aid packages than some of the top private schools, although they may offer more merit-based aid to attract competitive applicants.
If you're interested in attending a public university and won't be getting assistance from your parents, you should definitely apply to a wide range of in-state schools.
Steps to Take If Your Parents Won't Pay
Here's where we start getting into the nitty-gritty steps of paying for your education.
After strategically applying to schools, the most effective way to cover your college expenses is to apply for as much financial aid as possible. Even if your parents don't want to contribute financially to your college education, there are ways that they can help make financial aid available to you. The bottom line is that more financial aid means a lower net price.
Like I mentioned earlier, the main sources of financial aid are federal and institutional (i.e. aid from your school). You can still qualify for aid from these sources if your parents won't be paying for any part of your school expenses, but you'll need your parents' help in applying. Assuming you're already using the college application strategies that I've discussed above, here are the steps you should take in order to maximize your aid eligibility:
Step 1: Submit a FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid
This is the only application you'll need to submit to qualify for federal aid. Many schools also use the FAFSA to award their own aid. In order to qualify for things like the Pell Grant, Perkins loan, or Direct Subsidized loan, you'll need to submit your parents' financial information even if they won't be contributing. For detailed instructions on submitting this application, check out our guide to applying for financial aid or our guide to the FAFSA.
Step 2: Apply for Scholarships
You can receive funding for schools through private organizations that offer grants or scholarships. If your family is low-need, apply for merit-based awards; if your family is high-need, you can apply for both merit- and need-based awards. There are so many scholarship programs out there—national, local, big, small. You should do your own scholarship search by looking for awards that are tailored to your interests, background, location, and ethnicity. Start off by checking out our guides to top scholarships for high school juniors and seniors.
Once you have a plan for submitting a FAFSA and applying for scholarships, you'll need to talk with your parent or guardians about getting the information you need from them.
It's important to start an open dialogue about financial aid with your parents.
How to Talk to Your Parents About Applying for Financial Aid
If your parents can't or won't pay for college expenses, they may be wary about filling out a FAFSA or giving out financial information for need-based scholarships. It's important to assure them that submitting a complete FAFSA with their financial information does not obligate them to help you pay for college. The FAFSA has nothing to do with your bills or college expenses...it's simply an aid application.
Bottom line: if they refuse to help you with your FAFSA, they're not protecting themselves. They're just impeding you from qualifying for financial aid.
What if, though, they're just overwhelmed by the process of completing and submitting a FAFSA?
If this is the case, you can let them know that the FAFSA only takes 2-3 hours to complete. You could even do it on your own if you have your family's financial information handy:
- Social Security Numbers for you and your parents
- Alien Registration Numbers (if you or your parents aren't US citizens)
- Recent federal tax returns, W-2s, and other records or income for both you and your parents
- Any records of untaxed income
The sooner you submit your FAFSA, the better, so don't put off having these discussions with your parents or guardians!
What You Should Do If You're an Independent Student
If you're classified as independent, you'll be doing things a little differently.
If you're still in high school, chances are that you are a dependent student, and everything I've written so far will apply to you. In other words, your family's finances will be an important factor in determining how much aid you're eligible for. But not all students who attend college will be considered dependents, and as such, they won't need to submit their parents' financial info for consideration when they fill out their FAFSA.
Independent students don't have to pay for college on their own. Parents can help if they'd like, but both colleges and the FDOE award aid under the assumption that independents will be paying their own way. This will work to your advantage when it comes to aid eligibility, particularly if your parents are relatively wealthy. If your family's finances aren't considered when schools and the federal government determine aid eligibility, you'll likely receive more need-based aid.
Who Qualifies as an Independent?
You may be considered independent if:
- You'll be 24 or older by 12/31 of the school year for which you're applying for aid
- You'll be in school for a post-grad degree
- You're married or separated (but not divorced)
- You have children who receive more than half of their financial support from you
- You have dependents (besides children or a spouse) who live with you and receive more than half of their financial support from you
- You were a ward/dependent of the court, in foster care, or both your parents were deceased at any point after you turned 13
- You're an emancipated minor or in a legal guardianship as determined by a court
- You're an unaccompanied youth who is homeless, or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless
- You're currently serving on active duty in the US armed forces for purposes other than training
- You're a veteran of the US armed forces
The FAFSA asks all necessary questions to determine independent/dependent student status, so just answer the prompts honestly when you fill out the application.
What If You Don't Meet the Above Criteria?
If you don't qualify as an independent student but strongly feel that your parents' financial information shouldn't be considered when you submit your FAFSA, you should look into a dependency override.
A dependency override is when financial aid administrators change a student's status from dependent to independent so that they aren't required to submit parents' financial info for consideration on the FAFSA. As a result, the student will likely qualify for much more need-based aid. Dependency overrides are very rare, though; what you think may count as an "unusual situation" may be discounted by federal financial aid administrators.
Here are some situations that will not qualify for dependency overrides:
- Parents simply refuse to pay for any college expenses
- Parents are unwilling to provide any information on the FAFSA for verification
- Parents don't claim you as a dependent for income tax purposes
- You (the student) demonstrate total financial self-sufficiency
Here are some situations that may qualify for dependency overrides:
- An abusive family environment (e.g. sexual, physical, or mental abuse or other forms of domestic violence)
- Abandonment by parents
- Incarceration or institutionalization of both parents
- Parents lack the physical or mental capacity to raise a child
- Parents' whereabouts are unknown, or parents can't be located
- Parents hospitalized for an extended period
- An unsuitable household (e.g. you're removed from the household and placed in foster care)
- Your spouse dies, or you get divorced
If any of these situations apply to you, you may need to present evidence or documentation to support your circumstances. Dependency overrides are decided on a case-by-case basis—if you think you might apply for one, you should read more about the process.
Closing the Gap: How to Cover Your Remaining Costs
You're almost at the finish line.
At this point, you should have an idea of whether you're (1) high-need or low-need and (2) dependent or independent. You should also have an idea of the types of schools you'll apply to—for example, top private schools, in-state public schools, schools with generous merit aid, or some combination.
After you submit your college applications, you'll receive financial aid packages from schools with all the federal aid and school-based aid you're eligible for, including grants, scholarships, and some federal loan options. You'll decide what forms of aid you want to accept, and which ones you'd prefer not to take. Here, I'll briefly discuss the types of aid you may receive, and which types are better than other.
- Grants and Scholarships: These equate to free money. You should accept this aid if it's available to you.
- Loans: Loans are amounts of money that you have to pay back after you graduate, plus interest charges. Some loans are much better than others, meaning you'll end up paying less money in the long run. Federal loans are generally good options because they often have lower interest rates. There are a lot of important considerations if you're thinking about taking out loans, so it's important to educate yourself! Read more about federal loans like the Perkins, Direct Subsidized, and Direct Unsubsidized. You should also learn more about how to apply for student loans and reducing the amount of student debt that you have to take on.
Financial aid packages often build in a parental contribution based on family's finances. If your parents won't be contributing this amount, it becomes your responsibility...and they aren't obligated to pay it. If you want to be able to register for classes and actually attend college, this amount needs to be covered. If grants and scholarships don't cover all your college costs, it'll be up to you to decide how much student debt you're comfortable with to close that gap.
In the next section, I'll talk more about how to use student loans to cover your college expenses.
Using Student Loans to Pay for School
The average U.S. college graduate has about $29,000 in student debt after graduation. If you're paying for college without the help of your parents, you may end up with more than the average amount of student debt, especially if you are responsible for paying the "parental contribution."
Student loans aren't inherently bad, and you're not a failure if you graduate with student debt (most people graduate with some loan debt). If you're smart about the types of loans you take out, your debt should be pretty manageable over the long run.
Most federal loans are "good." They have low-interest rates compared to private loans and come with a built-in grace period (a period after you graduate where you don't have to make payments).
The best types of loans are subsidized, which means they don't accrue interest while you're not making payments, so you owe less in the long run. They also may be forgivable if you enter certain public service careers, so they end up functioning as a grant.
Private loans usually have less favorable terms than federal loans. For example, they won't be subsidized, and they'll likely come with higher interest rates. Typically, private loans are the last resort in covering any remaining balance that you owe for school.
Private loans may be difficult for you to get on your own. Most require a cosigner, another person to sign the loan who takes responsibility for the amount borrowed. If you take out a private loan, then you'll probably need a parent or another family member (with good credit) to cosign.
If you want to try to avoid debt, check out our guide on paying for college without taking on student loans. Without financial help from family members, however, it might be unrealistic in certain situations to try to pay for college without loans. It may be possible, though, for students who qualify for a lot of need-based aid.
Creative Ways to Pay for College Without Parents
These ideas may not be revolutionary, but they'll get you thinking outside the box.
We have talked a lot so far about the challenges of paying for college on your own, in addition to the ways you can minimize your costs. In this section, I'll go over some more creative ways to come up with funds for college after you've looked into the normal financial aid and loan options.
I've briefly touched on scholarships a bit earlier in this post as a way to come up with funds. There are two main types of scholarships:
- Need-based: Good options for high-achieving, low-income students
- Merit-based: Good options for high-achieving students regardless of income
Now, scholarships are never a sure bet, but they can cover a good chunk of your expenses if you are proactive about submitting applications and you do your own research about local or targeted scholarships.
If you get a student job while you're in college, you can potentially put money towards your bills for tuition, room, and board. You could also use your income to cover your daily personal expenses.
This isn't a great option for everyone, however. If you're working so much that your schoolwork starts to suffer, it defeats the purpose of getting a student job. If you can balance a student job with your academic responsibilities so that you have money to put towards your bills, working might be a good call. Read more about whether it's a good idea to get a job as a student.
You know what's even better than getting a job during the semester? Getting a paid internship during winter break or summer vacation. In this case, you get professional experience and a chance to put money towards school. It's a win-win!
High School Savings
If you're currently in high school and anticipate that you'll be on your own for college, you might want to consider getting a job now. This isn't right for everyone (for the reasons I listed above), but if you have the time and the initiative, it could help you build up a nest egg before you head off to college. To get started, read more about the best jobs for teens.
Sometimes support can come from unexpected places.
If you're reading this article, your parents probably won't be contributing much to your college expenses. But do you have grandparents, aunts, or uncles who may be willing to help you out with college costs?
If you feel comfortable bringing this up with family members, it may be a good move to seek financial help from people other than your parents. If you feel uncomfortable asking for funds outright, consider asking to borrow money and then paying it back with student job or post-graduation earnings. You can also ask for funds for college costs for holidays and birthdays.
You've learned a lot, but now you have to put all this information to the test. This stuff may be confusing to understand at first, so in this section I'll present some example scenarios to demonstrate the concepts we've discussed how to pay for college on your own.
These are real-world scenarios, using real schools, to give you a realistic idea of how college expenses play out in different situations.
Scenario #1: Student From a Low-Income Family
As you already know, students from low-income families may be eligible for quite a few need-based aid programs, especially if they're relatively high-achieving.
Student A Information
- State Residency: California
- Family Size: 5
- Family Income: $50,000/year
- Academic Status: Strong
Student A College Applications
Student A wants to tackle her college expenses by cutting costs and seeking out as much funding as possible. She applies to several schools, including an in-state public school (UC Irvine) and an out-of-state private school (Davidson College).
Here's what her expenses would look like at UC Irvine and Davidson, based on both schools' financial aid calculators (remember, she has to have her parents fill out a FAFSA in order to be eligible for federal loans):
|Total Cost of Attendance||$32,102||$62,894|
|Estimated Grant Eligibility||$22,031||$58,794|
|Estimated Net Price (Cost of Attendance minus Grants)||$10,071||$4,100|
|Estimated Federal Loan Eligibility||$5,500||$4,100|
|Estimated Out-of-Pocket Costs (Net Price minus Federal Loan Eligibility)||$4,571||$0|
Based on her estimated out-of-pocket costs, she thinks that Davidson College will be the more financially prudent choice. Still, she wants to work to minimize her federal student loan amount ($4,100).
Here are steps she can take to help cover expenses:
- Get a student job. Student A would prefer not to work during the semester because she plans on being involved in many extracurricular activities. She can still work during summer and winter breaks, though. If she works full time for 10 weeks, bringing home $11/hr, she could make $4,400 her freshman year.
- Amount Earned: $4,400
- Apply for outside scholarships. If Student A receives outside scholarship money in addition to earning her own income, she could potentially bring in more money than she'd spend her freshman year. I bet you didn't think it was possible to make money going to college! She starts by checking out our guide to scholarships for high school seniors.
- No scholarship is a sure thing, but applying to as many scholarships as possible (even small ones) will increase her chances of earning some money.
- Let's say that Student A wins a relatively small, $500 scholarship
- Amount Earned: $500
Student A decides she's able to make Davidson work. Here's a quick breakdown of how she's able to cover her estimated out-of-pocket costs:
|Estimated Out-of-Pocket Costs||$4,100|
|Federal Loans||- $0 (she chooses not to take loans)|
|Scholarship Winnings||- $500|
|Student Job Earnings||- $4,400|
|Remaining Balance||+ $800|
Amazingly, Student A walks away with $800 extra dollars her freshman year, even though she doesn't receive any financial support from her family. The vast majority of her expenses are covered with need-based financial aid. This wouldn't have happened, however, if she didn't get into a school with a great financial aid program. It goes to show that one of the best things you can do to ensure college affordability is to come to your college apps with a strong academic record.
Scenario #2: Student From a Relatively High-Income Family
Students from high-income families may not qualify for much need-based financial aid (even if they're paying for college on their own), but that doesn't mean they can't get funding from other sources, especially if they have solid grades and test scores.
Student B Information
- State Residency: AZ
- Family Size: 4
- Family Income: $100,000/year
- Academic Status: About average
Student B College Applications
Like Student A, Student B wants to minimize his costs because he knows he'll be responsible for all college expenses. He applies to several schools, including an in-state public school (Arizona State University) and an out-of-state private school (Lesley University).
Here's what his expenses would look like at Arizona State University and Lesley, based on both schools' financial aid calculators:
|Total Cost of Attendance||$27,260||$43,600|
|Estimated Grants from School||$3,000||$8,000|
|Estimated Net Price (Cost of Attendance minus Grants)||$24,260||$35,600|
|Estimated Federal Loan Eligibility||$5,500||$5,500|
|Estimated Out-of-Pocket Costs (Net Price minus Federal Loan Eligibility)||$18,760||$28,700|
Based on expected out-of-pocket costs, he thinks ASU will be the less expensive choice. Still, he doesn't think he can come up with $18,760 per year (on top of the $5,500 in annual federal loans) while he's a full-time student.
Here are the steps he can take to reduce his costs:
- Live at home. If he attends an in-state public school, and the school's close enough to his parents' home, he could save a pretty good chunk of change.
- At ASU, the cost of room and board comes to $10,400. If Student B lives (and eats) at home rent-free, he could deduct that amount from his out-of-pocket costs.
- He might end up paying for some or all of his meals, and he might incur extra travel expenses to get to and from school. This could decrease the amount he actually saves.
- Maximum Amount Saved: $10,400
- Apply for outside scholarships. Student B receives a $3,000 grant from ASU, but he knows that applying for outside scholarships could help get him more funding. He starts by checking out our guide to scholarships for high school seniors.
- It's free to apply for most legitimate scholarships programs, so he wouldn't lose any money by submitting applications.
- Maximum Amount Saved: Indefinite
Let's say Student B is able to live at home for free but doesn't win any scholarships. He saves $10,400 of his original estimated out-of-pocket cost, $18,760. He still has to come up with $8,360 to fund his freshman year.
Here are the steps he can take to cover his remaining cost:
- Get a student job. If Student B works an average of 8 hours a week over the course of the year and brings home $10/hr, he could make $4,160 his freshman year. This is a pretty conservative estimate since he could work full-time over the summer or on breaks.
- Amount Earned: $4,160
- Take out private loans. After subtracting his job earnings from his costs, Student B still has to come up with $4,200 to cover his expenses for his freshman year. He decides to take out this amount in private student loans. He knows he'll have to pay this back after he graduates.
- Amount Earned: $4,200
Student B decides he's able to make ASU work. Here's a quick breakdown of how he's able to cover his Estimated Out-of-Pocket costs:
|Estimated Out-of-Pocket Costs||$24,260|
|Federal Loans||- $5,500|
|Living at Home Savings||- $10,400|
|Scholarship Winnings||- $0|
|Student Job Earnings||- $4,160|
|Private Student Loans||- $4,200|
Now that you've seen how these cost-cutting and money saving tips work in action, you can go ahead and apply these concepts to your own college and financial aid applications. The above scenarios won't apply to everybody, but the thought processes demonstrated above definitely do.
If you're eager for more information, there are a ton of things you can learn about to help prepare yourself for upcoming bills and expenses. You might start by brushing up on federal financial aid, and programs like the Pell Grant and Perkins loans are key. The FAFSA is an important part of the federal aid process.
If you're looking for a broader overview of concepts, you could read our guide to applying for financial aid. While you're at it, check out a list of colleges with the best financial aid programs.
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Francesca graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and scored in the 99th percentile on the SATs. She's worked with many students on SAT prep and college counseling, and loves helping students capitalize on their strengths.