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How to Pay for College Without Loans | Student Loans

Key Takeaways

  • Student loans can be hard for college students to avoid, but there are steps you can take to minimize your debt burden.
  • Get smart about where you’re applying. Consider attending a public in-state university or a community college to save money. Also, some private colleges may offer robust financial aid packages to worthy students.
  • Apply for scholarships starting in high school and through college, and be sure to fill out the FAFSA.

For high school students and their families, the process of applying for college can be loaded with questions: Where will I be accepted? Which major should I choose? And, perhaps most importantly, how will I pay for it all?

For many students, paying for college involves student loans. In 2023, more than 43 million borrowers had student loan debt, according to the Education Data Initiative.

If you’re preparing for college, know that there are ways to avoid graduating with a massive debt burden. Read on to learn some strategies that can help you pay for college without loans.

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1. Attain Credits Strategically

Test Out of Classes

Before enrolling in your first college classes, look for placement exams for subjects like languages and mathematics. If you test well, you may be able to skip basic introductory classes like Spanish 101. High school students with high scores on Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams may also earn college credit.

Students typically need 120 credit hours to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. Skipping basic classes and getting credit for high school work can help you graduate faster, which can save money on tuition, room and board, and other college-related expenses.

Get the Most Out of Your Credits

There are usually both general requirements and specific courses you must take for your major. Before signing up for classes, ask your adviser if there are any that could fulfill multiple requirements. Maximizing your credits in this way can help you get through your program more efficiently.

2. Consider Staying Local

Enroll in a Public School in Your State

Attending a public in-state college may be one of the easiest ways to avoid student loans – or at least minimize them. Public schools charge much lower rates for state residents than for out-of-state students. For example, tuition and fees at the University of California, Berkeley is $48,465 per year for out-of-state students, while it only costs California residents $15,891.

Check to see whether you qualify for special grants, scholarships or other incentives from your state to attend a public institution. For example, New York’s Excelsior Scholarship Program makes it possible for New York state residents whose families earn $125,000 or less to attend any State University of New York or City University of New York institution without paying tuition. And in Indiana, students who enroll in the 21st Century Scholars program in seventh or eighth grade may qualify for a two-year or four-year tuition scholarship to an in-state school.

Earn Credits Through a Community College

It’s possible to save money on tuition by taking some courses at a two-year community college and transferring those credits to a four-year institution. For the 2023-2024 academic year, the average cost of tuition at a public two-year institution was $3,990 for in-district students, while it cost $11,260 in tuition for in-state students to attend a four-year public school, according to Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2023 report, an annual survey from the College Board.

Before enrolling in a community college, verify that the credits you earn will transfer to the four-year institutions you’re interested in. Keep in mind that you may have to pay higher tuition if you attend a community college outside your state or district.

Research Regional Tuition Exchange Programs

Regional tuition exchange programs allow students from one state to receive a significant tuition discount for undergraduate education at a public school in another state. For example, students who live in Arizona, Idaho, New Mexico or another state that participates in the Western Undergraduate Exchange may only pay up to 150% of the in-state rate at a participating school. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators has a list of other state and regional programs.

3. Apply for Scholarships 

Look for Opportunities in High School

Receiving scholarships is one of the best ways to pay for school, and applying can require a good amount of research, planning and effort.

Dana Kelly, vice president of professional development and institutional compliance at NASFAA, says high school students should talk to their college guidance counselor about finding scholarships from community organizations, like a local Rotary club.

Even your local religious institutions may offer scholarships for member students. Kelly says these awards may be smaller than more prominent scholarships, but every dollar counts when you’re trying to reduce your student loans.

“It takes a lot of persistence and doing your own checking because those scholarships are not going to be on a website typically,” she says.

Another potential source is your parent’s employer. “Again, don’t forget about things that might be really close to you,” Kelly says.

Keep Applying for Awards

While students might assume that scholarships are only for incoming first-year students, there are still awards available for sophomores, juniors and even seniors.

If you decide on a career path after you enroll, take the opportunity to search for scholarships specific to your major. For example, if you decide to major in chemistry, start looking for awards geared toward chemistry students.

4. Maximize Financial Aid

Fill out the FAFSA 

Filling out the FAFSA is the only way to qualify for federal grants, loans and work-study programs. Many states also require the FAFSA to be submitted before awarding their own grants and scholarships.

“Even some private colleges do this because they want to be sure that the student gets all of the financial aid to which they are entitled,” says financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz, author of “How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid.”

You are able to fill out the FAFSA the year before you plan to attend college, and there is good reason to apply early. Schools that use the FAFSA for their own internal awards may have a limited number of scholarship slots, so check for school-specific priority filing dates. You should also look for any deadlines from your state.

Appeal Financial Aid Results

After you submit the FAFSA and complete any school-specific requirements, the schools you’ve applied to will respond with an award letter detailing how much aid you qualify for.

If you still need more money to cover education costs, you can file an appeal. Filling a financial aid appeal involves explaining why you need more money for school. Whether you’re successful depends on a range of factors.

“The stronger you are academically, potentially there could be something else for you,” Kelly says. “It never hurts to ask the question.”

Don’t Rule Out Private Schools

While public universities may have lower initial tuition rates, Kelly says private colleges may provide generous financial aid packages to worthy students.

Smaller and midsized private colleges are often trying to compete with major public universities, Kelly says. They may be more generous when it comes to courting students, especially those with high needs and high grades.

“If you’re really stellar and you put your efforts into a small private or a midsize private, you may see more scholarships because you’re enhancing their own school profile,” she says.

Look for Generous Schools

Some schools have tuition-free or discounted tuition policies in place. For example, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art provides each student with a 50% tuition scholarship.

Is It Realistic to Pay for College Without Loans?

Graduating college debt-free may be tricky, but following the above steps can help you at least reduce your total debt burden.

“It’s not as typical to go to school without a loan these days as it used to be,” Kelly said. “For students who are willing to work hard, do some research and look for those small $200 scholarships, it can happen.”

Sarah Goldberg
Sarah Goldberg

Sarah is a seasoned financial market expert with a decade of experience. She's known for her analytical skills, attention to detail, and ability to communicate complex financial concepts. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Finance, is a licensed financial advisor, and enjoys reading and traveling in her free time.

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