How to Pay for College Without Student Loans

There are plenty of options available if you want to avoid taking out student loans to pay for college. Learn about financial aid and savings options.

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by Tessa Cooper

Published on June 9, 2022

Reviewed by R.J. Weiss

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How to Pay for College Without Student Loans
Feature Image: Catherine McQueen / Moment / Getty Images


A total of 43.4 million Americans have outstanding student loan debt. Loans allow many students to meet their education and career goals. However, many graduates struggle to repay them, which causes them to delay big life events.

Although avoiding loans completely may sound appealing, this goal may seem out of reach. However, anyone can take steps to limit their debt. Keep reading to learn how to pay for college without loans.

Pros and Cons of Student Loans

Student loans can break down financial barriers to education. However, some students graduate with more debt than they can afford to pay.

Federal student loans come with more benefits than private student loans, such as better repayment options, lower interest rates, and some opportunities for forgiveness. However, all student loans have interest, which means you'll end up paying more for your education in the long run. Consider each of your other options before taking out loans to minimize your debt.

11 Ways to Pay for College Without Student Loans

While avoiding loans altogether is not realistic for every person, students can seek other means of paying for school. Using loans as a last resort helps students graduate with a manageable amount of debt. Figure out how to afford college without getting in over your head financially:

1. Apply for Scholarships

Scholarships come from colleges, nonprofits, foundations, and for-profit companies. Some scholarship committees use information from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to calculate whether learners qualify for need-based scholarships.

Colleges and universities often offer scholarships based on prospective students' cumulative GPAs and college entrance exam scores. Private career-based organizations and corporations often provide merit-based scholarships for specific majors. These awards typically require recommendation letters and essays.

Nonprofits and foundations often offer demographic-specific scholarships to underrepresented groups. For example, members of the LGBTQ+ and HBCU communities qualify for additional scholarships.

2. Apply for Grants

Similar to scholarships, grants rarely require repayment. Completing the FAFSA is the first step toward obtaining a federal grant. Most FAFSA-affiliated grants come with financial aid requirements, including Federal Pell Grants. Undergraduate students with significant financial needs may qualify for a Federal Pell Grant or the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant. States also offer some need-based grants based on data from the FAFSA.

Learners should familiarize themselves with any requirements surrounding their grant. Failing to meet requirements may transform a grant into a loan that requires repayment. For example, the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant includes a service requirement.

3. Take College Classes in High School

Advanced placement and international baccalaureate courses often qualify for college credit. Additionally, many colleges partner with local high schools to offer dual enrollment courses. This means learners can earn college credit for certain high school courses.

These courses often cost less than campus courses (or nothing at all). However, not every college accepts dual enrollment credits. Before taking dual enrollment classes, students should research their prospective school's transfer credit policy.

4. Attend Community College

Nearly 30 states offer free community college. Some states provide free tuition if learners participate in a specific program. For example, Missouri high school students can participate in the A+ Scholarship Program. Learners can use these funds to pay for Missouri-based community colleges.

Additionally, community colleges tend to cost less than four-year colleges. During the 2020-2021 school year, learners spent an average of about $29,030 at four-year schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Learners at two-year colleges spent an average of about $11,890.

Students can earn an associate degree affordably to fulfill general education requirements. Then, they can transfer to another college or university to complete a bachelor's degree.

5. Choose an Affordable School

Selecting a school with lower tuition and fees may help you avoid taking out extra loans. You should also factor in how much financial aid a school offers directly.

In general, public state schools cost less than private universities. Public schools often receive government funds that subsidize the cost. Colleges often charge a lower tuition rate for in-state students since their taxes go toward the university. Students should typically avoid for-profit schools for several reasons, including higher costs. Students can compare the costs for public, private, and in-state schools using data from NCES.

6. Work During College

When trying to figure out how to pay for college without loans, many learners overlook the fact that they can pay for educational expenses out of pocket. In fact, certain colleges offer payment plans for out-of-pocket payers.

Students can apply for local part-time jobs or on-campus jobs. Flexible side-hustles like freelancing, paid internships, or work-study may help you build your resume while earning money. Finding an understanding employer with generous time-off policies can help learners balance responsibilities. Choosing an online program may also provide more flexibility for working students.

7. Attend College Part Time

Some people choose to enroll in school part time so they can have extra time to earn an income to pay for tuition. However, students should keep in mind that some colleges raise tuition each year. Examine the history of a school's tuition increases before committing to part-time enrollment.

8. Save Up to Pay for College in Cash

Some students manage to pay for college in cash. By creating a college budget, you can allocate your funds responsibly for living expenses. Students can save money each month and enroll in courses as they acquire the funds.

Setting up a 529 college savings plan can provide learners with tax benefits for their education expenses. While parents typically open 529 plans for their children, you can utilize your own 529 plan. Students can use their parents' savings from a Coverdell education savings account as well. Both of these accounts come with tax benefits.

9. Work for an Employer That Reimburses Tuition

Certain employers provide tuition reimbursement programs. Students who participate in these programs may need to commit to working for the employer for a set number of years after graduation. The degree must usually provide knowledge that will benefit the company. Some employers offer raises to people who pursue additional higher education.

10. Attend a Trade School

People pursuing certain career paths may save money by completing a trade program. Many trade schools offer affordable certificates. Certificates usually require fewer credits and often take less than one year to finish.

Trade schools provide limited educational tracks. However, some trade schools offer certificates that pair with bridge programs that offer more specialized degrees. For example, aspiring nursing students can become certified nursing assistants through a trade school. Then, they can attend a bridge program at another school.

Trade schools often cost less and can lead to high-paying jobs.

11. Attend a Bootcamp or Other Alternative Program

In some cases, attending a bootcamp or alternative program can help you save money. These fast-paced programs require no general education requirements and few prerequisites. Aspiring computer coding professionals often enroll in bootcamps. Researching a profession's education requirements through the Bureau of Labor Statistics and even looking at job postings can help you determine whether you need a full degree. Some careers only require a certificate.

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