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How to Pay for College Without Loans: 7 Things You Can Do

I always assumed I would need student loans to pay for college. My parents had them, most of my peers had them, and so it seemed natural that I would, too. And while I’m very grateful for the education I received, I never considered that I could graduate college debt-free.

What I realize now, however, is that it is possible to pay for college without loans. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easy or straightforward, but you can do it with the right approach.

Below, we explore seven ways you can pay for college without loans. No matter your situation, you’ll find a method you can apply to your educational journey.

Go to Community College First

Taking classes at the local community college is a time-honored way to reduce the cost of a bachelor’s degree.

Typically, the classes at a community college will cost less than their university equivalents. This makes community college a great place to take general education courses.

Once you’ve taken these courses, you can typically transfer them for credit to a bachelor’s degree program. Just be sure to check with the community college and the place you plan to transfer the credits to make sure they’ll accept them.

In some cases, your state may even offer free or subsidized community college to eligible students. This can range from need-based financial assistance to tuition waivers just for being a resident of the state. Check out this article to see if your state offers free or subsidized community college.

Finally, note that community college can help you get scholarships. If your GPA wasn’t so stellar in high school, community college is a chance to earn higher grades. Once you have a solid community college GPA, it can be easier to qualify for scholarships at a university.

Live at Home (or Off-Campus)

Besides tuition, housing tends to be one of the most expensive parts of college. Even if you have a full-tuition scholarship, you could still need student loans to pay for your housing expenses. (This happened to Thomas, the founder of this site).

You can avoid or reduce these costs by living off-campus.

The cheapest option is to continue living with your family while you attend classes. But even if you’re on your own, renting an apartment off-campus tends to be much cheaper than living in the dorms.

You can also do a hybrid approach where you live at home while attending community college and then move to campus once you start your bachelor’s degree.

This won’t be the most “traditional” college experience, so make sure the institution you’re attending will let you live off-campus or at home. Some universities (especially smaller ones) prefer or even require students to live on campus during their first year.

Get Scholarships

One of the more obvious ways to avoid student loans is to get scholarships. You’re probably tired of people telling you that. However, I encourage you to take another look and make sure you’ve explored all the scholarships available to you.

Typically, people assume you need to be really smart or really athletic to get scholarships. While there are great scholarships available for academic or athletic prowess, there are many other types available.

My college, for instance, offers a Scottish arts scholarship to attract students with the relevant skills.

Besides the arts, there are also scholarships that recognize volunteer work or community service. And there are scholarships based on your religion, race, ethnicity, or national origin.

Not to mention, many professional organizations and businesses offer scholarships to promote specific careers.

For more on how to get the scholarships you need to avoid student loans, check out this article.

Apply for Grants

Most people know about scholarships and student loans; fewer are familiar with grants.

However, eligible students across the U.S. can receive federal grants to help pay for college. These grants are based on financial need, so you just need to fill out the FAFSA to be eligible

In some cases, you can also receive education grants from your state or university. The details of these programs vary; check with your state department of education and college’s office of financial aid to learn more.

To learn more about education grants (and how to get them), check out this guide.

Serve in the Military

If you can’t afford college, the U.S. military may be able to help. Programs such as ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) will pay for your college education in exchange for military service upon graduation.

The details vary based on your school and the specific branch of the military. Check out these resources to learn more:

If you’ve already completed military service, you may be eligible for education benefits under the GI Bill. The specific benefits depend on the details of your military service and the institution you plan to attend. Learn more on the VA website.

Work Full-Time

Working full-time while attending college classes isn’t for the faint of heart. It will require careful planning and organization. But it could be the approach you need to graduate college debt-free.

For optimum success, see if your college will let you pay tuition monthly. Many colleges are happy to do this, but it’s rarely the default payment option. Contact your financial aid office to learn more about monthly payment plans.

Next, be sure to pick a job that will work with your class schedule. An online job is a great option if you can find it. As is a job at the university you’re attending (they may even offer education benefits to employees).

Finally, be realistic about the workload you can handle. It’s better to have a lighter course load initially than to take on too much and get burnt out. You can always increase the course load next semester if you find yourself with extra time.

Attend College Online

My final tip for paying for college without loans is to skip the traditional, in-person college experience. While it’s wonderful to attend in person, an online degree program can be both cheaper and more flexible.

In particular, an online program is a good option if you’re also working or raising a family. Because most online classes don’t meet at a specific time, you can watch lectures and do assignments on your schedule.

If you’re looking at getting a degree online, make sure the program is properly accredited. Stay away from for-profit institutions and take classes from an established university.

However, don’t restrict yourself to online universities based in your state; your future employer doesn’t care where you got your degree as long as you have it.

Get Resourceful to Graduate Debt-Free

I hope this article has shown you that it is possible to pay for college without loans. In many cases, you’ll need to combine a few of the approaches we discussed above to graduate completely debt-free.

Whatever approach you take, remember how sweet it will be to have that degree (and the opportunities it brings). We’re rooting for you!

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Image Credits: working in the coffee shop