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How to pay for college without loans: student holding a notebook

Plan for your future: How to pay for college without loans


- Student loans are just one way to pay for your education, but there are ways to budget, save, and reduce the costs so you can pay for college without loans.

- Depending on how much time you have before college starts, there are many great ways to save, including tax-advantaged 529 plans. 

- There are also ways to lower the cost of college so you can better afford it, from the type of school you choose to attend to where you live while you get your degree.

You’ve likely been hearing about college your whole life: how important it is for your future, how much fun it's going to be, and also how much it costs.

In recent years, there’s been a lot in the news about the cost of college as young professionals have fought for student loan forgiveness. We want to give you some options for how to pay for college without loans. Even if you don’t mind taking out some loans, keep reading for ways you might be able to save a few dollars on leveling up your education.

How to pay for college without loans in 3 ways

How to pay for college without loans: father showing his phone while smiling at the camera

College comes with a lot of expenses, like tuition, books, room and board. To cover the costs, many students take out federal student loans or private student loans.

Like most loans, they are expected to be paid back over time and with interest. Owing too much student debt can slow down your big plans later on, which is why it’s a good idea to take on as little debt as possible. 

Let’s look at some great ways to manage your college expenses without going into debt.

1. Save more

You might be many years away from applying for schools or it could be right around the corner. Either way, one of the best ways to pay for college without loans is to save up before the first bill comes in. Here are some things to consider about making the most of the time you have to save. 

Start early if possible

Saving for college before you get there is a great way to pay for it without debt. 

Make a commitment to put a certain amount away each paycheck. Ask for birthday presents from relatives and friends to go toward your college expense savings account — or share your Greenlight pay link with them.

Some parents take advantage of tax-friendly options like the 529 college savings plan, so talk to your parents about any savings they have for your college expenses and how you can help. 

Even if you don’t save the entire amount in time, every dollar not taken out as a loan is money you don’t have to pay interest on later. 

Greenlight can help you get a head start on saving and budgeting with cash back, savings rewards, and the ability to set savings goals. 

Adjust your timeline

Some students are OK with having a gap before going to school. Picking up a job between high school and college to save up some more money is another way to pay for college without student loans. Alternatively, you can intermittently work and take classes as you get the funds together to pay for them. 

You can also hold off on an advanced degree until your bachelor’s degree is put to good use as another way to stay debt-free. Some employers will even give you a reimbursement of education expenses if your field of study is beneficial to the company. 

2. Get help paying for college

Student happily reading a letter

No matter how much you’ve managed to save up, you may find some relief in the idea that you might not have to pay for it all yourself. There are many ways to pay for college without loans, including assistance with the costs. Here are a few possible resources for financial aid. 

Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and scholarships

If you and your parents' financial situation made it difficult to save enough for college, you might be eligible for federal financial aid or grants. Unlike a loan, a grant is money you get for school that doesn’t require repayment and it may not even be taxable. Usually, federal grants are for college students who can demonstrate a financial need. 

Even if you have saved enough, it never hurts to see if there’s a grant or aid available to help out. The FAFSA isn’t just about federal loans. It can also tell you if there’s a Pell Grant available to you or whether you qualify for a federal work-study program. 

Don’t stop at government grants though. There are also many state and private merit-based scholarships and grants out there to help you pay for your college degree. Many great private schools even have large scholarship funds to help students with high financial needs. Get started on your search in any of these ways:

  • Talk to your guidance counselor.

  • Look up local nonprofits.

  • Check with your preferred school’s financial aid office.

  • Ask your employer if they have any programs.

  • Use the free scholarship search tool provided by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Tuition assistance or work-study programs

Many employers offer tuition assistance, including many popular fast food and retail companies. But if yours doesn’t, or you need more flexible working hours, finding a good work-study program can be a way to pay for college without loans. Work-study jobs are usually part-time jobs done on campus in exchange for tuition assistance. 

But a part-time job of any type can help you pay for college without loans, even if it’s not a work-study position. If your college is far away from home, look for jobs in the surrounding area or set up a work-from-home side hustle

If you’ll be staying local for school, try to hold onto your high school part-time job. Maybe consider asking for more responsibility or a raise. Your employer might be happy to keep you and help you with your higher education goals. 

3. Lower the cost of college

Students looking at each other

Figuring out how to pay for college without loans is far easier when you bring down the overall price tag. Here are a few ways you can lower your costs without losing out on education. 

Go to a more affordable school

If you only look at expensive schools, figuring out how to pay for college without loans is much more challenging than if you consider a more affordable in-state university or community college. 

In 2021-2022, the average tuition and fees at public four-year colleges were $10,740, compared to $38,070 at private four-year colleges. Choosing a public college leaves you with a smaller bill to cover.

You can also save by choosing an in-state school. An out-of-state four-year college could cost far more than an in-state school of the same quality. Many state schools are affordable and welcome in-state students — some even have guaranteed admission based on your GPA and test scores — while still offering high-quality classes, programs, and faculty.

Looking for another cost-savings option? Try starting your degree program at a community college. A community college could be just one-tenth the cost of a more expensive private school, which can help you save on your first two years of tuition. Be sure to put that saved money aside. After two years at community college, you can transfer to a four-year college to finish your bachelor’s degree. 

Another school option is off-campus learning. Many universities now offer online classes and even full online degrees, which could save you money. On average, an online degree from a private college is less than half the cost of an in-person degree. It’s important to do your research about this, however. While you'll save on room and board, transportation, and other expenses, some schools charge the same fees for online and in-person classes. 

Make the most of high school classes

Just like you can get two years out of the way for less with community college, most high schools offer at least some classes that could give you college credits for free. Even if you don’t take courses that give you college credit, make sure you take all the prerequisites for college in high school to save you from having to pay for them later.

Live at home a bit longer

One of the major expenses of college life can be room and board. If you go to a local school or take online classes, you’ll only have your tuition costs to cover. 

Living at home can help you with more than just room and board. You can also save on bills you may not think of, like your car insurance. You can usually stay on your family’s plan if your parents’ home is your permanent residence.

When it comes to figuring out how to pay for college without student loans, finding ways to pay less for college is a great place to start.

There are several ways to pay for college without loans

Graduates happily hugging each other

College is a big expense, but there are many ways to handle it. Your parents might help by saving over time, or maybe you’ll find assistance through grants and scholarships. You might work your way through your college experience or lower the costs with strategic choices about where you attend and live. With a little planning, we know you’ll find a path that works for you. 

Greenlight gives you the tools to forge your path, so you’re ready to tackle big moments like these. Give it a try and get one month — on us!

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