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How to Pay for College Without Your Parents’ Help

Updated on:
Content was accurate at the time of publication.

Whether you’re completely on your own or receiving partial assistance from your parents, it’s crucial to know how to pay for college without parental support. You have multiple options to consider, including federal financial aid, scholarships, grants, a job and student loans.

Although paying for college by yourself is a huge financial undertaking, it’s possible with enough research, hard work and planning.

No parental support for college students? 7 ways to pay on your own

If you’re considering how to pay for college without parents’ support (without falling too deep into student loan debt), here are seven actions to help:

1. Fill out the FAFSA

As of October 2023, the average cost for a year of college in the U.S. was $35,551 per student, including tuition, books, supplies and living expenses. The heavy price tag has helped run up the nation’s student loan debt burden, but there are other sources of funding for your education.

The best way to qualify for grants and federal financial aid is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Grants are typically awarded based on financial need, though some are merit-based. Research the wide range of grants for college to find opportunities that meet your specific criteria and educational needs.

2. Apply for scholarships

Depending on your college of choice and your grades in high school, an academic scholarship could cover some — or even all — of the cost for your undergraduate degree.

If you don’t qualify for an academic scholarship out of high school, you can keep applying throughout college. Also, keep an eye out for scholarships without GPA requirements.

You can also look to other organizations, companies and scholarship search tools to find additional financial support for college. Although researching and applying for scholarships takes time and effort, getting more cash for college makes it worth it.

3. Get a job

Juggling a full-time job and a schedule of classes isn’t conducive to an active social life, but it’s one of the best ways to pay for college and save some money in the process.

On the other hand, working a part-time job might be the most realistic. Although part-time income probably won’t cover all your expenses, it will definitely make an impact, especially when combined with scholarships and grants.

Many campuses have work opportunities for college students. But if you have a car or access to public transportation, consider looking off-campus for potentially higher-paying jobs.

4. Look into tax credits for qualifying college expenses

You have two options for educational tax credits in addition to claiming student loan interest on your tax return.

American Opportunity Tax Credit

The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) offers a tax break of up to $2,500 per year based on your qualified education expenses. Qualified expenses include:

  • Tuition and fees
  • Books
  • Supplies
  • Equipment

You don’t have to buy your books, supplies and equipment from your school for the expenses to qualify.

To receive the full credit, you must have a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) of $80,000 or less ($160,000 or less if married and filing jointly). Incomes higher than this may receive partial credit.

If eligible, you’ll get a credit of 100% for the first $2,000 spent on qualified expenses and 25% for the next $2,000. However, only 40% of this is refundable, up to $1,000. So if you get a tax refund, this credit could give you up to $1,000.

Lifetime Learning Credit

The Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC) is worth up to $2,000 — or 20% of the first $10,000 spent on qualified education expenses. Your LLC depends on your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI), with the full amount available if earning below $59,000. If your MAGI is between $59,000 and $69,000 ($118,000 and $138,000 if filing a joint return), you can expect a reduced credit. However, you can’t claim this credit if your MAGI is $69,000 or higher.

Qualifying expenses include tuition, fees and other related costs required for enrollment. Unfortunately, books, supplies and equipment don’t qualify because they’re not required to attend your university. In addition, your qualified expenses must be paid directly to the school.

Note that the LLC is not refundable, so it’s generally best to skip if you expect to receive a tax refund.

American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) vs. Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC)

Unfortunately, you can’t take advantage of both credits in the same year, nor can you claim either credit if your parents claim you as a dependent on their tax return. Here are some key highlights to help you understand what each credit offers:

  • AOTC: Offers a more considerable credit (up to $2,500 per eligible student) for tuition, books and supplies. Income limits are higher than the LLC, but you can only claim this credit for four tax years (per student). Students must be enrolled at least half-time and pursuing a degree to receive this credit.
  • LLC: Offers a lower credit amount (up to $2,000 per tax return) and is not refundable. Although income limits are lower, you can claim this credit for as many years as needed. Eligibility isn’t based on pursuing a degree — it’s available if you take one or more educational classes.

5. Minimize your college costs

Another way to stretch your limited funds is to consider a lower-cost college. For example, attending community college and living at home for two years before transferring to a four-year university can significantly reduce your overall debt.

If you’re researching how to pay for college without loans, consider applying to a ‘no-loan’ college, which relies on grants, scholarships and work-study opportunities to help you graduate debt-free.

You can also create a budget to track your spending and get more out of your limited funds. Make sure to tweak your budget every month, trimming any unnecessary expenses.

6. Research tuition assistance programs

Consider working for a company that helps pay their employees’ student loans. Some employers provide these benefits to part-time employees, which can help slash your higher education expenses.

Likewise, the U.S. armed forces offer military scholarships and tuition assistance programs. Many of these programs can cover up to 100% of your tuition and fees. (Don’t join the army just for the money, though. These programs are a serious commitment, with your chosen branch requiring a certain number of years of service to qualify.)

7. Consider taking out federal student loans

While grants and scholarships are better, you should also be aware of how to get student loans without parents. Federal student loans don’t need your parents’ credit history since they don’t require a credit check. However, you’ll still need to submit their financial information if you’re a dependent, undergraduate student.

The best part about federal student loans is that you can access flexible repayment options after graduation. This is thanks to features such as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and income-driven repayment plans.

If federal student loans don’t cover all your college costs, you can consider private student loans. Make sure to compare several private student loan companies before choosing one since interest rates and terms vary between lenders.

You might need a cosigner for a private student loan if you don’t have an established credit history. If your parents can’t sign on for that responsibility, look into alternative cosigner candidates — such as another family member or a close friend.

Need more strategies to cover your college costs? Have a look at LendingTree’s rundown of ways to pay for college.

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