9 Ways To Pay for College Without Student Loans

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Student loan debt in the U.S. has reached $1.55 trillion including both federal and private student loans.

It’s no secret that college isn’t cheap, and the price of education is continuing to increase year after year.

Federal student loans can be a great way for students to get help paying for school, but they don’t always cover the entire cost. And depending on the college, students are graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in debt — with no hope of paying it off anytime soon.

Turning to private loans is even worse, as they typically come with much higher interest rates, fees for late payments and other concerning features that make them less favorable to federal loans.

Ways To Pay for College Without Student Loans

So what’s the alternative? With a little research and extra hard work, there are ways you can pay your tuition bills without getting buried in student loan debt. It may make life a little more complicated at times, but for many people, that can be a much better choice than getting stuck with debt for decades.

1. Scholarships

There are tons of scholarship opportunities out there based on a variety of qualifications: academics, athletics, cultural and community experiences, background, location, desired major or area of study. If you get creative, you’ll find a lot of options. For example, football scholarships aren’t just for football players; some schools offer them to other members of the team like equipment managers.

High schools typically have resources to help students find scholarships they may be able to qualify for. Plus, there are lots of resources available on the internet. Here are a few options:

  • Collegeboard.org is not only for college planning; it also has an arm that focuses on scholarships. There is a huge database of scholarships on the website, so it is critical to fill out as many details as you can in the profile that is used for searching.
  • Fastweb.com is another great tool. Again, you need to create a profile in order to find the most accurate matches.
  • Niche.com (formerly College Prowler) can help you find colleges, as well as money. You have options to pick from what types of awards you’re looking for. This site also has some contests to enter.
  • Moolahspot.com is not as robust but does offer some additional options. In the search for college funds, the more places you look, the better chance you have to get some extra dollars for your higher education.

Here are 10+ ways to find college scholarships.

2. Choose the Right School

The cost of college can vary a lot depending on the school. Choosing a school that’s better for your budget can save you a lot of money in the long run, so it’s important to do a little research. Find out what kind of financial aid different schools offer, as some provide aid based on need, some offer free tuition based on academics, and others are free altogether.

Public schools are typically cheaper than private colleges, and qualifying for in-state tuition at a state school can save you a lot. Plus, there are now ways to qualify for in-state tuition at an out-of-state school — usually by choosing a certain area of study.


3. Go to Community School First

Clark Howard is a big fan of the idea of starting out at a two-year community college and then transferring to a state or other bigger four-year school. When you think about it, have you ever heard an employer ask where you started school?

You may not get the same sense of campus life when you go to a community college as you would at a big university, but you will get an education in what’s often a more student-focused environment, and it’s usually going to cost a whole lot less. Then after two years, you can transfer to a traditional school. (Pro tip: Make sure the community college courses you take offer credit that’s transferable to the four-year school you’re targeting.) 

4. Go With Honors 

There’s a relatively new program that takes this route a step further. AmericanHonors.org will guarantee your admission to big-name schools if you do the required coursework and maintain your grade point average at one of its affiliated two-year schools.

The cost to go the American Honors route is about $3,000 a semester in tuition and fees. And while that is a bit more than community college, having that added layer of a big name school guaranteeing your admission down the road is pretty nice.

5. Work-Study

Student employment through the university is a great way to help you fund your college expenses. The Federal Work-Study program offers job opportunities to full-time and part-time students at thousands of schools across the country. The jobs offered may also fit with your particular area of study, giving you some extra experience. When you fill out your federal student aid (FAFSA) form, make sure to check the box that indicates you’re interested in student employment.

6. Employer Reimbursement Programs

I love Clark Howard’s story of how he got a job with IBM as a bill collector, because he knew they would help pay for his master’s degree. He had to pay for his books and maintain a B average to get the reimbursement. So he worked his tail off and had the cost of his tuition covered for his master’s in Business Management!

Today, there are tons of different employers offering similar options.

Benefits-eligible Starbucks employees receive 100% tuition coverage for first-time bachelor’s degrees through the online program at Arizona State University.

Walmart and Sam’s Club employees can earn high school diplomas or college degrees for $1 a day. The Live Better U program offers both bachelor’s and associate’s degrees in areas including healthcare, business, technology and more.

7. Grants

Grants are typically reserved for students who demonstrate a certain amount of financial need. They’re offered by state and federal governments as well as by private organizations and universities. Some are geared toward certain groups of students such as those with a specific area of study or a unique trait like being a first-generation college student.


In order to apply for federal grants, you need to fill out the FAFSA. And do a little research to find out about other options that might be available to you.

8. Work During School

Working on the side throughout school can be a great way to cover at least some of your expenses. It’s important to balance working with your academics, so if you’re someone who can make both work, then go for it! Check out local community websites and job boards for opportunities in the area.

And for some more ideas, here’s a list of 20+ ways to make extra cash!

9. Look at Affordable Alternatives

In many states, you have a flagship state university and then you have what are known as “directional schools.” A directional school is simply any school with a description of where it is geographically located in the name, like Central Michigan University, where Clark got his master’s degree. These kinds of schools tend to devote more of their money to classroom teaching rather than to faculty research. In general, they have higher efficiency and lower tuition.

So if you look at a directional school, you may save a substantial amount of money on education.

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