How To Pay For College Without Student Loans

In an ideal world, none of us would have to look up “how to pay for college” because it would be affordable for everyone! But until the puppet masters of higher education solve that problem, there are many concrete ways you can pay for college and avoid taking out student loans for yourself or others. Or at the very least, minimizing how much you have to pay for college. Remember, no one should pay the sticker price for higher education!

Unlike my previous post about paying off student loans, these levers are geared more towards parents or adult students. Pick and choose the ones that are right for you and your situation. Some of these may sound familiar, but hopefully at least one will be new to you! And yes, some are unlikely right now in our pandemic world, but many can be tailored to fit whatever situation you find yourself in.

Many of these levers to pay for college are also on Choose FI’s Ultimate Guide to College Hacking. Check it out for more resources!

So without further ado, here is the complete list of ways to avoid paying college loans. Click on any bullet point to jump to a detailed explanation!

Pull These 8 Levers To Pay For College Without Loans

Lever #1: Start 529s For Your Children ASAP

An oldie but a goodie: if you are a parents of young children (like, your kids won’t be in college for another decade), then I strongly urge you to open 529s to pay for college. 529s are tax-advantaged investment vehicles, where you aren’t taxed on your investment earnings so long as you only use them for approved educational expenses. And just like any investment, time in the market matters. The earlier you start putting money in a 529, the less money you actually need to contribute to reach your target number.

The best option for you probably depends on where you live. We currently hold ours with John Hancock’s Virginia 529 plan. I’d like to add, we’re not planning on saving the entire 4-year tuition/room/board cost with these plans. We’re just aiming for 2 years of in-state tuition, since we fully intend on pulling other levers mentioned below. Of course, if we end up with more money in the 529s when the time comes, we’ll use that amount as well!

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Lever #2: Have Someone Else Pay For It

This lever has two sections: scholarships and what I’ll call “reciprocal funding.” Scholarships tend to have a lower point of entry, but that also means they have lower pay-outs. “Reciprocal funding” is things like the military paying for the cost of school or a university paying for your degree. These opportunities have a higher barrier to entry and generally require you to work for the institution after or during your studies. However, they also cover almost the full cost of your education.

Let’s take a closer look at these options.

Option #1: Apply For Lots Of Scholarships

This is another well-known technique, but one that is often ignored or feels too intimidating. Let me be clear: there are so many scholarships out there, it’s crazy. And many of them are not dependent on financial need, so all you financially independent folks can still apply! Some things to keep in mind are:

  • Start early. Much of winning scholarships is crafting your story. So start applying to things in 8th or 9th grade, when you use applications as practice with less on the line.
  • Start local. Businesses, organizations, and religious institutions very often have small grants available for students. When you apply for these, you’re competing against a smaller applicant pool!
  • Use scholarship search engines, like, BigFuture, or FastWeb.

There are a lot of resources on this particular topic! Spend some time searching online and talking to local institutions to see what might be available for you. And of course, once you’re accepted into a college or university (or better yet, while you’re applying to be accepted), make sure to apply for ALL the scholarships you can.

Lest I forget, don’t forget to fill out the FAFSA. You might be eligible for federal grants that you didn’t even know about!

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Option #2: Seek Reciprocal Funding

There are numerous places that will pay for college – or at least, the entire cost of tuition – in exchange for you working for them either during or after your studies. The most well-known opportunities are those related to the military, such as the ROTC program or enrolling in universities such as West Point, the Naval Academy, or the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. These programs and universities will cover the cost of your undergraduate education in exchange for years of service post-graduation. If you have a desire to serve in the military, these are excellent options for you. Another advantage to this option is that you have a guaranteed job after graduation, and potentially a life-long career track.

If you’re looking to enroll in a master’s or doctorate degree program, search for universities that offer teacher or research assistantships that will partially or fully fund your tuition. By pursuing this path, you’re also gaining work experience while studying.

Reader submitted addendum: Thanks to Sarah who reminded me that many universities offer tuition assistance for employees and their children. For example, Georgetown University (GU) will cover 6 credits worth of tuition to eligible employees or their children if the employee has worked for GU for at least 2 years. More information can be found here. This is an excellent option for someone who may want to earn a post-bachelor’s degree in a couple years.

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Lever #3: Take Tests To Earn College Credit

This lever was a big reason I was able to graduate college a year early, including a semester abroad. While I was in high school, I amassed enough IB and AP credits to qualify as a sophomore by the second semester of my first year. Not only did this save money, it allowed me to use the time I had on campus to take classes that actually interested me – not the big, impersonal core classes most first and second year students need to take. Here’s a list of the most common ones:

While yes, it does cost money to take these exams, they are a heck of a lot cheaper than paying for college level courses. I’d say the cost is worth the potential gain!

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Lever #4: Enroll In Community College

Enrolling in your community college is a lever you can pull at any time in high school or college…and sometimes beyond. Here are the three most common scenarios:

Scenario #1: High School & Community College Dual Enrollment

Most public high schools allow some form of dual enrollment with the local community college. If the future college student plays their cards right, they can enroll in classes that count toward both their high school diploma and future undergraduate institution. I really hope our kids pursue this option! The potential obstacle, of course, is transportation between campuses if the high school student can’t drive themselves, or there’s no public transportation available.

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Scenario #2: Earn An Associate’s Degree First

Another very common and frugal option is for students to enroll in a community college and earn an associate’s degree before transferring to a college or university to finish out their bachelor’s degree. I believe almost all in-state universities have some agreement with local community colleges that as long as a student maintains a certain GPA, they are automatically accepted into the university. A warning: if you pursue this path, make sure the classes you take in community college actually count towards the classes/major you want to take in the 4-year institution. Just because you’re admitted doesn’t mean they’ll take all your credits.

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Scenario #3: Take Community College Classes While Enrolled At A 4-Year Institution

I pulled this lever while I was in college. During the summer between my freshman and sophomore year, I took three classes at our local community college. These classes transferred as credits toward core classes at my college. This scenario was a triple-win because:

  1. The classes cost less to take than at my college.
  2. I could take classes that were more interesting to me when I returned to campus.
  3. The additional credits helped me graduate a year early.

Note that you could likely take community college classes the same semester as your undergraduate classes, assuming your course load permits it.

I’ve also had friends take classes at their community college after they graduated with a bachelor’s degree, but needed credits to qualify for a master’s degree program. So really, this lever is applicable well into the future!

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Lever #5: Take Accredited Online Classes

So honestly, I hadn’t heard about this option until a few weeks ago. Essentially, there are now accredited institutions that offer online classes that anyone can take (for a fee). When you complete the course, you have actual college credit that you can transfer to select accredited U.S. colleges and universities. Welcome to the 21st century, my friends!

The only one I’ve looked into is Sophia. For $79/month, you can take one of over 30 courses that will then be accepted by Sophia’s 35+ partner institutions. I haven’t heard of many of these, but there are better-known universities like Alabama State University, The University of Maryland, and Purdue University listed. In this Choose FI episode, Gerry Born talks about how you could hack your way into a college degree using this method.

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Lever #6: Work for Residence Life

Oh, how I wish I had been an RA to help me pay for college! While this option isn’t for everyone – and on most campuses, it’s a selective process – working as a Resident Advisor is a great way to save money in college. In exchange for watching over a certain number of residents and miscellaneous other responsibilities, your university or college will cover the cost of room and board. That’s tens of thousands of dollars taken care of!

As I mentioned, being an RA is not for everyone, nor will it be offered to everyone. It’s essentially a full-time job you’re taking on – where you watch over college students – in addition to your studies. But if you think you have the personality and responsibility level required, you should explore this option. Your or your parents’ bank accounts will thank you.

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Lever #7: Don’t Follow the Traditional Timeline

I love this lever to pay for college, and used it throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies. There are two paths: go faster or go slower than the traditional timeline for your degree of choice. Pretty simple, right?

Path #1: Go Faster – Complete Your Studies Faster Than Projected

This is the path I chose for my undergraduate studies. By combining AP & IB credits, taking community college classes over the summer, and strategically picking a major that was easy to complete based on my existing credits, I graduated in three years. Looking back, I probably could have done it in 2.5 years, but I really wanted to study abroad. My credits from that semester abroad counted, but I could have taken all the credits I earned in year 3 within one semester.

The obvious advantage to this method is that less time in school = less tuition paid. However, there are two potential disadvantages: 1) You may have very little free time (because of all your classes), and 2) You have accumulated the total cost of your degree in a shorter period of time. This second point is important because you essentially haven’t given yourself time to pay off the cost of your education as you earned it. It may be better to illustrate this point through the second path.

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Path #2: Go Slower – Take Your Time Earning the Degree

In complete contrast to my undergraduate studies, I literally took the longest allowable time to complete my Masters of Public Health (MPH) degree. While the traditional path was 4 semesters (2 years), I took 10 semesters (4.5 years). While I don’t recommend stretching it out that long, the huge advantage to this method was that I was able to pay down my student loans almost as quickly as I incurred them. This meant I saved thousands on interest payments! The disadvantage was that honestly, by the time I graduated I could barely remember what I learned the first two years.

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Lever #8: Work While You Study

Like many others, this lever is one you can pull in high school and continue to use through your graduate studies.

In high school, working after school, on weekends, or over the summer gives you valuable life experience, helps you save up for college, and could connect you with people and institutions offering financial assistance. For your undergraduate and graduate studies, you could either work on campus as part of a financial aid package, teaching assistantship, or as a resident advisor (see lever 5). You could also work off-campus, and potentially full-time, which would help offset your education costs considerably.

This last option is what I did while earning my master’s degree. The university I chose only offered public health classes in the afternoons and evenings, so I was able to work full-time during the day. I later learned that several of my colleagues were doing the same thing, thanks to our flexible work schedule and many local universities offering evening classes. Thanks to this set up, we were able to pay down some of our education costs as we incurred them, and applied what we were learning in real-life settings. If possible, I’d highly recommend this option for people pursuing post-graduate degrees!

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How Do (Or Did) You Pay For College?

While this is a fairly long list, I’m sure I’ve missed something. Please email me at maddie [at] orangejalapenos [dot] com with more ideas! I want this to be a living document that I update as people send in their thoughts.

How To Pay for College Without Student Loans!

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