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Reader Question: How to Pay for College on Your Own

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I recently got a letter from a reader named Natalie, who is worried about paying for college without any parental help. Are you financing your college degree solo? Read on for her letter and my suggestions for tackling this challenge.

Dear Financial Aid Finder,

Hi, I’m a high school senior with pretty good grades and a strong ACT test score. I want to go to college in the fall, but I have no idea how I’m going to pay for it. My parents don’t make very much as it is, plus neither of them went to college, so they aren’t terribly supportive of my wanting to go. In other words, I’m on my own. Other than applying for scholarships (my guidance counselor told me about a few), what else can I do?

Natalie in Minnesota

Thanks for your letter, Natalie! I love hearing from our readers. It sounds like you are pretty stressed about paying for college, which I can certainly understand. It’s a huge expense, and without any help from your parents, it probably seems overwhelming.

The first thing to remember is that you’re not alone. Many, many students are going solo with their college education. There are a multitude of different solutions — which, truthfully, all students should probably consider, whether or not their parents are helping to foot the bill. So, here are some things to think about:

  • Complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid — check out my FAFSA FAQs for more information). If you are independent (i.e. your parents can’t claim you on their tax return as a dependent), you absolutely MUST complete a FAFSA. Not only will you likely qualify for a Stafford loan, but you may also qualify for a Pell Grant and other federal grants as well. Even if you aren’t independent, you should still fill out your FAFSA — even with your parents’ income listed, you may still well qualify for federal aid. In fact, the cut-off for the Pell Grant is around $50,000 family income per year; and families earning $100,000+ still qualify for Perkins or Stafford loans. Plus, you will probably qualify for some amount of work-study, which is a great way to earn “spending money” for your day-to-day expenses while at school.
  • Develop a personal relationship with your financial aid officer. Even if you don’t end up qualifying for a lot of federal, state or school aid, you can appeal directly to the financial aid officer. Given that you are paying for school entirely on your own, you have a strong case.
  • Find a job that pays for school. Even in these tough economic times, there are companies out there that will pay for part or all of your tuition as a benefit of employment. I know that UPS does that nationally, and I’m sure there are many other companies as well. Check with the HR Department, if your job has one, to find out what benefits you might be entitled to.
  • Get a part-time job. If your company won’t fund your schooling, look for a part-time job that has good pay and great flexibility. There are two schools of thought when it comes to working during school: The first says, finish school as fast as you can, even if you work less and take out more loans. Your earning power goes up significantly (doubled, and in some cases tripled) once your graduate, so paying back the loans will be much easier. The other school of thought says to take it slow and only go when you can pay cash. Working part-time may not cut it, so you might have to take a semester or a year off to earn extra cash.
  • Consider living at home. If you have a good four-year (or two-year) college within driving distance, living at home can seriously reduce your annual bill. In fact, did you know that at most four-year in-state universities, room and board is more than double what tuition costs? If commuting isn’t an option, live on campus — it’s usually significantly cheaper than renting your own place. And consider becoming a Resident Advisor (RA). Your salary includes free housing and in some cases, board is provided, too.
  • Expand your search for scholarships. The list you have from your guidance counselor is a good place to start, but it’s by no means the end of your path. Sign up for one of the free scholarship search engines (be sure to read my article on using free scholarship searches to avoid spamming and/or scammy sites). Check our my weekly Scholarship Friday post. Contact your place of worship and local community organizations. Ask at your parents’ place of work… and your own.

Hopefully these suggestions will get you started. Let us know how you’re doing! Good luck to you.

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