Skip to main content

Worried about paying to send your kid to college?

The cost of college rises every year—forcing parents to decide if they will compromise the dream of helping their kid go to college and limit their shot at a great career or go into debt with student loans?

But here’s the big secret: the “borrow money or skip college” dilemma is a myth. You don’t have to do either one. There are ways to get a great education and find excellent career opportunities without borrowing.

Let’s look at a few options.

1. Pay Cash for Your Degree

Using money that you’ve budgeted is the wisest way to pay for college. So, if you’re the parent of young kids, begin saving now. But if you’re getting closer to campus drop-off day and haven’t saved a dime, we have tips for you.

2. Apply for Financial Aid

Everyone who plans to attend college completes the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Colleges use the FAFSA to figure out how much money they can offer your child and determine the kinds of financial aid for which you qualify.

The FAFSA determines eligibility for federal grants, work-study programs, state and school aid—all of which is recommended—and loans. There’s no income cutoff to be eligible for financial aid, so everyone should fill out the form. You never know how much you could get unless you send it in.

The FAFSA has a deadline that varies by state and school, so look at the FAFSA website to determine when the form needs to be submitted. After you submit the FAFSA, you will receive a form with your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), estimating how much your family can afford to pay for college. Colleges will look at your EFC and send you an award letter outlining your financial aid package.

Depending on your financial need and the schools you consider, your child may be able to cover their education entirely through grants and/or aid from your state or the school itself.

3. Choose an Affordable School

If you were to ask friends or neighbors the most important factor in choosing a school, you’d get all kinds of answers, like name recognition, the size of the dorms, or the success of the football program. But when it comes to choosing a school, the primary factor should be if you can pay for it without student loans.

Your top priority should be to find a college you can afford. This may mean adjusting your expectations about going to your dream school. On the other hand, their dream school is still within reach if you can secure enough scholarships, grants, and other financial aid to make it happen debt-free.

Keep in mind that the traditional approach to college, where the student moves away to live on campus for four years, is not the only way to get an education—and it’s usually not the cheapest. Consider these alternatives:

4. Go to Community College First

Community colleges allow people to get college credits on their way to a degree at much cheaper rates than if they’d enrolled in a four-year school right out of high school. They can knock out the basics at a community college for two years, then transfer to a school that offers bachelor’s degrees for years three and four.

5. Consider Directional Schools

Most states have a flagship school where most of the academic research happens, and several other schools where the focus is more on teaching. The smaller schools tend to have names indicating where they’re located in the state. These “directional” schools not only focus more on your child’s classroom experience but also have cheaper tuition and fees. That’s a win-win.

6. Explore Trade Schools

In addition to four-year universities and community colleges, don’t ignore the possibility of trade schools. That’s where students who want practical skills like electrical work, mechanics, plumbing, and home inspections can get valuable training that’s highly marketable. Not to mention, completing a trade school program usually takes less time and less money than getting a bachelor’s degree.

7. Apply for Scholarships

Scholarships are one of your most powerful tools in the journey to cover school without loans because they’re funds you earn and never have to pay back. Going to school debt-free is serious business, and the paycheck shows up in the form of award letters from scholarship committees. I recommend high schoolers and their parents spend several hours a day on summer breaks and weekends searching filling out every scholarship opportunity they can find.

The internet is your friend here. New scholarships and deadlines are being set up all the time. And, be prepared to write essays about their personal experiences and career goals.

Look into whether your or your spouse’s workplace offers scholarships for the children of employees. And, reach out to local community groups, businesses, and charities to find out if your child can apply for their scholarships. These are often awarded based on community service or high school GPA.

8. Get Grants

Grants are awarded by schools, organizations, and federal assistance programs based on financial need—and you don’t have to pay them back. Once you’ve completed the FAFSA, you’ll receive word on the federal grants for which you’re eligible. You can also contact your state grant agency for more aid possibilities.

9. Work During School

Encourage your student to work while they’re in school. Wait, what? Why would you want your child to work a job during college?

While that may go against the grain of what many in our culture assume, but research confirms that students working a part-time job—less than 20 hours a week—often have better grades than those who aren’t employed (Tessema, Mussie & Ready, Kathryn and Astani, Marzie. (2014). Does Part-Time Job Affect College Students’ Satisfaction and Academic Performance (GPA)?).

10. Work-Study Programs (WSP)

WSPs allow your kid to work part-time while attending school. You’ll find out if they’re eligible in the financial aid award letter. Work-study jobs are usually on campus, which makes them a convenient way to combine work with schoolwork. Just be sure your kid understands that the paychecks are supposed to go toward school expenses—not for pizza.

11. Off-Campus Jobs

Many jobs are great for busy college students looking to cash-flow school. Your kid’s best bet may be customer service jobs that are compatible with a part-time schedule. There’s a lot of money to be made waiting tables, parking cars, or working at the mall. Or consider looking for a part-time office position that might be in line with their career goals.

12. Side Business

There’s no limit to the number of ways your child can earn money if they have a valuable skill, hobby, or artistic knack they can turn into a marketable product. Think about crafts, clothing design, music lessons, tutoring, etc.

13. Live Off-Campus

One of the biggest college expenses is the cost of room and board. But there’s an easy way to eliminate that for some big savings—live off-campus. Whether it’s commuting to class from their apartment or continuing to live with you, your kid can save a bundle.

14. Get on a Budget

This is one of those pieces of advice that might sound too obvious to mention—until you realize how few people budget. It’s worth your time to be sure your kid knows how to make and stick to a budget before they leave for college.

By being proactive to list their monthly income and expenses and give every dollar a job to do, your child will begin to take ownership of their college experience. When they see how much it actually costs to pay for a month of college in terms of food, transportation, clothing, and rent, they may take their schoolwork more seriously too.


A photo of a woman with dark curly hair, looking directly at the camera with a big smile on her face, revealing her white teeth. She has an open and friendly expression and appears to be happy and confident.

Want to learn more about how to go to graduate from college without student debt? Check out the College Countdown article entitled 10 Ways to Pay for College Without Student Debt.

Yvette Haring, 529 College Savings Program Director

ScholarShare 529, California’s college savings plan, publishes the College Countdown website and articles to provide resources and to ease the minds of parents preparing to send their kids to college. Visit ScholarShare 529.