How to pay for college when student loans aren’t enough

Nearly all students — some 70% — take out loans to go to college. But not every student’s loan application is approved. Even when a student’s parents apply for a federal loan, known as the Parent PLUS loan, they can be denied if they have an adverse credit history. 

You need to know how to pay for college when student loans aren’t enough.

If you are unable to borrow enough to attend the college of your choice, there are some options to consider.

How to pay for college with scholarships and grants

Scholarships and grants are easily the best way to pay for college, since they are sources of free money that usually don’t have to be repaid. 

Unless you’re one of the 0.1% of students nationwide to get a full scholarship, typical scholarships range anywhere from $50 to almost $10,000. 

Types of scholarships and grants to pay for college

Academic scholarships are awarded to students with GPAs of 3.0 or above, with the highest scholarships going to those with the highest GPAs. Athletic scholarships can also have extremely high payouts, covering up to 85% of tuition plus room and board.

Some students achieve both academic and athletic scholarships, ending up with nearly 100% of their college tuition and living costs covered.

Obviously, smaller scholarships, usually provided by local companies and organizations, won’t make much of a dent in one year’s average tuition of $36,000 alone at private non-profit colleges. Grants, such as those issued by the federal government, also vary in amount and tend to be awarded based on financial need.

Apply for every merit-based scholarship and need-based grant you can find, starting with the U.S. Department of Education Grants and Federal Pell Grants. Don’t forget to search your state and local businesses, and ask at your high school and the college you want to attend for pointers. Professional organizations also offer grants and scholarships. The Geological Society of America, for instance, has a $1,500 scholarship available to undergraduate students from groups who are underrepresented in the geosciences.

What is the cost difference of state vs. private schools

Private schools tend to give out more and larger scholarships. If that isn’t an option for you, you may have to adapt your list potential colleges to cut costs.

State schools are much cheaper than private schools, especially when you’re paying much of the cost out of pocket. In addition, many state schools have community college outposts where you can attend at a lesser cost for your first two years before transferring to the main campus.

In addition to a lower tuition, some students can also save on room and board by living at home for those first two years. While this might not be an ideal situation for everyone, it can provide a much cheaper option for school.

How to pay for college by yourself

Pay as you go as a part-time student

Colleges charge based on credit hours, each class being between 3 to 4 credits. By attending college part-time, you can pay as you go and only take as many classes as you can afford per semester. 

This option allows you to work throughout your college career. If you couple this approach with attending your local state school or community college, and living rent-free at home, you can be one of the few students who graduates without debt.

The downside is that it’ll take you longer to graduate; however, keep in mind that most students attending full-time school switch majors mid-way through, adding at least a full academic year (and related costs) at graduation.

Working through college

If you’re determined to go full-time, your best bet is to attend a state school. You’ll need one or two summer jobs that pay very well so you can save as much as possible.

In addition to working during the summer, getting a job during the school year will likely be necessary. If you’re able to add side hustles, like driving or picking up freelance gigs, you could create another income stream.

A work-study program with your school might be an option for you as well. While these usually aren’t high paying or full-time, you can usually work in between classes and apply your earnings directly to your tuition.

Save money by adapting your living situation

Living at home is of course the most economical way to attend a local college. The next best is renting a house or apartment with friends, which is far cheaper than living in residence. You’ll usually pay less for your room, plus you won’t be required to pay for a meal plan, which most colleges require.

If you’re in the right area and have enough roommates, you may even be able to get your rent down to as low as $300 a month. Given the average price of a room alone for one year is at least $10,000 for an academic year, you could save over $8,000 a year.

The top student loan rates by your school