How to pay for college without help from parents

You can attend college even without financial help from your parents. Learn some ways, like how to fill out the FAFSA.

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Paying for college without parents’ financial support may be easier if you complete the FAFSA as an independent student. (Shutterstock)

Paying for college is often a full-family effort. In fact, 45% of college students rely on their parents’ income and savings to help pay for higher education, according to a Sallie Mae study.

The flip side of that statistic, however, means many students don’t have family funds to fall back on when covering education costs. Paying for college without parents’ financial support isn’t uncommon.

From scholarships and grants to federal student loans, here are some ways to pay for college without parental funding.

If you’ve exhausted all your free aid and federal loan options, you may consider a private student loan. It’s important to comparison shop for the best rates and terms available to you. Credible makes it easy to compare private student loan rates from multiple lenders.

Choose the right type of college for you

The type of school you attend significantly affects your education costs, as does what you intend to study. Consider this cost data from the National Center for Education Statistics:

If you have a career in mind, you can pick the right type of school that best suits your needs. You wouldn’t need to attend a four-year university if your career requires only a certificate program or trade school, for example. Types of schools to consider include:

  • Certificate programs and trade schools — Also called vocational schools, these institutions train you for skilled jobs such as court reporter, plumber, electrician, emergency medical technician, welder, hair stylist, and truck driver.
  • Community colleges — Also called junior colleges and two-year colleges, these institutions offer students a postsecondary education that could lead to an associate degree. You can get many types of jobs with an associate degree, such as air traffic controller, radiation therapist, nuclear technician, dental hygienist, web developer, diagnostic medical sonographer, and aircraft mechanic. Some students take general education classes at a community college and then transfer allowed units to a four-year college.
  • In-state or out-of-state colleges — In-state colleges refer to schools located in the state in which you live, and out-of-state colleges refer to schools outside the state in which you live. Public universities and colleges typically offer lower tuition rates to residents of the state where the school is located. If you attend a public institution outside your home state, you can expect to pay more.
  • Private universities — Generally smaller than public schools, private universities aren’t funded by state governments, as public colleges are. Private schools are typically funded by student tuition and alumni donations. The cost varies depending on which college or university you attend.

Complete the FAFSA

FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form. The information you provide on the FAFSA can help you qualify for federal grants, work study, and federal loans. 

After you apply, you’ll receive a Student Aid Report, which includes your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) — the amount of money the U.S. Department of Education calculates your family can afford to contribute to your education based on the financial information you provide. Your college will use that number to determine how much financial aid you qualify for. 

To complete the FAFSA:

  1.  Gather your paperwork. You’ll need your Social Security number and financial information about your income, savings and checking balances, taxes, and investments. If you file as a dependent student, you’ll need your parents’ information as well.
  2. Go to You’ll need to create an account to proceed.
  3. Determine if you’re a dependent or independent student. Your status will determine your EFC amount. Don’t assume you’re not a dependent student if your parents don’t claim you as a dependent on your tax return. The Department of Education provides a worksheet to help you determine if you’re considered a dependent or independent student.
  4. Provide your (and possibly your parents’) information. Follow the on-screen directions for providing required information.

The FAFSA application process for the upcoming academic year typically opens on Oct. 1 of the current year. For the 2022-23 academic year, the FAFSA opened on Oct. 1, 2021, and will close on June 30, 2022. States and colleges also have their own deadlines for submitting the financial aid application, so be sure to check those deadlines.


Apply for scholarships and grants

Before you apply for federal student aid, it’s a good idea to first apply for college scholarships while you’re still in high school. Scholarships and grants are free money that you don’t need to pay back, and thousands are available. 

Some scholarships are merit-based, awarded for academic achievement. Others are based on financial need. Some scholarships are for certain groups, such as women, graduate students, where you or your parent work, or whether you’re from a military family.

Scholarship amounts range from a few hundred dollars to the entire cost of your tuition. To help with your scholarship search, make a list of all the schools you’re interested in and contact each school’s financial aid office to learn of all the scholarships available to you. The more specific the scholarship that you meet the requirements for, the better your likelihood of being selected.

Get a part-time or full-time job

Being able to handle your course load should be your focus while attending college, but if you need extra funds to pay for your college education, you can find a job that works with your school schedule. Work-study programs are available for students in financial need. If you don’t qualify, you can earn extra funds by getting a part-time or full-time job.

Look for a job with flexible hours, such as rideshare driver, dog walker, babysitter, barista, brand ambassador, social media assistant, tutor, or content writer. If you want or need to get a full-time job, make sure your employer understands and respects that you’re still in school. 

Take out federal student loans

When you apply for financial aid using the FAFSA, your school might qualify you for a federal student loan. Federal student loans generally don’t require a credit check or cosigner. And you aren’t required to begin repaying the loan until you leave college or drop to part-time attendance.

The Department of Education offers four types of federal student loans: 

  • Direct Subsidized Loans are for undergraduate students in financial need. While you’re in school, the government will pay the interest on these loans — meaning your loan balance won’t start growing due to unpaid interest while you’re in school.
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans are for undergraduate, graduate, and professional students, and are not need-based. With these loans, you’re responsible for paying all the interest, which starts to accrue while you’re in school.
  • Direct PLUS Loans are for graduate or professional students and parents of dependent undergraduates. These loans are not subsidized. Interest begins accruing while you’re in school, and you’re responsible for paying all the interest.
  • Direct Consolidation Loans are for students who want to consolidate multiple federal student loans into a single federal loan. A Direct Consolidation Loan allows you to retain the benefits of federal loans, including access to income-driven repayment plans and student loan forgiveness programs.


Consider taking out private student loans to cover remaining costs

If you’ve exhausted your federal aid and federal student loan options, you may consider a private student loan. You can apply for one through a bank, credit union, or online lender to help pay for your undergraduate, graduate, or professional certificate studies. 

Private student loan lenders consider your credit score. If you haven’t yet established a credit profile, or if you don’t have a good credit score, you’ll probably need a cosigner with good credit.

As with a federal student loan, you can use a private student loan to pay for tuition, room and board, fees, books, supplies, transportation, and a computer.

Before committing to a private student loan, be sure to compare loan offers from multiple lenders. Credible makes it easy to compare rates from multiple student loan companies.

Research tuition assistance programs

Some companies offer tuition assistance programs as an employee benefit to attract, retain, or reward employees, or to develop a particular skill set necessary for the job. These programs reimburse part of workers’ educational costs for things like tuition, books, and fees.

The military also offers a tuition assistance program, available to active duty, National Guard, and Reserve Component service members. The military branch pays tuition directly to the school. You can use the funds at a vocational school, undergraduate program, graduate program, independent study, or distance learning program.

What if your parents can’t or won’t fill out the FAFSA?

The FAFSA requires your parents’ financial information if you’re a dependent student. Some parents may not wish to fill out the FAFSA because they prefer to keep their information private, they’re divorced and remarried and the stepparent refuses, or because you’re not their dependent for tax purposes.  

If you’re unable to provide your parents’ information, you’ll need to take some extra steps:

  • FAFSA gives you the option to select: "I am unable to provide information about my parent(s)." You’ll be able to submit the form without adding your parents’ information, but the Department of Education won’t be able to fully process it.
  • Contact your school’s financial aid office right away. They may require additional information to determine if your EFC can be calculated without your parents’ information and what, if any, aid you qualify for.

Dependent vs. independent student

Your dependency status determines whose information you must submit on the FAFSA — just yours, or yours and your parents’. If you’re a dependent student, you’ll need your parents’ information. If you’re an independent student, only your information will be required.

For purposes of financial aid, here are the qualifications for dependent and independent students:

The FAFSA provides a list of criteria, and based on your answers, determines whether you’re a dependent or independent student. You can’t state that you’re independent just because your parents don’t want to provide information to fill out the FAFSA.

If you’re an independent student in need of a private student loan, you’ll likely need a good credit score or a cosigner with a good score. Many private lenders will allow you to remove a cosigner from the loan down the road, after you’ve made a certain number of on-time payments.

With Credible, you can easily compare student loan rates and loan terms from multiple lenders.