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Student Loans

How to Pay for College With No Money

Figuring out how to pay for college if you have little to no money can feel stressful, but it is doable. You just need a plan. 

Planning and taking action on your financial aid options sooner rather than later can increase your chances of success. Once you know how much you may need to cover your costs, use this guide to understand how to pay for college with no money. 

How to pay for college with no money 

The promising news is that many options are available to help you pay for college, even if you don’t have the money to do so yourself. 

Below are eight options, listed in order of the most common ways students pay for college. Some of these financing options don’t require repayment and can drastically lower your overall tuition costs.  

OptionBest if you …
Financial student loansAre nearly any college student
ScholarshipsMeet merit or demographic-based criteria
GrantsDemonstrate financial need
Work-study programsCan work while in school
Tuition-free programsAre studying a niche subject
Community and online college optionsDon’t attend a traditional 4-year university
Military optionsAre in the military or have a parent who is
Alternative financing optionsDon’t qualify for most financial aid

Financial aid options

Federal student loans are among the most popular ways to receive financial aid for college. 

More than 10 million students take out federal student loans each academic year. Part of that is because of the wide eligibility—most students who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents qualify for federal student loans. 

Depending on your financial need, you can qualify for two main types of federal student loans:

  • Direct Subsidized Loans: These loans are available to undergraduate students with financial need. The U.S. Department of Education pays the interest on your loans while in school, during a six-month grace period after graduation, and if you defer payments for a time during repayment. You also must be enrolled in school at least half-time to qualify.
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans: Undergraduate and graduate students can qualify for unsubsidized student loans without demonstrating financial need. However, interest accrues unpaid during all periods, including while you’re in school and during the grace period.

You don’t need to meet credit requirements to qualify for these loans. Instead, you complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which assesses your cost of schooling and how much your family can provide toward paying for your education (called the Student Aid Index) to determine your loan amounts.

One of the main benefits of federal aid is that you have protections in place, such as:

However, since it is a loan, you are required to pay it back with interest. While federal student loans can have lower interest rates than private loans, it’s important to borrow only what you need and ensure you fully understand your responsibilities as a borrower.

It’s also important to understand how interest will accrue—for example, interest accrual on unsubsidized loans means the amount you owe will be higher than the original amount you took out.


Think of scholarships as a monetary award—money you don’t have to pay back. Many scholarships are based on merit, meaning you can qualify for them based on the grades you receive or another type of achievement. 

Some organizations may offer scholarships based on financial need or for a certain group of students. For example, you may qualify for a scholarship based on your parent’s place of work or studying in a certain subject matter. 

Places where you can find scholarships include:

  • The free scholarship search tool provided by the U.S. Department of Labor 
  • Your local library 
  • Your financial aid office 
  • Your parents’ employers 
  • Local and national religious organizations and civic groups
  • Local clubs and sports teams

Be sure to look at each scholarship you’re interested in, what the criteria are, and when the application deadline is. Our scholarship guide also contains resources for unique scholarships you may qualify for.


Grants are similar to scholarships in that they’re money you don’t need to pay back, but they’re mostly awarded to students based on financial need. The most common one students apply for is the Federal Pell Grant for undergraduate students

You will need to fill out the FAFSA to qualify for these grants, and the amount given is based on your financial need. There may be other state grants—some require you to fill out the FAFSA, whereas others may require a separate application form.

Like scholarships, you may be able to find grants by looking at local organizations and seeking help from your school’s financial aid office. You may need to be able to provide proof of financial need. 

Do as much research as you can on scholarships and grants. The money and opportunities available if you put the time and energy in are almost mind-boggling. 

Kyle Ryan


Work-study programs

The federal work-study program offers part-time jobs to students who have financial needs so they can earn money for their studies. Many of the jobs are for on- and off-campus jobs and could be related to your field of study. 

How much you’ll be paid will depend on the type of job and whether you’re an undergraduate or graduate job. At the very least, you’ll be paid the federal minimum wage. Be sure to submit the FAFSA and speak with your financial aid counselor to see what options are available for you. 

Tuition-free programs

Though not available in all states, you may be able to find tuition-free programs throughout the U.S., particularly if you’re studying a specific subject. Some colleges offer free tuition if you meet certain requirements. Examples of those schools include:

Community and online college options

Attending community college or lower-cost online universities offers a more affordable option for college. You may be able to borrow much less or stretch your dollars further with any scholarships or grants you may qualify for. 

Plus, you may be able to transfer credits to a four-year educational institution—you’ll need to check with your desired school to see what qualifies. That way, you can complete your studies while paying less overall. 

Ask the expert

Kyle Ryan


Consider the cost of your degree and what you may earn in your career later. It can be difficult to pay off student loans if you go to an expensive four-year university and end up with a job that doesn’t pay well. I have seen many people pay off their student loans over 20+ years and barely make a dent in them. One cost-cutting measure is to attend community college for the first two years of undergrad to earn prerequisite credits, then transfer those credits to a university.

Military options

Qualifying veterans and their family members can qualify for financial assistance thanks to the GI Bill. Many of the benefits can help you pay for your education. Depending on what you qualify for, your benefits can pay up to 100% of your college tuition and fees

There are also scholarships available to qualifying students through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, such as the Fry Scholarship and Edith Nourse Rogers STEM Scholarship. Each has its own requirements and maximum amount awarded. 

To find out more, you can check your GI Bill benefits by logging into your account at

Apply to internships in the industry you are studying to earn extra money and experience, and build a network of future peers.

Kyle Ryan


Alternative financing options

If you don’t receive enough funding using any of the above methods or you want to see other ways on how to pay for college with no money, you have other options:

  • Income-share agreements: Instead of taking out a loan and paying interest, you can receive funding by promising to pay a percentage of your future income. For example, you’ll share your income only after earning above a certain amount and only up to a payment cap or repayment period. 
  • Crowdfunding: You can ask friends and family to contribute some money towards your education. Consider making a post on social media or creating a page on popular crowding platforms online. 

It’s possible to pursue education despite the financial hurdles you face. You have many options to choose from to help you cover most or all of your educational needs. As long as you plan carefully and submit applications as early as possible, you can increase the chances of reaching your funding goals. 

Money-saving tips for college students 

Even if you receive financial aid to pay for college, you will still need to be able to manage your money responsibly. That way, you can balance between paying for school expenses and other necessities, like food. 

Here are some common ways you can save money as a college student:

  • Buy used textbooks: As long as you’re purchasing used textbooks that are up to date, you can save hundreds of dollars or more. Consider asking other students or looking at used bookstores for what you need. If not, renting textbooks can also be a cheaper alternative. 
  • Find student discounts: Many local businesses offer discounts for college students as long as you show them your student ID. You may also be able to nab other discounts online. 
  • Cook your own meals when possible: You don’t need to get fancy with cooking. In most cases, using a hot plate, air fryer or microwave can get you some delicious meals at a fraction of what you’d spend dining out. 
  • Track your spending: Knowing where your money goes can help you see whether you’re doing fine or need to cut back. Consider tracking your spending manually or take advantage of the many free apps available. 
  • Get a roommate: If you’re living off-campus, consider getting a roommate or two to cut down on rent costs
  • Use public transportation: You can save hundreds or more instead of driving a car.