As of 2018, Americans owe more than $1.48 trillion in student loan debt. The average student loan payment, per month, is $351. Those numbers, alone, are an argument for trying your best to pay for college without student loans. This may seem impossible, but it’s not. At the very least, implementing some of these ideas can help you cut down on the amount of debt you take on to get through school.

1. Save Up Before College

Obviously going into college with some money in your account is one of the best ways to graduate without debt. If you can pay cash for even some of your degree, you will take on less debt. Typically the best place to put your money while saving for college is in a 529 account. You can find more about this and other college savings options here. But the most important thing is just that you start saving as soon as you can.

Related: Planning for College Costs

2. Apply for Scholarships and Grants

Free money is always a good idea, too. There are literally thousands of scholarships and grants available to apply for online. You can also find local scholarships and grants at your neighborhood library. Often times small local groups pass out $250 or $500 scholarships, and the applications may not be that competitive. Even if you put an hour or two into these applications, your return could be pretty high!

Bottom line: Apply for as many scholarships and grants as you can, provided they’re a good fit for your high school record, abilities, and future plans. But don’t spend loads of time applying for scholarships and grants that you don’t really qualify for. That time is better spent working so you can complete step one.

3. Choose Your School Wisely

Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t always mean choosing the school with the lowest sticker price. If you can qualify to get into an elite Ivy League school, for instance, you might find that they charge absolutely no tuition. Some of the most well-known schools have the most robust financial aid programs, even for upper-middle-income families.

The key here is to apply broadly to different schools. Try some local schools, which we’ll talk about in a moment, that have a lower sticker price. But consider more prestigious, expensive schools, too. Then, compare the schools based on their actual cost after non-loan financial aid is applied.

Once this is done, choose a school that you can afford, but one that also has a strong program for your area of interest. Remember, future employers care less than you’d think which school your degree comes from, as long as you have taken the right courses and excelled in your program.

4. Try a Community College First

If those offers aren’t enough to make college truly affordable, consider going to a community college for your first two years. Many of these local schools offer solid education for a very low price tag. And they’re getting better by the year at ensuring their credits and degree programs are transferable to more well-known schools. If you can pay cash for a community college, and especially if you can live at home during that first two years, you can save up more money for your last two years at a larger state or private school.

5. Negotiate With The College

Once your offers come back from the schools you’re interested in, you can negotiate with the financial aid offices. Some schools give their financial aid officers more leeway than others. But it never hurts to at least try to negotiate. This is especially true if you get a great aid package offer from your second or third choice school. You can use that offer as leverage when negotiating with your first-choice school.

6. Explore Alternative Schools

A community college is a good option for the first couple of years. And if you’re choosing a more technical career, you might find that a community college is exactly what you need all the way through. But even if you’re looking at a more academic career, alternative schools can be a good option. For instance, try a directional school. These are schools whose names tell you where in the state they’re located (central, north, south, etc.).

These schools are less likely to be research schools, where a good chunk of staff time and school money is put into producing research and publications. Instead, they put more resources into the classroom. They’re more affordable but can still offer an exceptional education that is very well-respected.

7. Work Through School

You don’t have to stop earning money just because you have a full course load. Many students manage to work a few hours a week or more while carrying 18+ credit hours. You just have to be wise about how you use your time. Working through school can let you avoid loans by paying for your living expenses in cash as you go. Or if you’re living at home without many expenses, you can save the money for future semesters. If you cant work during the school year, you can at least work during school breaks.

8. Consider a Five-Year Masters Program

Does your degree require a masters-level education to be really effective? More schools are offering five-year programs that give you both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. This can be a much more affordable option for getting an advanced degree. And if you really need that degree to advance in your field, getting it off the bat can reduce your overall educational costs.

9. Fill Out the FAFSA

Even if you don’t want to take out federal loans for your education, fill out the FAFSA every year. You may qualify for free funding, like a Pell Grant. Or you may run out of money by your last year of school, requiring you to take out some student loans. In this case, you can opt to take out the minimum amount of loans possible, but at least you’ll have the option.

10. Streamline Your Degree Track

One major problem for many college students is the four-year degree that takes six or more years to complete. If you’re wandering in different academic directions, you’ll ultimately pay for courses you don’t need. And staying in school longer means it takes longer to launch your career and start earning the big bucks.

Even if you have to wait a year or two before you enter college, go into the process knowing what you want to do, at least in a general way. Then be sure you work with academic counselors to plan your degree track so that you can get through it in the least amount of time possible. If you can cut a semester or two off of your path to a degree, you’ll save even more money.

11. Live Off-Campus

Some schools require that you live on campus for at least your first year or two. But if you can live off-campus, you’ll often save money doing so. It’s less convenient. But living at home or sharing an apartment with a few roommates can help you save some significant cash on your living costs. Then, more of the money you save and earn can go towards tuition instead of room and board.

12. Get a Job First

Not sure what you want to do yet? Or don’t have any money saved for college. Consider taking a year or two off to work before you go to school. Increasingly, employers are helping cover the cost of tuition for their employees, even if they only work part-time. Employers that pay for college include Walmart, Taco Bell, Starbucks, Amazon, and Disney. Some only pay for coursework in certain areas, while others are wide open.

Do your research, and you might just be able to save money while also having an employer pay for your basic general education coursework or your transferable associate’s degree. Plus, you can spend time exploring different career options so that once you go to school full-time you have a clear idea of what you want.

13. Start Living on a Budget

The bottom line on paying for college without student loans is that you have to make good financial choices. And that all begins with having a budget and sticking to it. Even if you’re making minimum wage and living on Ramen noodles, a budget will help you make the most of every dollar. Free budgeting tools can help you track exactly where your money is going and even keep tabs on your 529 account balance.

Bottom Line – It’s Possible to Pay for College Without Loans

If after using several of these 13 ways to pay for college without loans, you still need to get at least some financing, use federal student loan options first. But if you don’t qualify or you’ve exhausted those, check out Ascent. Ascent offers three types of loans (both cosigned and non-cosigned) for undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Another option is an online student loan marketplace like Credible will let you get rate quotes from up to 8 student loan lenders with a single online application. That will give you the best chance of loan approval at the lowest possible rate and payment. You can read more in our Credible Review.

And once you’ve graduated, consider refinancing.

Even if everyone else you know is taking on student loans and guaranteed to graduate with heavy debt, you don’t have to follow suit. One of your ultimate goals should be financial freedom. Being able to manage a budget, a job (even if it’s only a few hours a week), and your college coursework at the same time is great training for the challenges that life will present to you further down the road.


  • Abby Hayes

    Abby is a freelance journalist who writes on everything from personal finance to health and wellness. She spends her spare time bargain hunting and meal planning for her family of three. She has a B.A. in English Literature from Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, and lives with her husband and children in Indianapolis.