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How to pay for college without loans

It’s no secret that it costs a lot of money to get a college education. According to U.S. News, during the 2020-2021 school year, the average cost in tuition and fees students paid for private colleges was $41,411 and that in-state and out-of-state students attending public universities paid an average of $11, 171 and $26, 809 respectively. The cost of college is steep, and it is continuously rising year after year.

However, just because college is expensive does not mean that it will be an economic death sentence for you and your family, and you don’t have to become saddled with mountains of debt from student loans in order to further your education. There are many ways for you to pay for college without taking on loans.

If you want to go to your dream college without racking up debt, here are a few options you should consider:

Start saving early

It is never too early to start saving for college. If you are able to save up enough money to cover all or a portion of your expenses, it will make a huge difference when it’s time for you to pay your tuition and fees.

One of the best ways to start saving for college is through a 529 plan. A 529 plan is an education savings plan that compounds interest. As long as you use the money in your 529 plan for educational purposes, this plan is tax-advantaged.

Although you have to be 18 to open an account yourself, your parents or guardians can start a 529 plan on your behalf.

Depending on your tax bracket and the average rate of return (typically estimated to be 7-8%), your 529 plan can provide you with a significant amount of money for college. For instance, if your parents started an account with $1000 when you were a baby and contributed $1000 each year, you would end up accumulating roughly $44,000 by the time you turned 18 years old.

While there is less compounding interest at work if you start saving later in life, it is always a great idea to start whenever you can.

Try this 529 investment calculator to see how a 529 plan can help you.

Fill out the FAFSA

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form that you will need to fill out in order to receive financial aid from the federal government and different colleges and universities. 

Even if you do not want to take out any student loans, it is always a good idea to fill out the FAFSA because it can help you earn other types of financial aid as well. The FAFSA is the key to unlocking over $150 billion in college grants. Unlike loans, grants do not need to be repaid when you finish school, and earning grants for college will put you in a better financial situation than if you were to take out thousands of dollars in loans.

Every year, thousands of students miss the deadline for submitting their FAFSA or they neglect to complete the FAFSA because they don’t think they will qualify for aid. As a result, hundreds of thousands of dollars are left unclaimed and unused each year.

Don’t be like these students. Keep track of key information like your state’s deadline for completing the FAFSA so that you don’t leave any money on the table when it’s time to pay for school.

Apply to affordable schools

No, this does not mean compromising your educational goals or only choosing schools that have low tuition costs. In fact, some of the most prestigious colleges with the highest price tags are incredibly affordable due to their competitive financial aid packages.It simply means to look into the financial aid packages and average costs for the schools on your list and use this information to help influence your college choices.

When you visit the websites for the schools you are interested in attending, look at the average tuition and fees for in-state and out-of-state students. You should also look for the average amount of aid that each student receives from the school. Check to see if there are any automatic scholarships that you can receive based on your GPA or prospective field of study.

If you review all of this information and notice that the schools on your list will still be far out of your price range, consider other options that might be more affordable. 

You might save money by attending a college within your state instead of traveling out-of-state, or you might save money by attending a college which awards more money based on GPA or on the activities you were involved in like sports teams, art honors societies, or academic clubs.

Apply for scholarships

One of the best ways to pay for college without any student loans is to apply for scholarships. Scholarships, like grants, are essentially free money, and there are tens of thousands of scholarships available for you to apply for during high school.

I recommend applying for as many scholarships as you possibly can and making sure that your GPA, list of extracurricular activities, and standardized test scores are strong enough to help you qualify for these scholarships.

While some scholarships are need-based, others are open for any and everyone to apply. Here are my tips for earning scholarship money:

  • Start applying for scholarships early: As soon as possible, start applying for scholarships that you are eligible for receiving. Typically, scholarships will only be open to high school juniors and seniors. Create an account at or a comparable resource that will help match you with scholarships that fit your needs and qualifications. Spend time browsing these scholarships and applying for them daily so that you can start lowering your college expenses sooner rather than later.
  • Treat applying for scholarships like a job: If you spend time each and every day looking for scholarships, writing and revising scholarship essays, and applying for scholarships, you are bound to find some success. 
  • Don’t scoff at small scholarships: When your in-state tuition costs $11,000, you might not be too eager to spend an hour writing an essay for a $200 scholarship. However, earning a $200 scholarship here and a $500 scholarship there will add up quickly, and you might end up getting more than enough to cover your college expenses over time.
  • Look at scholarship criteria: Many schools offer automatic scholarships for students who meet minimum GPA and standardized test score requirements. See what the criteria will be for in order for you to earn money and adjust accordingly.  For instance, at Indiana University Bloomington, any in-state or out-of-state applicants with a minimum SAT score of 1330 and a minimum GPA of 3.80 will receive $36,000 in scholarships and students with a minimum SAT score of 1260 and a minimum GPA of 3.80 will receive $20,000. This is a $16,000 difference simply based on 70 points on the SAT! If you are aware of this criteria, you can know how to adjust your SAT target score and study habits so that you can improve your score enough to qualify for the bigger scholarship.

If you are struggling to earn the SAT score you need in order to qualify for college scholarships, Prep Expert can help. Prep Expert has helped thousands of students earn millions of dollars in scholarship money. Sign up for SAT prep courses or private SAT prep tutoring today when you visit our website.

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