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What To Do if You Can’t Pay for College

If economic uncertainty along with rising college costs has left you thinking, “I can’t afford college,” you’re not alone. While this situation can be stressful, it doesn’t mean you have to derail your plans by dropping out of school. Instead, let’s talk about what to do if you can’t pay for college. If you found yourself here, the first thing we recommend is to be proactive. Immediately get in touch with your school’s financial aid office as a first next step to start the conversation.  

The ideas below are not listed in any particular order; each person’s financial situation is unique and may require none, one, or multiple steps included in this article. 

1. Contact your school’s financial aid office

Different institutions have their own policies for handling financial aid appeals. Some may have forms available while others require a written statement. Either way, you should be able to find the requirements on your school’s financial aid website. You can also call the office directly to tell them about your situation and inquire about other means of receiving aid, such as merit scholarships.

Unfortunately, your school’s decision will be largely based on your circumstances and the resources they have available. Most institutions will consider scenarios including a change in household size, uninsured medical bills or a job loss. You’ll want to be prepared with proper documentation and a solid case for why you should be given more aid. It can also help to know exact numbers, including how much money you’d need to be able to continue attending your college.

Recommended next step: How to write a financial aid appeal letter

2. Find a part-time job

If you find yourself falling short of your financial goal by a couple of hundred dollars per week, you might be a good candidate for a part-time job. Many colleges will allow students to work on-campus jobs, with priority given based on financial need. These positions are typically pretty flexible and easy to work on a student schedule. If you get lucky, you might even be able to work in the library and study on the job.

If you don’t want to commit to a part-time job, you can also take on freelance work. Check out websites like Upwork or Fiverr to land one-time gigs that you can do on your own time. They can pay well and allow you to work from home at the same time. You can even kill two birds with one stone by taking on projects within your area of study, like graphic design or creative writing.

Also see: Everything you need to know about work study

3. Apply for private scholarships and loans

If you’re completely maxed out on federal grant and loan options, it may be time to look into some private financing. You can find private scholarships aimed at all kinds of demographics on scholarship websites (including ours!) The awards may range widely, but every little bit adds up.

You’ll usually hear that private loans should be your very last resort, but if you’re desperate, they can be worth it. However, you’ll want to look into the details beforehand, as their rates and policies can vary widely. While it may feel mind-numbing to read through all of the terms and conditions, it’s certainly better than being left with a predatory loan.

Income Share Agreements (or ISAs) are another type of alternative funding that can also be useful when you are in a pinch. 

Recommended next step: Find and apply for scholarships

4. Consider switching schools temporarily

Although it can feel dramatic to leave your school entirely, it can be the best course of action for some people. Moving to an in-state institution  or even a community college can drastically lower your cost of tuition. You’ll also be able to save money on travel when you visit home. Not only will you be able to potentially get the same credits at a fraction of the cost, but you might also gain a fresh perspective by being placed in an unfamiliar setting with a new group of people.

Recommended next step: Apply for these top transfer scholarships

5. Adjust your class schedule

Depending on your situation, adjusting your schedule can mean drastically different things. If you’re stretched for funds at the moment but anticipate being in a better position later on, you might want to switch to part-time for the coming term. In the meantime, you can try to work more hours and get your finances in order before resuming full-time study.

On the other hand, you may be trying to minimize the amount of money you’re spending in school altogether. In that case, you might want to set a goal of graduating early. This may mean taking more credit hours each term than usual and enrolling in fewer unnecessary classes.

However, when making changes to your schedule, you’ll want to consider the consequences. For example, some student organizations like Greek life require students to be full-time students in order to apply. At the same time, you might want to consider if graduating early means dropping a minor or double-major that would have been valuable down the line. As a reminder, shifting to part time could mean that it takes you longer to complete your degree which could end up costing you more in the long-term. Make sure to connect with your financial aid office so they can help you plot our various scenarios.

Related: Why didn’t I receive financial aid?

6. Take some time off

If you’re in a really tight spot and don’t think you’ll be able to afford any more payments, you might want to think about taking a break from classes for a quarter or semester. You won’t have to pay any tuition for that term, and you can work and save up money instead. Just be aware that the lack of structure might be a bit of a shock at first. Additionally, make sure you have a plan for how to successfully re-enroll. Of the students who stop out of college for various reasons, less than 40% return after one term. For that reason, it’s important to set financial goals and a solid plan with support systems ahead of time.

However, you’ll want to discuss any enrollment changes with the financial aid office first. While federal loans are typically unaffected by a semester off, grants or private loans may change when you come back, depending on the issuer’s policy. Merit scholarships in particular are often threatened by time off, as it may violate the satisfactory academic progress requirement.

7. Meet with your academic advisor

Your college’s financial aid office should definitely be your first resource to call. However, your academic advisor can be critical in helping you navigate the situation as well. By telling them your circumstances, you’ll be opening yourself up to hearing all of your options.

They’ll also be able to help you navigate the process of switching schools by figuring out which credits will transfer and help you finish your degree.

On top of that, your advisor may be able to give you more insight into your class scheduling decisions. They can tell you what to prioritize and which classes may be substituted for others. If you’re not locked into your area of study, they may even be able to guide you toward less expensive programs at the institution that will help you pursue the same career path.

8. National and state-run organizations who provide emergency funds

Remember, there are a variety of state-run programs and non-profits who can provide emergency postsecondary fund assistance or help with basic living needs. There is usually a list of eligibility requirements and an application, but can be great options to consider before transferring or leaving your school. For example, in Minnesota, the Emergency Assistance for Postsecondary Students (EAPS) Grant Program assists eligible students with  food/housing insecurity or unforeseen financial emergencies. Here are a couple of national non-profits that helps meet student basic needs:

Bottom line

Now you should have some next steps if you feel like you can’t pay for college. Remember that you aren’t in this alone and that there are people including academic advisors, financial aid officers, professors, family, and friends, who are here to help. 

The best advice is to be proactive. if you are thinking, “I can’t afford college,” you should immediately get in touch with your school’s financial aid office as a first next step to start the conversation. Best of luck!

Related: Emergency financial aid for students

Frequently asked questions about what to do if you can’t pay for college

How do I apply for financial aid?

To apply for financial aid, you will need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form gathers information about your family’s financial situation to determine your eligibility for federal grants, loans, and work-study programs.

Can I negotiate with colleges for more financial aid?

Yes! You can try to negotiate with colleges for financial aid, especially if you have received more money from other institutions. Be sure to contact the college’s financial aid office and explain your situation in order to try to obtain more aid.

How can I increase my income as a college student?

Consider taking on part-time jobs, freelancing, tutoring, or finding work-study opportunities on campus. You could also explore online platforms for remote freelancing!

How can I save money on textbooks?

In order to save money on textbooks, consider buying used or digital textbooks. Additionally, you can check if the local library has copies available for borrowing. 

How can I manage social activities on a budget?

Look for free or low-cost entertainment options such as student events, movie nights, or campus activities. Consider hosting potluck dinners or game nights with friends instead of going out.