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Pay for Education: Different Ways to Fund Your College Degree

Lauren Brown Updated: June 27, 2023 • 7 min read
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While student loans are the go-to option that many students select to fund their college education, they aren't the only way to pay.  Exploring creative ways to finance your education can significantly reduce the amount of debt you'll have. Let's explore different ways to pay for college through alternative strategies. 

Alternative Ways to Pay for College

To set yourself up for success and offset student loan payments, consider using one of the following alternative ways to pay for college yourself. You can use each of the strategies below or combine them to manage the cost of education more effectively.

1. Take AP credits in high school

Advanced Placement (AP) courses are college-level classes that you can take in high school to potentially earn college credit. Given the average cost of a college credit at a four-year private college can reach over $1,500, this can potentially save you thousands of dollars. It may even allow you to graduate early, offering further tuition savings. Not all colleges or programs accept AP credits though, so using this strategy may complicate or limit your choices.

2. Choose an affordable school

While reputation plays a significant role in selecting a college, affordability can also influence your decision. The average cost of attending a 4-year public in-state institution is about $25,707 per year. In contrast, elite private universities like Columbia University in New York come with a hefty price tag of over $65,000 per year. Choosing a more affordable college can save you thousands of dollars in the long-term. A potential drawback, however, is that attending a more affordable school may limit certain opportunities, such as prestigious internships or networking opportunities.

3. Apply for scholarships

Scholarships are a form of "free money" that does not require repayment. Various organizations offer them, including colleges, nonprofits, companies, and local community groups. Scholarships often base their award criteria on merit, rewarding those who achieve specific grades or possess unique skills. Others are available to all local community members, such as those in a church group or associated with a particular business. Applying for these scholarships can be time-consuming, but the potential to reduce college expenses makes it worthwhile for many students. However, many scholarships are highly competitive, and there is no guarantee you will receive the funding you apply for. 

The average cost of a college credit at private four-year institutions can reach $1,500.

4. Apply for grants

Similar to scholarships, you can think of grants as “free money” to help cover the expense of your education. The difference between scholarships and grants is that the latter tends to be available for those with financial need. Several types of federal grants exist, including the Pell Grant for students with financial need. The for 2023-2024 school year, the maximum Pell Grant amount is $7,395. While this amount likely won't cover your full tuition expenses, it will help to offset the costs.

To receive a grant, students must meet specific qualifications and apply through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You must reapply annually through the FAFSA if you qualify for financial assistance. Using grants to pay for college can benefit you in many cases as you will likely not need to repay the money. That might change if you breach the terms or withdraw from school, though. The disadvantage of this strategy is that not all Americans are eligible to receive a grant.

Keep in mind, there are major upcoming changes to the FAFSA. Make sure to read up and prepare for how to apply for financial aid. 

5. Enroll in the United States military

The military offers various programs for service members as help paying for college, covering a significant portion, if not all, of your tuition expenses. To take advantage of this, consider enlisting or even joining ROTC, which allows you to complete your education first. This approach does have its benefits, but it also comes with a commitment to serve in the military, which is not ideal for everyone. If you have a spouse or parent who is a US military member, you may also get education funding through their GI Bill benefits. 

(Read more on Top Financial Benefits for Veterans).

6. Employee training programs

Depending on where you work, you may have access to a tuition reimbursement or education program through your employee benefits package. The details of financial assistance vary greatly, with some employers contributing marginally to your education costs while others may offer complete help paying for college tuition. Graduating with little to no debt is a significant advantage, but your employer could limit your choice of college or major in exchange. You may also be required to continue working throughout your degree, balancing work obligations and school. 

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7. Obtain a part-time or online job

There are many different ways to pay for college, but one of the most popular is part-time employment. These jobs can range from in-person hourly work to online opportunities and even include selling items online through a platform such as Etsy, Facebook Marketplace, or eBay. Regardless of the gig, earning additional income to help cover your college expenses is key. This strategy also offers the chance to gain valuable work experience. However, the disadvantage is that working may limit the time you can devote to academics and extracurricular campus activities.

8. Apply to a work-study program

One of the ways to find employment to help pay for college yourself is through a work-study program. The federal or state government runs these programs and offer income for students with financial need in exchange for hours worked at a specific job. Even if you qualify for this program, the work-study award is not guaranteed, as you will be responsible for finding suitable positions on campus. A disadvantage of the program is that you must work sufficient hours, balancing this with your schoolwork. Of course, the advantage is the financial assistance and the opportunity to get help paying for college. 

9. Set up a payment plan

Another manageable way to pay for college yourself is by coordinating a payment plan with your school’s financial aid office. Many colleges offer them, breaking the cost of tuition into smaller monthly bills. This strategy can make it easier to pay for college without loans. If you are considering a payment plan, be sure the payment amounts fit within your budget to avoid falling behind. 

As outlined above, numerous ways to pay for college without loans exist. Often it can be helpful to use several of the strategies in combination. You may also use them in addition to your current savings or student loans. The key is finding the best solutions for you, allowing you to focus on your academic achievements instead of stressing about the cost of your education. 

Many US army soldiers receive full college tuition in exchange for their military service.

Enter College With a Savings Mindset

Even if you find ways to pay for college without loans, your savings efforts can go further if you develop and maintain a savings mindset

To stretch your dollar further and reduce the expenses associated with college, you can consider the following strategies:

  • Go for used books and supplies: Buying textbooks can cost hundreds of dollars per semester. Instead of buying new, consider purchasing used books or even renting them. Many online platforms offer used or older edition books at a fraction of the price of new ones. You can also sell these books back at the end of the semester for additional cash. 
  • Commute from home or live with roommates: Living on campus can enrich the college experience but also comes at a sizable financial cost. If feasible, you can consider cutting this expense by living with your parents longer and commuting from home. This can save you thousands of dollars. If commuting is not an option, having roommates can significantly reduce your cost of living. 
  • Get an on or off-campus job: Balancing academics and work might be challenging, but getting a job while in college can offer dual benefits. You can earn money to offset your costs, reducing the need for loans. Plus, the job can provide practical experience, enhancing your resume for post-graduation job searches. On-campus jobs can be a good fit as they often offer flexible hours, taking into account your class schedule.
  • Tap nonprofits specializing in helping pay for college: Various nonprofits actively assist students trying to pay for college without loans with help managing their finances and funding their education. These organizations offer services ranging from financial education and scholarships to grants to pay for college. Before working with a nonprofit, consider researching it thoroughly to ensure its legitimacy. 

With a savings-focused mindset, you can reduce your expenses and work towards graduating with minimal debt. Every dollar saved is a step closer to your long-term financial independence.

Resist Overspending on College

Balancing the desire for quality education and financial practicality is a tricky act. While taking on student debt might seem straightforward, it is crucial to understand how student loans work and budget properly for repayment. 

For example, suppose you need $35,000 to cover the cost of your college program and decide to borrow that amount in student loans at an interest rate of 5%, paid over ten years. Over this decade, your monthly payments will be about $371, for around $44,500 total. This means that you'll pay over $9,500 extra just in interest. 

On the other hand, the power of compounding can work to your advantage if you or your parents save for your college education early.

If, for example, you save $250 a month, with an annual compounded return of 5%, you could accumulate over $37,700 in ten years. In this scenario, you could have more than the $35,000 needed to cover your schooling costs while putting aside less per month than in the first example. 

Adopting a frugal lifestyle during college coupled with strategic planning can make a difference in your future financial well-being. 


The journey towards an affordable education begins by stepping off the beaten path, as there are many different ways to pay for college. Balancing traditional methods with alternative strategies can help ease the financial burden of your education. Whether you are taking AP classes, applying for grants to pay for college, or living frugally, every bit helps. By carefully considering these complementary solutions, you can reduce your dependency on borrowing and lay a strong foundation for your future. 

Written by Lauren Brown linkedin-icon

Lauren has over a decade of experience in wealth management and financial planning. She is a CFA charterholder and holds a Bachelor's degree in Finance. Lauren has worked with several asset management firms, offering wealth advisory and portfolio management services to high-net-worth clients.