How to Pay for College Without Debt


Updated October 26, 2022

Students can apply for financial aid through grants and scholarships. Federal Pell Grants (Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Tapping Financial Resources Outside of Student Loans for Your College Degree

College students in the U.S. are struggling to cover the rising costs of tuition, fees room and board as prices hover at $16,188 for public institutions and more than $40,000 at private schools. Although students have traditionally borrowed to pay for college, this option can leave students with considerable debt after graduation. The class of 2016 was saddled with an average student debt load of $37,172.

As a result, students must search for alternative ways to pay for higher education expenses, whether through scholarships and grants or in non-traditional ways like crowdfunding and work-study programs. This guide breaks down these four ways to pay your way through school and keep your higher educational journey completely (or at least mostly) debt-free. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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The Conventional: Grants and Scholarships

Two of the most common college funding sources are grants and scholarships. Currently, college students receive approximately $46 billion in federal scholarships and grants, plus an additional $3.3 billion from private sources each year.

Securing Scholarships

According to college funding expert Charlie Donaldson, grants and scholarships can be divided into three primary categories: need-based, merit-based and private.

“Need-based awards are the reason why you fill out financial aid forms with how much money your family earns and what's in the bank. Merit-based aid is money you get because you have good grades or high test scores,” Donaldson says. “Finally, private scholarships are what you apply for to private organizations and foundations and hope to win.”

Private scholarships are funded by nonprofits, corporations, civic groups and religious organizations. “It's important to look for these scholarships early, even as a junior in high school, and to apply for them each year throughout your college experience,” Donaldson explains.

“Contact businesses and community groups in your area to find out what they offer and use free resources such as scholarship search engines to find opportunities,” he says. “The more scholarships you apply for, the better chance you will have at winning financial aid for school.”

Below are tips for finding the right scholarships and increasing your chances of getting them:

  • Tip #1: Do the math. "Look for scholarships where your potential to win is good," says Donaldson. “I worked with a student who applied for an ethics scholarship through Delaware (Better Business Bureau). They awarded two scholarships of $2,500 each and received a total of 56 applications. The student won the scholarship. On the other hand, a very large, nationwide foundation awards just one award for $10,000. Each year, they receive over 10,000 essay submissions. The odds just aren't that good.”
  • Tip #2. Weigh your time and effort. "There is a scholarship through the Huntington Learning Center where all you have to do is text a code to a specific phone number, and you are entered to win $4,000," Donaldson explains. "It's so easy to enter that everyone should do it. One the other hand, if you have to write a huge essay, get letters of recommendation, fill out a complicated application, etc., then it may not be worth the investment."
  • Tip #3: Personalize each application. Instead of sending in a generic or "canned" application, spend time developing original answers. After all, scholarship committees have limited funds to work with. They want to know the students they select really care and will serve as ambassadors of their program, and your application gives them the best indication.
  • Tip #4: Build your brand. Help your application stand out by linking to a personal website. There are tons of free platforms that walk you through building a site in a couple of hours or less. Focus on showcasing your academic achievements (grades, GPA, test scores) as well as personal accomplishments (community service, volunteering, leadership roles).

Scholarship Resources

  • Cappex Create a free profile of your academic background and interests, then search a database of more than $11 billion in college scholarship money.
  • Chegg Browse over 25,000 scholarships, fill out online scholarship applications or save the opportunities that interest you, so you can return later.
  • Search scholarships in the $1.6 billion database by keyword or description and compile them in printable list.
  • FinAid Discover the ins and outs of college scholarships or search a database of more than 1.5 million scholarship awards and deadlines.
  • FindTuition Search more than 1.7 million scholarships and grants by college, major and eligibility.
  • This scholarship directory contains over 3.7 million awards from colleges, corporations and federal and state sources.
  • Scholarship Monkey Search scholarships that match your profile or keywords, or browse by category.

Getting Grants

Unlike scholarships, grants are primarily based on financial need, using the information from your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to decide whether you qualify. The one thing scholarships and grants do have in common is they don't need to be repaid unless your education is interrupted.

Most students are familiar with the four grants awarded by the U.S. Department of Education:

  • Federal Pell Grants
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG)
  • Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants
  • Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants

Additionally, students can receive grants from state governments, private organizations and nonprofits. Colleges and universities also have a limited amount of grant money to award through institutional grants.

The expert tips below can help you through the process of locating and securing grants.

  • Tip #1: Fill out the FAFSA. Completing your financial aid forms should be your first priority for getting college grants to finance your education. Start the process as early as possible after the forms are released in October every year. Due dates vary according to each institution, so check with your college.
  • Tip #2: Find state grants. While most states require you to fill out the FAFSA to apply for state grants, some states have a separate application. Contact your state's agency to get program details. Apply right away because these grants are disbursed quickly.
  • Tip #3: Visit the financial aid office. Contact your college or university financial aid office to inquire about which institutional grants are available. The financial aid office is also a great source for finding community and corporate grant programs you may have missed during your search.

Grant Resources

  • The College Grants Database Check out the guide to college grants and learn about the numerous opportunities available to fund a college education.
  • Discover how to find federal, state and non-government grants and search through lists of grants by category.
  • Register for an account, complete and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
  • Federal Student Grant Programs A printable handout containing descriptions of all the major federal student grant programs. Also contact at (800) FED-AID [(800) 433-3243] toll-free.
  • Descriptions and links to grant and scholarship programs that target college students who are women.
  • Sallie Mae: Understanding Grants for College This guide includes descriptions and links to federal education grants for U.S. citizens and international students.
  • The U.S. Armed Forces offers military college grants and other funding opportunities to current and former military members as well as their families.
  • U.S. Department of Education Find links to student grants and federal grant competitions as well as information about formula grants.

The Unconventional: Crowdsourcing and Work-Study

While it's possible to secure grants and scholarships to help pay for college, more students are recognizing how lucrative other options can be. For instance, crowdfunding has been around for decades, but it's only recently that it's being embraced as a strategy for covering the high cost of a college education. Additionally, work-study programs can be a great way for a student to put money directly into their pocket, bypassing financial aid disbursements.


Crowdsourcing has exploded in popularity over the past 20 years, becoming the “go-to” funding source for startups and charities who've discovered it's possible to raise large sums of money through small donations from many people.

Now college students are crowdfunding higher education expenses. College tuition campaigns appeal to parents, peers and others to contribute money toward a bigger pot. GoFundMe education campaigns have raised more than $60 million since 2014.

College funding expert Mark Koepsell explains why it's possible to crowdsource enough money to cover a significant portion of your college costs.

“Think of it like a wedding registry, but instead of dishes and towels you are asking for financial gifts to support your education,” he says. “Family and friends may be likely to step up to the plate to help you achieve your dream of attending college. In fact, their friends or total strangers may join in as well.”

5 Keys to Crowdsourcing Success

When you're ready to get started, consider these expert tips for maximizing your crowdsourcing success:

  • Tip #1: Build your network. “You need a strong network,” Garton says. “If a potential donor knows nothing about you, it can be challenging to overcome the issue of trust.” Students can begin to develop a network while still in high school by linking to a website, keeping a blog and engaging with followers.
  • Tip #2: Develop a Captivating Campaign. There's a lot of competition out there. What makes your story unique? Come up with a catchy title and a good call to action. Also, be clear where the money will go by including a budget that incorporates your current financial aid, grants, scholarships and work-study.
  • Tip #3: Start Low. It's easier to attract smaller donations, so create funding tiers. You may want to break down your goals into semesters. Another option is to add a wish list with smaller items such as a laptop or printer. Update the campaign often and always thank contributors along the way.
  • Tip #4: Keep it Catchy Raise the odds of going viral by making a video. “Fortunately, it does not need to be highly produced to get your request across successfully,” Garton says. Invite others to share your video by adding a hashtag. And why not share it with local news stations?
  • Tip #5: Read the fine print. Most sites automatically get a percentage of each donation. Also, it's your responsibility to pay taxes on the donations received.

Here are four of the top crowdsourcing platforms:



It's free to create a campaign through the site's college fundraising hub, and there are no deadlines. However, personal campaigns are assessed a 5 percent platform fee plus a 2.9 percent (+ $0.30) processing fee per donation. Funds don't need to be repaid. Campaigns are mobile-friendly, and there is a GoFundMe app.



People “back” crowdfunding campaigns for a wide variety of products including higher education expenses. The “InDemand” feature allows you to extend your campaign once it's funded without a deadline. The site also has a marketplace which sells items funded from successful campaigns. Indiegogo charges a 5 percent platform fee plus 3 percent (+$0.30) for third-party credit cards.



Fund any academic expense by creating a crowdfunding campaign on Razoo in minutes. An embeddable widget allows you to raise money on your personal website. Fundraising coaches are available for support. Donations are charged a 5 percent platform fee plus 2.9 percent (+$0.30) credit card fee. Charitable campaigns are charged less.



Raise money for academic expenses without paying a platform with YouCaring, because the only cost is 2.9 percent (+$0.30) for payment processing. All YouCaring campaign tools (like an easy-to-set-up template) and social media sharing tools are also free. All campaigns are optimized for mobile.


Work-study programs give eligible students the chance to earn money to pay for their college expenses. Most opportunities are on campus but there also might be a limited number of off-campus jobs available. Students may work at the computer lab, library or another facility or office, doing entry-level work including data entry, stacking books and helping visitors. Depending on your major, you may be able to get a placement as a lab or teaching assistant.

“Your position works around your class schedule and because it is on campus, you don't have to worry about transportation,” Koepsell says. “You don't even have to interview because the position simply gets assigned to you.”

Work-study programs are administered through the federal government's financial aid program. To be considered, you must have a sufficiently low Expected Family Contribution (EFC) when you submit your financial aid forms.

The money earned through work-study job isn't held against you when you apply for future aid. “The financial aid formula for 2017-2018 allows the student to earn $6,420 before it counts against them,” Donaldson says. “Add a work-study program and you can earn a pretty decent income without negatively impacting financial aid.”

4 Keys to Work-Study Success

  • Tip #1: Choose Wisely. “Pick on-campus opportunities that are related to your area of study,” Garton advises. “First, you will get the added advantage of being paid to pursue your dreams outside the classroom. Secondly, it helps build your network, giving you exposure to the professors and other staff who can serve as references for scholarships and graduate school programs.”
  • Tip #2: Don't procrastinate. Work-study is awarded on a first come, first served basis each year. If you decline it as part of a financial aid package your freshman year, it may be difficult to get an assignment after that. To apply, check the “yes” box on the FAFSA form as you're completing it.
  • Tip #3: Apply every year. Work-study jobs are not guaranteed. You must qualify each year. That means you may have a job you love, but if you don't submit your next FAFSA on time, you could lose it.
  • Tip #4: Spend wisely. While scholarships and loans are applied to your tuition, with work-study jobs, you get a paycheck. It can be tempting to spend the money on a night out or new clothes but remember: it's dedicated to your college expenses.

Spending Less, Saving More

The key to a successful financial experience in college is to maximize the money you bring in and minimize what goes out. Here are some expert strategies to get you on the right path:

Say Yes to Budgeting

Koepsell suggests asking yourself the following questions when creating a budget: How much do I need for school and to live? What can I afford? Then identify the gap and find ways to close it with scholarships, grants, loans and other avenues. Stay within your budget with one or more of the following apps:

Say Yes to Freelancing

“Freelance opportunities are wonderful for getting hands-on work experience for your resume while helping fund your college journey,” Garton says. Look for freelance data entry, writing, proofreading and other career-aligned gigs online at sites like Upwork and Freelancer.

Say Yes to a Part-Time Job

There's no such thing as having too much money to spend in college. If you don't qualify for a work-study position, bring in extra money by finding a part-time job on or off campus. Job search sites like Craigslist and SnagAJob publish part-time positions for students. Also, check with the financial aid office.

Say No to Credit Cards

“Try to stay away from putting big expenses on credit cards,” Garton warns. “Ideally, you will be paying off your balance each month, building that great credit history for the future. Pay for expensive opportunities like studying abroad through crowdfunding or a scholarship.”

Say No to Overpaying for College

Simple things, like paying down your mortgage or saving for college using a 529 plan can hurt your financial aid and cause you to overpay for college. Donaldson recommends the College Funding Kit, a free resource to assess your family finances and determine if you're in danger of paying too much for school.

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