What to Do When Parents Won’t Pay for College and FAFSA Won’t Provide Aid

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Updated on Wednesday, June 29, 2016

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When you’re applying for financial aid to attend college as an undergraduate, the amount of need-based aid you qualify for is usually based on your parents’ income and assets. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) calculates your expected family contribution (EFC), and individual colleges and universities then use your EFC to determine how much need-based student aid you are eligible to receive. If it is determined that your parents can reasonably cover 100% of the cost of college, you may not qualify for any need-based aid at all.

However, this process of determining need-based aid is based on the assumption that if your parents can afford to make a substantial contribution to your tuition, room, and board, they will be willing to do so.

But what if your parents simply aren’t willing to make that contribution?

If you don’t qualify for need-based aid (or only qualify for partial need-based aid) and your parents simply aren’t willing to contribute, you may feel like college is not an option. And it’s true that tuition, room, and board can be very expensive—tens of thousands of dollars per year in many cases. However, don’t give up right away. There still may be ways for you to attend college even if your parents won’t help you out financially. Here are ways to start:

1. Check the current guidelines for dependent vs. independent students

All students applying to college are considered either dependent or independent by the federal government. If you are a dependent student, your parents’ income and assets are taken into account when determining need-based aid, but if you are an independent student, only your own financial situation (and that of your spouse, if you are married) is taken into account, which means you may qualify for more need-based aid. There are several ways to qualify as an independent student, including being married, being older than a certain age, having dependent children, or being a veteran of the U.S. armed forces. The FAFSA can help you determine if you are dependent or independent. More information is also available here.

2. If you haven’t already done so, fill out the FAFSA

Even if you are a dependent student and your parents have already told you they’re not willing to contribute to college costs, you should still absolutely fill out a FAFSA. You may find that you are eligible for more aid than you think. In particular, you may have the option of taking out student loans that would help you cover the cost of college yourself, without your parents’ help. Student loans should only be taken out under careful consideration, as they can take many years to repay, but if they are the only way you are able to go to college, they may be a good option for you. 

3. Remember that need-based aid isn’t the only type of aid available

There are many merit-based scholarships and grants available that you may be able to apply for. The school(s) you’re considering attending may offer merit scholarships; check with the admissions office for details and to determine whether or not you need to submit an extra application for these awards. You can also search online for grants and scholarships that are funded by external organizations and thus can be applied to the cost of any school. Apply for as many of these grants and scholarships as possible.

4. Consider asking for help from other relatives

Is there anyone else in your family who might be willing to help you out with college costs, perhaps through a personal loan? If you do take out a personal loan from someone you know, be sure to sit down with them and draw up a written agreement about interest and repayment so there are no misunderstandings.

5. Attend a state or community college

Tuition costs vary widely from school to school, so make sure you’re considering schools at the least expensive end of the spectrum. Many state colleges offer an excellent education at a much lower cost than private schools, and community colleges in some states even offer four-year degrees.

6. Consider taking a year off to work and save money, and apply next year instead

If your parents are open to it, you might be able to live at home while working and save even more money.

7. Look into supporting yourself through college by working full-time or part-time

Carefully calculate how much it would cost you per year to attend the least expensive school possible, taking tuition, fees, books, and living expenses into account. Is there any way you could pay for this yourself, either by going to school full-time and working part-time or (more likely) by working full-time and going to school part-time?

8. Look into applying for jobs at colleges that offer free/reduced tuition to employees

Some colleges and universities allow their full-time employees to take classes for free or at a reduced cost. However, note that this may vary widely by school, and there may also be a requirement that you must work a certain number of months or years before these benefits kick in. Not having a college degree yet may also limit the number and type of jobs you are able to apply for. However, this option is worth looking into.

Combine several of the above strategies

Putting together enough money to cover the cost of college yourself can be very challenging, but you may be able to make it work through a combination of merit scholarships, personal and/or federal loans, choosing an inexpensive school, saving money before you begin, and working while you’re enrolled in classes.

Already have student loans and looking to refinance? Check out our top picks for refinancing your student loans.