You’ve done all the hard work: studied and earned great scores on your SAT or ACT, researched and applied to your top six schools, totally aced your college interview...and you even cleaned up your Facebook profile to make sure that your application was picture perfect.

But after getting in, you still have to figure out how to pay for it.

Well, not just you, but you and your parents. What’s that you say? Your parents can’t or won’t help with college costs? Don’t panic, here are 5 things you can do.

Fill out the FAFSA

The best first step to get a full picture of the costs you’ll ultimately be responsible for is to understand all the need-based aid you can get. In order to do that, your parents must fill out the FAFSA because the government views the family as the primary entity responsible for paying for college.

"If your parents don’t fill out the FAFSA, your access to federal aid is limited."

Need-based aid, such as a subsidized Stafford Loan, Perkins Loan, Pell Grant, or any need-based aid set aside by the college, is only accessible when your parents’ information is included in the FAFSA. If your parents don’t fill out the FAFSA, your access to federal aid is limited to items such as the unsubsidized Stafford loan. View the different types of federal loans.

Exceptions: Most students are considered “dependent.” However, if you are considered legally independent, then you will not need your parents information on the FAFSA to qualify for need-based aid. Check out this infographic to see if you might qualify as independent. You could also try for a dependency override...but those are hard to come by.

Remember: Make sure your parents know that filling out the FAFSA does not legally obligate them to help you pay for college. It only helps you qualify for aid!

Find “Free” Money

After FAFSA, what other sources of funding can you find? Start with the kind that you don’t have to pay back. Sure, this might sound like a no-brainer, but have you really considered all your options?

When it comes to paying for college, every little bit helps.

Extended Family

Even if your parents can’t help, other relatives might be able to. Find out if anyone in your family can help -- paying for your books one semester or by giving you a no-interest loan can be great options. Every little bit helps.


Sure, you might have to write another essay, but it will be worth it to help pay for your dream school. Scholarships are usually merit based, and sometimes can contain “rules” in order for you to keep receiving it. If you haven’t started looking for scholarships yet, now is the time to get started with this guide. Make sure you have these 7 items ready for your application and get Googling!

Merit Aid

Many schools offer merit aid based on academic performance. The application process is different for each school, but if you’re at the start of your college search or deciding between colleges, ask the financial aid office about merit aid available for incoming freshman.


Like scholarships, grants don’t need to be repaid, and are usually given based on need. You can search for grants from colleges, private organizations, and non-profits just like you would scholarships. Make sure to fine tune your essay writing skills, you might have to write one for your grant application too.

Remember: Whether it’s completely free or just interest-free, you should maximize the amount of gift-aid you can get.

Re-Think Loans

Yes, you should be smart and thoughtful about taking out loans to pay for college. No, you should not think all loans are bad. Remember, you did all the hard work -- and you got in! Are you ready to commit and invest in your future?

"A modest investment now can pay for itself in spades later."

 Investopedia has a thorough overview of different types of students loans -- federal and private. Set aside some time to read through this carefully since it’s a long article. Maybe invite some friends over and read it together over pizza or whatever your favorite snack food is… the more the merrier (and less cumbersome).

Remember: A bachelor’s degree can increase the amount you earn after college substantially. A modest investment in yourself now can pay for itself in spades later.

Try to Pay Your Way

It probably won’t cover everything, but even the extra income from a part-time job can go a long way to helping cover college costs. Sometimes it’s the non-tuition costs -- books, transportation, lodging, food -- that add up and can be tough to meet. You can make your college job work for you to help cover these extra expenses.

Remember: Look into federal work-study opportunities at your college. If you qualify, it’s an option you won’t want to overlook.

Make College Cost Less

There’s more than one way to your dream school. If money is the main obstacle preventing you from directly enrolling -- then find another way.

"At the end of the day, you'll graduate with the same bachelor’s degree."

One option is to consider starting your college career at a less expensive college and then transferring. Whether that less expensive option is your local community college or another college -- you’ll save on the overall cost -- and at the end of the day, graduate with the same bachelor’s degree as if you started there from day 1.

Remember: Sometimes the best way to pay for college is to make college easier to pay for in the first place. Don’t discount options to earn the same degree at half the price!

Do you know what it’s like to make college work when you’re on your own? Tell us how you did it in the comments!

Authored by Ruthana Seng

Ruthana helps high-potential students achieve their dreams. She writes about the college application process, from how to pay for college to how many schools to apply to in the first place.