7 Exceedingly Smart Ways to Pay For College Without Loans

Taking out student loans really should not be your first option to pay for your education. Honestly, I say take it off the table. You can finance your college in so many better different ways! 

A college graduate speaking at her commencement ceremony
Photography: University of Maryland

My readers know my story. I had no idea how I would afford college during my senior year of high school. My mom and I were so stressed nearly every day. One month before I graduated, she received a pamphlet in the mail about scholarships for recent grads to attend a local community college. I didn’t want to go. I worked so hard in high school, that I just wanted to go off to a four-year university like all my other classmates. I also just didn’t know much about community college at the time. 

My mom convinced me to just apply and to take the placement test to see what happens. It was one of my best decisions

I ended up getting the full-tuition scholarship (which also covered my books and fees for two years) and I went on to receive another full-ride scholarship when I transferred to the University of Maryland. 

That’s an abbreviated story of course. To pay for everything, I also applied for smaller scholarships, worked different jobs, etc.

I’ve spoken to many students about how they’ve paid for college over the years. Though there are non-traditional routes to pay for college like donating your eggs (which I was fully considering in my senior year of high school) or participating in medical studies, this post focuses on ways the majority of students can attend college debt-free. Let me know in the comments if you find any of these ideas helpful!

This post is all about how to pay for college without loans.

1. Earning college credit through AP text scores

Advanced Placement (AP) classes not only have the ability to boost your G.P.A. but they also give you college credit if you do well on the AP exam. When I was in my junior and senior years in high school, I took a total of four AP classes. However, I knew plenty of classmates who packed their schedules with AP classes. For me, I just wanted to boost my overall grade point average because the classes were weighted more and I thought it looked good for college applications (which it does). 

When I was preparing for one of my exams, I learned a hack that I don’t think many students know about. You don’t actually have to take the AP class to get AP credit! 

That’s right. If you study for the exam well enough and think you can master the material, then you can sit for the exam without ever having to take the course. Some students I know did this just to see if they could earn the college credit. 

  • Note: If you aren’t enrolled in the class, your school may require you to pay an examination fee. However, I think it’s completely worth it if you can earn 3-4 college credits in the long run. 

I was able to test out of my college freshman year English class because I scored well on the AP Language exam. This strategy works.

2. Work for a company with tuition reimbursement

I know there’s a work-for-yourself movement happening, especially in online spaces, where influencers are encouraging people to be self-employed. This post definitely doesn’t knock that but there’s a great benefit in working for a company that will pay for your education. And there are plenty of organizations that offer some type of tuition assistance. 

It’s truly a gift when you can earn a salary, an employee discount, and receive money for college. Here’s a few I found that would be perfect for university students:

  • Panda Express 

Panda Express associates not only can get a 401k (with a 4% match!) but their Learning Benefit Program offers eligible associates up to $525 for approved courses and books. They also offer a Scholarship Program for qualifying associates that will cover up to 80% of tuition, for a maximum of $2,500 per year.

  • Starbucks

Baristas and store managers that work at least 20 hours per week and have not earned an undergraduate degree are eligible for Starbucks’ College Achievement Plan. The Seattle-based company has committed to pay 100%  tuition coverage for a first-time bachelor’s degree through Arizona State University’s online program. There are six Arizona State University start dates every year, so you don’t need to wait until Fall to apply. They also offer over 100 degree programs.

  • Chick-fil-a

In 2021, Chick-fil-a invested $19 million in their employee’s education, according to their company’s statement. Nearly 7,500 restaurant workers were awarded college scholarships. In the past, scholarship amounts ranged from $2,500 to $25,000. What’s great about this scholarship is that the money is given upfront and there is no requirement of hours worked or length of service to qualify.

  • Gap, Inc.

Gap, Inc., which includes other retailers such as Old Navy, Banana Republic, and Athleta, offers up to $5,000 per year in tuition assistance to employees looking to develop or advance their skills related to their jobs. The money can also go towards books and fees.

A college graduate with former Gov. of Maryland Martin O'Malley at the University of Maryland
Photography: University of Maryland

3. Apply for low competition scholarships

This blog is 50% about providing scholarship information, so of course, I included it in this list! You do not need to be a star student to receive college scholarships. You really just need to apply. 

In 2021, The National Scholarship Providers Association (NSPA) reported that over the past decade, the number of scholarships awarded has increased by over 45%. Yet, an estimated $100 million in scholarship money still goes unawarded each year because of a lack of applicants. 

Although I received two major full-tuition scholarships, I also applied for and won smaller scholarships. I truly believe I won these scholarships because I was the only one to apply for them.

Here are three tips for applying to scholarships:

  • Hitting scholarship deadlines is one of the most important parts. Make a plan and challenge yourself to apply to at least 2-3 scholarships a month (even if you are already in college). 
  • For the average or slightly above average student (with B and C averages) it’s not worth your time applying for huge, well-known scholarships. You will pay for college faster if your strategy is to apply for scholarships that total lesser amounts.
  • Not all schools list every scholarship. After you’ve decided on a school, contact organizations within the school directly. This could mean emailing the Black Student Union, environmental clubs, alumni associations to discover institutional scholarships.

Here’s a sample email you could write an organization. Remember to make it your own.

Hello [insert name of organization],

My name is [insert name] and I’m an incoming student for the Class of [insert year you will graduate]. As a first-generation [insert demographic information] I’m honored to be attending [college name]. I’ve worked tirelessly in high school to earn good grades and to participate in [add in a couple of organizations you are a part of]. Currently, my financial aid package will only cover a portion of my tuition to attend. Does your organization offer any scholarships for incoming or current students to apply for? 

Thank you for your consideration,

[Your name]

If you have an educational resume or portfolio be sure to provide an attachment or link in your email. 

I know it can be overwhelming searching for scholarships, writing essays, and possibly doing scholarship interviews. Here are a few popular scholarship posts I’ve written. 

Related scholarship posts:

4. Ask for tuition donations

Raising money online for college tuition is becoming increasingly popular. In the same way, you might ask a family member for a specific gift for Christmas, you can ask for help to contribute to your education. I know this method isn’t for everyone but I’ve personally seen it work for several students. 

Crowdfunding is a way to ask for money for a cause and people contribute usually through a designated website. The most well-known site to crowdfund on is GoFundMe

To be successful when asking for tuition donations you need to write a compelling (and moving) story for potential donors to read. The majority of the money you receive will most likely come from family and friends, however, there’s been a few instances where your page could go viral.

Some tuition crowdfunding tips:

  • Discuss your motivations and aspirations for attending college. Emphasize how obtaining your degree will help your community and family at-large.
  • Describe the ways you’ve tried to fund your education. Have you held a part-time job, have you received any scholarships, etc?
  • Be very descriptive when telling your personal story and heavily proofread your page. Use a service like Grammarly to catch any grammar mistakes or ask someone to look over it. 
  • Share your donation link far and wide to your network.
An African-American woman at her college graduation on stage with former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and former University of Maryland President Wallace Loh.
Photography: University of Maryland

5. Participate in ROTC and join the military to attend college for free

I’m a proud military brat so yes, I am biased towards this one. The military may seem too rigid to some but when you step back and look at all the benefits the military has to offer, you may have a different outlook.

For students interested in high-cost degrees in the medical or law fields, then the military could be an excellent option to offset or completely avoid student loan debt.

Each branch of the military has different educational programs. Current students should look to join their school’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program. The scholarships provide full tuition, fees, and give a monthly stipend to cover other expenses to college students. 

Note: ROTC scholarships require a commitment to participate in training during the school year and typically require you to enroll as an officer after graduation.

 For current active duty members, the military pays for your entire tuition and associated fees. This excellent video from CNBC’s Make It features a dentist in San Diego who got her entire dental school paid for by the U.S. Navy. It’s truly inspiring.

6. Attend community college for free

In the U.S. 1 out of 4 students attend a community college. As you read in my intro paragraph, I was one of them! The tuition at my community college was covered through scholarships, but did you know that as of 2022, 19 states offer some kind of free community college to their residents. This post I found explains more in-depth. 

Some states have certain requirements and qualifications to attend college for free such as studying a science or tech field. However, many others offer two-year degrees to almost anyone. In 2019 the state of Maryland, for example, set aside $15 million to help low- and middle-income students attend community college full-time through their Promise program. 

I’m a huge advocate for attending community college and I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t gone to my two-year college first.

7. Apply for non-federal grants

If you are reading this post then you are most likely familiar with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA). It’s a form you must complete each year to be considered for federal grants, state aid, and work-study programs. The issue I find with FASFA is that it takes your parent(s) income and determines how much you are supposed to pay out of pocket. Many families end up struggling to pay for tuition based on this and turn to taking out loans. 

Federal grants, such as the Pell grant, are fantastic to pay for your tuition but not every student receives it. Try reaching out and applying to state grants to fund your education. Grants are given out based on financial-need and state agencies may have different criteria in how they calculate their grant money. Go to this website and select your state to see which agency to contact. 

I hope you found these suggestions helpful. If you are interested in more information about paying for college without taking out student loans and scholarship advice, be sure to sign up for my newsletter.

This post was all about how to pay for college without loans.

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