Eight tips to afford college with fewer to no loans

Written by

Claudia Rojas


March 9, 2018


Tips to afford college

The first year of college can be so expensive that many students end up questioning whether they can finish or looking for tips to afford college expenses. At least, that was my experience. And given numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), thousands of students face the same challenges. From 2014 to 2015, the National Center for Education Statistics found that retention rates from public colleges fell anywhere from 62% to 96% with similar to lower rates at private colleges.

Today, I wonder at the speed of senior year and the days ahead, free of student loans. Yes, the dream is possible: graduating without student loans. When it comes to matters of finances, it’s a matter of life style changes. Be savvy and consider these following tips:

1. Study the financial aid package

Attending college in-state or out-of-state is a decision best guided by the prospect of graduating from that college. Study the financial aid package. Understand that some fees such as books and travel costs aren’t included in the award.

The financial world is a confusing world. Learn the loan lingo. If you aren’t sure about something, speak with a high school or college counselor. Without guidance, a student can accumulate massive debt or drop-out of college. If you’re lost looking at those numbers and awards, know that according to The Hechinger Report, student bafflement with the financial aid letter is typical, especially for low-income or first-generation students.

Once you understand what the college is offering, you can make a game plan. You will likely renew the FAFSA application every school year, so if there are some student loans in your offer, calculate what that will mean in the long-term. Read the fine print and don’t accept anything until you have a solid understanding of the total cost of attendance.

2. Be a part-time student

There is an incredible push to be a full-time student and graduate in 4 years. This isn’t practical for every student. Full-time status often means you have less time to take on a job, more strain to complete coursework fast, and less energy. The full-time student doesn’t have much room to make mistakes. If you fail a course, you have to repeat it. If you’re not ready for a class, you’ll need to take pre-requisite classes. Meanwhile, your textbook expenses will go up.

The benefit of a part-time status is that you can dedicate more time to a class, so you get things right the first time. Don’t worry about financial aid—you are still eligible as a part-time student. Discover other financial aid myths here at College Mouse. Additionally, part-time students are better equipped to take on a job.

3. Manage and maximize your time

Effective time-management means more time to do what truly matters, save money! Time-management doesn’t mean that every minute of your day is calculated. It doesn’t mean you won’t have time to breathe. In fact, it means the opposite: you’ll have extra time in the day for yourself.

Colleges often offer time-management workshops if you aren’t sure how to start. Another way is learn from a classmate, the one who always seems to be on top of things. With a quick Google search, you’ll also find several must have phone apps. Business Insider recommends 12 phone apps that will help with everything from taking better notes to citing articles faster.

Looking for career advice? Choosing a college or career is one of the most important decisions you will ever make. Make sure you get all the help you need. Go to the College Mouse career directory to find a career counselor near you.

Or sign up for our upcoming Keys to Career Success course. We will walk you through the steps you need to follow as you chart your career journey – from how to narrow your career options, choose a college major and decide where to study, all the way to how to plan your job search, switch careers, and position yourself for your dream job. Click here to sign up

4. Find work that matters

According to NPR, today’s average job won’t cover all college expenses. It’s tough but finding work is still an ideal way to pay for college. At first you might be tempted to send your resume anywhere. Instead, research companies and job titles that suit your major and fit into your career goals. Take your resume to your college’s career center. Read College Mouse’s Job Search Tips for resume samples and interview preparation.

Internships are a great place to start, too, and if you persist, you are likely to find a paid internship. If all else fails, research retail and customer service jobs with companies that you admire. It’s in these places that you will gather strong professional recommendations and have a long-term college job.

5. Buy smart, buy used

Shop at thrift stores, where a dollar can be stretched. Be on the look-out for sales and shop during a holiday. Need a car? Buy used. Need a lawn mower? Buy used, or better, borrow one! College isn’t about being stingy with money; it’s about seeing the bigger picture, seeing where the money you spend right now will end up two to five years from now.

Most importantly, shop used textbooks or rental textbooks. Students who shop early will find used and rental books at their college bookstore. If the bookstore doesn’t work out, and often it won’t, take advantage of online booksellers or purchase from a student. You should know now Amazon is one of the biggest providers for college books, and they also offer a Prime Student discount.

6. Take community college classes

Most high schools also offer dual enrollment and AP courses for college credit. These courses won’t enhance students’ GPA; they will simply transfer over to their college transcript. It’s a good idea to maximize the college classes you take in high school: for the money and the experience.

There are also several lower-level classes offered by community colleges. Plan ahead and save on tuition. Speak with a college counselor and figure out what college courses will transfer over to your college. Learn more about community college classes at U.S. News.

7. Don’t quit on the scholarship search

There are outside scholarships available year round to students regardless of their year in college. It’s not going to be easy to land a scholarship or two on your first try; that’s why you keep trying. Get organized. Keep track of your applications. Read the requirements carefully and submit your best work.

Don’t give up on scholarships at your school either. New scholarships may open in the future, so it doesn’t hurt to check every now and then. Let your network know about your search and increase the chances of finding the scholarship meant for you.  Check out our scholarships page for over 200 scholarships you can apply to.

If you have a special talent, keep your eyes open for weird scholarships or contests. While free money is expensive for an organization, the layer of fun in such scholarships is priceless for all parties involved.

8. Consider taking an online degree course

Most colleges now offer online degree options that are, often times, considerably cheaper than full-time residential or even part-time options. And the quality is very much on par. In fact, for many colleges the curriculum is exactly the same. The only thing you miss out is the experience of living on campus and interacting with fellow college students on a day-to-day basis. But when you consider the savings, an online degree may well be worth it. 

Good luck!

As an immigrant student, I was limited by financial resources. I didn’t have a choice but to get crafty. Part-time status was the only way I could afford school. In no time I discovered that unlike my peers, who were juggling 18 credits in a semester, I was in a position to tutor these classmates or organize study groups. In the end, my impatience to graduate wore down. There is so much to gain from being in college: knowledge, job experience, and social networks. Make the best use of these days.


Written by:  Claudia Rojas

Claudia Rojas is a freelance writer and a poet with a Bachelor’s in English from George Mason University. She is a proud first generation college student. Claudia’s poetry appears in The Acentos Review, Poetry is Dead, and The Bookends Review.

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