A survey by Fidelity found that 37 percent of high school parents have not started saving for their child’s college education. If you’re in that boat, higher education may seem well out of reach, with a four-year degree averaging over $40,000 for tuition and fees alone.

However, for those without savings, a college degree is still attainable. By maximizing financial aid opportunities, pursuing alternative degree options and working with your university, you could save thousands.

Paying for college by the numbers

According to studies from College Board and Fidelity:

  • In the 2020-21 academic year, undergraduates and graduates received a combined total of $138.6 billion in grant aid.
  • Institutional financial aid has been on the rise, with $71.1 billion awarded to students in 2020-21.
  • In 2020-21, grants accounted for 64 percent of undergraduates’ total college funding and 32 percent of graduates’ total college funding.
  • Institutional grant aid has increased by 62 percent from the 2010-11 academic year to 2020-21.
  • About 50 percent of high school parents expect their child to receive grants and scholarships, and 63 percent have started saving for their child’s higher education.
  • Around half of students and parents expect to take on debt for college.

What are the alternatives to college?

Many students who don’t have savings opt for community college, which is significantly less expensive than traditional four-year options. College Board found that the average cost of tuition and fees in 2021-22 is just $3,800 for community colleges, as opposed to $10,740 for in-state universities and $27,560 for out-of-state universities.

Online programs can also be an affordable option, since you won’t have to pay ancillary fees associated with on-campus amenities. Choosing a community college or online program, even for the first few years of your degree, can give you time to build up some savings or cover a larger portion of your expenses through grants and scholarships.

Many students also choose to delay their education altogether, taking a gap year or two to work a full-time job and build up a college fund. There’s nothing wrong with this approach; entering the workforce after high school may put you in a better spot financially, and it could help you decide which career path and which major you’d like to pursue.

Financial safety schools

Students should apply to multiple schools, not just their first choice. When applying, diversify your application pool with “safety,” “moderate” and “reach” schools. Safety schools are the institutions that you could easily afford, moderate schools may put a bit of strain on your finances and reach schools are the ones that, with no aid, wouldn’t be financially viable.

A good rule of thumb is to apply for two to three schools within each category. Each school you’re accepted to will send you a custom financial aid package listing the net cost after scholarships, grants, loans and work-study are accounted for. From there, you can better judge which school you can afford.

While a safety school may not be your first choice, it’s necessary to consider every option, especially if your college-specific savings isn’t built up. Applying for multiple financial safety schools ensures that if an unexpected financial situation were to occur, or if you receive less financial aid than you expected, a college education would still be viable.

How to pay for college with no money saved

Paying for school if you don’t have money saved will take a little more work, but it is possible. Start with these tips to lower your financial obligation.

Negotiate with your school

If you didn’t receive as much financial aid as you anticipated, you can negotiate with your school. For students who have recently undergone big financial changes, appealing the decision with your school’s financial aid office is the first step. It’s rare for a financial aid appeal to be approved; however, if you’ve experienced major financial upheaval like divorce or medical expenses since submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), or if you have a significant gap in your aid between two similar schools, you may have a case.

If you don’t meet the specifications for an appeal, contact the aid office to see what other options you have. You can ask to be put on a tuition payment plan, which breaks up the cost of tuition into several installments — typically spread out over a year.

Apply for scholarships and grants

Scholarships and grants are one way to put money in your pocket if you don’t have college savings. Federal grants, like the Pell Grant and the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG), are given to students who demonstrate financial need based on information submitted through the FAFSA. You may also qualify for state or institutional grants.

Scholarships are another common type of aid. Scholarships come in a variety of forms, from academic scholarships that require essays and transcripts to extracurricular-based awards that may require video submissions or interviews.

Because many scholarships come from private organizations, you can use a scholarship search engine to filter through the thousands of offerings and apply only for the ones that you qualify for. You should also contact your financial aid office to see if there are institutional scholarships you can stack with private awards.

Request work-study

Federal work-study is a need-based program that gives students part-time job opportunities — typically on campus — to help cut tuition and academic costs. These jobs are university-affiliated, are limited to 20 hours a week and pay at least the minimum wage.

Work-study eligibility is based on factors like your family size, income and financial history. Like other forms of federal aid, work-study jobs are based on your FAFSA information; your school’s financial aid department will determine your eligibility.

Take out student loans

Student loans should be a last resort after other financial aid has been used, but many students do borrow money for college. Students can choose among two categories: federal and private student loans.

Federal student loans are administered by the U.S. Department of Education. Undergraduates have access to two types: Direct Subsidized and Direct Unsubsidized Loans. Subsidized loans are need-based and don’t accrue interest until after the grace period is over, while unsubsidized loans accrue interest immediately. Neither type of loan checks your credit, and both open the door to several unique repayment options and forgiveness opportunities.

Unlike federal student loans, private student loans from banks and credit unions can typically cover the full cost of your attendance, and they may be a cheaper option if you or your co-signer have good credit. But with strict eligibility requirements and fewer borrower protections, these loans are usually explored only after students have borrowed the maximum amount from the federal government.

Borrowing too much through student loans is a common mistake; by overextending their borrowing, students risk high monthly payments after graduating and thousands of dollars in interest charges. As a rule of thumb, borrow only as much as you need to cover the academic costs after accounting for scholarships and grants, and maximize federal loans before applying for private.

Cut expenses

As a student, there are several ways to cut costs. Room and board and amenity fees can add thousands of dollars per year to your total cost of attendance, so living in a low-cost apartment off-campus or living with family or friends is a good way to bring those monthly charges down.

You can also apply to become a resident advisor (RA) as soon as your sophomore year. RAs are often high-achieving undergraduates who are given responsibility over the general safety and well-being of residents within on-campus housing. RAs are often granted free room and board and, depending on the school, can also be paid a monthly stipend.

The bottom line

Don’t let the cost of college overshadow your desire for a higher education; there are plenty of funds available in the form of grants, scholarships, work-study and student loans. If going to college is high on your priority list but you haven’t started saving, take advantage of every award, application or opportunity to lower the cost. You can also take a gap year or attend community college to start your education.

Learn more: