How to Pay for College When You Didn't Get a Scholarship

Before I enrolled in college, I attended several seminars and read several books and articles on the magic of paying for your degree with scholarships. It seemed that there were so many success stories out there, and with around $46 billion of grant and scholarship money awarded each year in the U.S., I figured I could at least snag half off my college bill.

One year and over 100 applications later, I only won two local scholarships that totaled $2,500.

Sound familiar? If you feel like you can't win the scholarship game, don't despair. There are still other ways to afford your degree.

1. Ask your employer

Your place of employment could have more to offer than a paycheck. Many companies offer tuition reimbursement and employee scholarships, but sometimes you have to ask. If your company does not currently offer any tuition benefits, and you're preparing to apply for college, it may be time to switch jobs to an employer that does.

Once you graduate, also be sure to look for companies that offer tuition repayment as part of the benefits package. Many places, including UPS, Staples, and Aetna, offer this bonus to college students or grads. (See also: These 17 Companies Will Help You Repay Your Student Loan)

2. Don't forget about tax benefits

When it comes to tuition, every little bit helps. Tax credits shouldn't be overlooked. The American opportunity credit (AOC) offers student taxpayers or their parents a tax credit of up to $2,500 per tax year, for up to four years. Eligible students must be enrolled in a degree program or pursuing other credible secondary education. The AOC can either be claimed by a student, or a dependent student's parents — just not by both. And even better, the AOC was not affected by the new tax law.

3. Apply for financial aid

It is crucial to fill out the free application for federal student aid (FAFSA) each year, even if you think your parents make too much money. You never know what type of aid you will qualify for, and the application takes less than an hour to complete.

Also, submitting the FAFSA makes you eligible for federal student loans, which have more lenient payback options than private loans. (See also: 5 Reasons Why Every Student Should Fill Out the FAFSA)

4. Turn to your local community college

A community college can help you fill the requirements for many general education classes at a fraction of the cost of private or even in-state universities. As long as the credits are transferrable, a university will accept community college transcripts.

If you don't live near a community college, try taking online classes through one closest to you. Many times, you'll be able to complete the work of an online class flexibly, so you can turn in assignments late at night or early in the morning before physical classes are even in session. This could also give you more room in your schedule for a part-time job, which will help you stash even more dollars away for school. (See also: 6 Ways to Pay Less Money For A College Degree)

5. Don't use education loans or savings for anything else

Just because you have to take out a student loan doesn't mean the money should be used to float your every expense throughout your college career. Use the money only for tuition and other school necessities, like books and course materials. Live frugally for the rest of your needs and expenses. This may mean you don't get to experience dorm life to the fullest, or type your essays on a brand-new laptop, but it will be worth the sacrifice if it means taking out a smaller loan.

As a college student, I didn't have to take out student loans, but I also didn't have any money for anything else. I resorted to carpooling, living with my parents, eating homemade lunches, using the computer lab to type papers, working the 4 a.m. Starbucks shift, and borrowing textbooks from the library. It has been eight years since I graduated, and I don't regret going without because it means I don't have student loan debt. (See also: 8 Money-Saving Hacks Every College Student Should Try)

6. Research on-campus job opportunities

An on-campus job can help you pay for college and give you a few nice perks. For example, many schools offer residential advisers free room and board, as well as discounts on meal plans. Working on-campus means that you are able to squeeze work shifts in between classes, maximizing your time to the fullest.

I worked as a test proctor in college. My job was to sit in the room with nursing students and make sure no one cheated on their test. My advisers actually encouraged me to bring in my own course work and use the time to study while the test was going on. In a sense, I was paid to study, which I had to do anyway.

7. Pick the right student loan for you

Sometimes taking out a student loan to pay for college is unavoidable. If you have the choice, stick with federal to pay for your college degree rather than taking out private student loans. Many federal loans, like Direct Subsidized Loans, Direct Unsubsidized Loans, and the Federal Perkins loan, do not require you to start making loan payments until after graduation.

Also, federal student loan repayment comes with a fixed rate and there are several repayment plans available for those who cannot afford their payments. Private school loans are funded by private lenders, and borrowers do not have the same flexibility that federal borrowers have. (See also: 6 Questions to Ask Before Taking Out Student Loans)

There is no doubt about it; college is expensive. While winning several scholarships to pay for tuition is ideal, it is not a reality for everyone. Instead, wise financial decisions and the right student loan can help you afford your degree.

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