What Happens When Parents Can't (or Don't) Pay for College in Full
1. Ask Your Parents Early
Don't wait until your senior year. Start by asking early if your parents are able or willing to contribute financially to your education. If they say yes, you need to know how much they're willing to offer, either in a dollar amount or percentage of the total cost. Even though this conversation may feel uncomfortable, it's important to know how much support they can provide. The earlier you have this conversation, the better, because it will give you more time to figure out how to afford college.
"My parents sat me down toward the end of sophomore year and told me they wouldn't pay for a four-year degree," said Gwen Merz, a 26-year-old IT Specialist, recalling a conversation she had with them while in high school. "They would cover a two-year community college degree and let me live with them."
In the end, Merz elected to pursue a four-year college, even though she knew it would be entirely her responsibility to foot the bill. Fortunately, the two years' notice gave Merz plenty of time to prepare by applying for scholarships, earning college credits in high school and even joining the military. She graduated debt free from the University of Western Illinois in 2013 with about $10,000 in savings.
2. Consider Community or In-State College
Although she declined her parents' offer, Merz still used community college as a way to start earning credits before she even graduated from high school. "My parents would pay for dual credit courses through the local community college," she said, "so I took as many of those as possible and graduated from high school with 23 college credits. I also only took ones that would transfer to my university."
Merz said she saved roughly $7,000 on tuition costs with this tactic and entered college as a second semester freshman. Taking Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes in high school can yield similar results.
Students who spend their first two years at a community college - especially while living at home - and then transfer to a four-year program can also save thousands, even tens of thousands, of dollars.
In addition, when transferring, the kind of university you attend makes a big difference for your bill. In-state colleges are significantly cheaper than their private and out-of-state counterparts. According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition at an in-state community college in 2016-2017 is $3,520 while tuition at public in-state four-year programs is $9,650 and private four-year schools is $33,480.
3. Apply for All Eligible Scholarships
Merz received a full-ride scholarship for academics and some smaller scholarships throughout her four years. Still, she wishes she'd continued to scout for free money early on, as there were times during her freshman year she ran dangerously low on funds.
"There are so many competitions and contests you can join for easy money. Even $200 scholarships add up quickly when you get several," she said. Merz had a friend receive money from a competition to create the best prom dress out of duct tape.
Scholarships can be based on a variety of factors, including academic performance - like Merz's full-ride - special interests, unique backgrounds or a particular skill set. Sometimes the funds will cover the costs of your tuition bill, but may not be applied to books, supplies or living expenses. Other times you may get a one-time cash award to put toward any education expense.
The key is to keep applying for scholarships throughout your college career, not just as an incoming freshman. Check with local clubs and organizations in your community, your university's website and the Discover Student Loans free scholarship search tool.
Your state may also offer scholarships to attend an in-state school. Chad Atkinson, 36, made his college decision based on access to a state-funded scholarship.
"We were living in Newport, Rhode Island, my last year in the Navy and I knew that if I chose to go to a college in Georgia, where I went to high school, that I would be eligible for the HOPE Scholarship offered by the state," said Atkinson, who delayed his college attendance until his mid-twenties.
4. Join the Military
"At 20 I knew I wanted to eventually go to college, so I joined the Navy and spent five years on active duty," said Atkinson. He felt the years of service seemed like a reasonable trade off to graduate college debt free.
"My [job] as a Hospital Corpsman gave me a sign-on bonus of a $40,000 Navy College Fund, which actually added extra money to my GI Bill monthly payments," said Atkinson, who earned a finance degree from Kennesaw State University in 2009.
The $40,000 sign-on bonus was part of an incentive program to fill open jobs within the Navy. It served as a booster to Atkinson's regular monthly GI Bill benefits, so he received an additional $650 on top of his $2,300 monthly stipend.
Like Atkinson, Merz also saw the military as an opportunity to help pay for college.
"I joined the military before I was chosen for the full-ride scholarship," she said, "so that was essentially a part-time job while in school."
Merz received approximately $60,000 from the military during college. A sign-on bonus gave her $20,000, the GI Bill benefits netted her about $19,000, and monthly drills grossed around $10,500. The rest she earned by taking a semester off of college to attend basic training and tech school. Since Merz entered college a semester ahead, she didn't fall behind her peers.
Most branches of the military, including the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the National Guard, offer education benefits. Those include covering the full cost of tuition, loan repayment assistance and the post 9/11 GI Bill, which covers tuition and $1,000 per year for books and supplies to those who served at least 90 days active duty since September 11, 2001.
6. Take Out Student Loans
Patrick Lawlor, 25, a public affairs manager for a Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Corporation in Massachusetts, took a different financial path than Atkinson, Merz and even his own family.
"Unlike my two older brothers, I decided I wanted to go to a private college," he said. "My parents stressed that the cost would be significantly more and that I would have to help contribute."
Lawlor, who took out private student loans to pay for his education, admits it was hard to really understand the implications of that debt as an 18-year-old with his mind set on a certain school. In 2013, he graduated from Merrimack College with $75,942 in student loan debt and currently has $67,730 left to pay off.
When it came time to earn his master's degree, Lawlor didn't want to get deeper in debt. He found a job as a graduate assistant to earn his second degree for free.
Lawlor wants more people heading to college to see his experience as a lesson.
"One of the things I focus on in my current job is to try and break the stigma associated with community colleges and encourage people to make informed financial decisions," said Lawlor, who has shared his story with local legislators and even the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education. "Recognize college isn't a four-year party, but a lifelong financial decision."