A college education is one of the stalwarts of the American Dream — so the ways that it gets paid for are rife with myths.
You may have images of parents starting college savings accounts before the stork has arrived. Savings accounts that are bolstered each birthday and holiday by generous checks from friends and family. There's the even more fantastic scenario that parents are simply able to pay for college costs out-of-pocket when the bills come. Graduating from high school with your university expenses already fully covered is more and more the stuff of dreams for most college-bound students.
The average tuition at 4-year colleges is now just over $18,000 dollars a year, with many private and popular schools charging significantly more. That's a considerable amount of money for most families to come up with — especially when you multiply the figure by four, or more realistically, five or six years to earn an undergraduate degree. Most families do not have education-specific savings, but rather tap into their own retirement funds or home equity to meet these expenses. A recent study asserts that only 44 percent of families are prepared with a financial plan when the time comes for their child to begin college. Most low- to middle-income families end up using a variety of sources to fund college costs, including external loans.
With tuition costs rising every year and more and more families with scant savings for college, the extra burden often falls from parents' shoulders onto the students'. Many parents, perhaps even most, dream of sending their children to college, whether they can afford it or not. But the reality is that close to 15 percent of prospective students don't come from such willing families.
What if your parents can't or won't help?
So, what do you do if your parents can't — or won't — help pay for your college education? To receive a financial aid package (one that will likely include a variety of supports) students have to fill out a FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Most of the financial data used, however, will come from a parent or guardian’s income and assets. The application ultimately determines what is called the "estimated family contribution”, or EFC. Subsequent aid, whether from grants, scholarships, work-study, or loans, is often closely linked to that determination.
For help with all the vocabulary associated with college tuition, check this glossary of financial aid terms.
Some students may find themselves in a situation where parents are unwilling or unable to provide the information needed to complete the FAFSA; there are, in reality, many circumstances that can put students in this predicament. For example, students who live in foster care may not be in contact with their biological parents, or their parents may not be able to share the required documents with the child. Children of remarried parents may find themselves in their own quandary, with the demands and challenges of meeting the needs of blended families taxing the ability of the adults to provide what’s needed for the college applicant. Strain between divorced parents can often make it difficult — if not impossible — to work together to meet their child’s tuition needs.
In a recent high profile court case, a young woman sued her divorced parents for college tuition — and won. This case and its outcome, however, are rare. Many parents feel that the burden of cost rests with the student, not with her parents. In a recent poll, up to 15 percent of parents don't plan to contribute anything to their children's education. And many more, some 27 percent, believe that students should cover most of the costs on their own.
Can you actually pay for it yourself?
If you want to pay your way through school on your own, keep in mind that it’s extremely difficult. According to recent calculations, you would need to work 35+ hours per week just to cover your tuition. Room and board, books, fees, and other expenses can add considerably — sometimes nearly as much as tuition alone — to this burden.
Obviously, working 35+ hours per week would leave little time to focus on all those classes you're paying for. For every hour you spend in class, you can expect to spend several outside of class doing homework or preparing for seminar or lecture. Doing college right is easily a full-time job itself.
Case Study: Aimee's Story
Right out of high school, Aimee knew two things. First, she wanted to go to college, and second, her divorced parents were not planning to help her. "I decided to wait because I didn't know what I wanted to do yet," she remarks. After a few years spent working and saving what she could, she still wasn't exactly sure, "but I had to get busy or I knew I would never do it," she says.
Aimee ended up getting both a bachelor's degree and, afterwards, a master's degree in international studies. She paid for both through her own income and student loans, which she'll be paying off for at least a decade, maybe more.
It took her a lot longer to earn her degrees because she couldn't take a full course load while working: "The years that I was able to accomplish the most were the years when I let my job take a backseat. I worked cleaning houses, waiting tables, or in a pub pulling pints."
By the time she was working on her master's degree, Aimee had a "real" 9 to 5 job. "I had to fit classes around that," she remarks. "I got there in the end, but it wasn't easy."
The upside to all that hard work, both inside and outside the classroom? A strong sense of pride. Aimee states that because she was paying for college all on her own, she took her studies very seriously: "I'm so proud of my 3.99 cumulative GPA. I got one B in my entire time at university."
Obviously, paying for college yourself will be daunting. If you do it solely through loans, and what many experts consider to be a dwindling scholarship system with increasingly rare full rides, you may graduate with a mountain of debt. Working during school is do-able, but it naturally detracts from your primary focus.
So, what are your options?
First, you may want to look at less expensive college options. Consider a local community college, where you can either earn an associate's degree and enter the workforce upon graduation, or pursue a 2+2 plan (if they are available in your area) that will enable you to transfer from a 2-year to a 4-year college. You may also want to focus on in-state schools where you live, which will have lower tuition for their residents. In addition, if you are able to continue living in your home, rather than in university housing, you may be able to reduce expenses in this way. Finally, look into grant and scholarship opportunities that seek to increase enrollment of students from particular demographic groups or in certain majors if these apply to you. You can start your search for scholarships at Finaid.org.
You can legally separate your financial status from your parents'. You have a couple of possibilities for this. The first one is legal emancipation granted by a court of law.
Another possibility — although it’s rarely granted — is to apply for "independent student" status at the college or university where you've been accepted or are enrolled. A counselor or admissions officer is the first place to start, where you’ll advocate for this status and plead your case. The officer will either try to speak to your parents or grant you the status. In the latter instance, you can fill out the FAFSA using only your own information — which will likely lead to a larger financial aid package. Keep in mind that your overall package will usually include loans and work-study, as well as grants or scholarships. Moreover, only about 2 percent of students receive this kind of dependency override. You'll have to prove extreme circumstances.
Getting a college degree is a challenge even without the financial pressures. But with them, you'll probably have to work during college and hit the ground running on your loan repayments once you're done. If you go at it alone, you're likely to end up fulfilled and with a set of life skills that put you far ahead of your peers who still had financial support from their parents.
The myth of an already-paid-for education may be dwindling, but the idea that a college degree is essential — that's still very much alive.
Here are some additional resources to help guide you through your options:
- Noodle's advice pages on paying for college and financial aid, as well as their customizable college search by real cost
- Finaid.org — a guide to financial aid
- Fastweb.com — a database on scholarships with other advice
- Some advice from Bankrate
- Some more advice from CollegeData
- Stories of students paying their own way from The Daily Californian
- Options for graduating without debt from Forbes
Bidwell, A. (2014, July 31). Parents and Students Borrow Less for College. Retrieved March 17, 2015, from U.S. News.
Ellis, B. (2014, June 26). Fewer parents helping to pay for college. Retrieved March 17, 2015 from CNN Money.
Farrington, R. (2014, July 14). Parents: Stop Taking Out Loans For Your Child's College Education. Retrieved March 17, 2015 from Forbes.
Kasperkevic, J. (2014, December 10). College student wins case forcing estranged parents to pay her tuition. Retrieved March 17, 2015, from The Guardian.
Lewin, T. (2014, December 1). Most College Students Don’t Earn a Degree in 4 Years, Study Finds. Retrieved March 20, 2015 from New York Times.
Narula, S. (2014, April 1). The Myth of Working Your Way Through College. Retrieved March 17, 2015 from The Atlantic.
Pérez-Peña, R. (2014, April 12). What You Don’t Know About Financial Aid (but Should). Retrieved March 17, 2015 from New York Times.