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How to pay for college without going into debt

How to pay for college without going into debt

How to pay for college without going into debt

By Janet Thomas

University of Maryland University College

Is it possible to find money for college without going into debt and being bogged down with repayment obligations after college? Aid for college tuition is more accessible and easier to acquire than most people would think.  You probably qualify for more than you know. In fact, there are many places where you can find funds for college for free.  So where does someone go about looking for free money? 

Tuition Assistance, Veterans Benefits and MyCAA

Service members are used to taking advantage of Tuition Assistance available through the DoD services or their Veterans Benefits.  Eligible spouses can apply for MyCAA benefits, up to $4000.00, to cover the cost of courses leading to licenses, certificates, certifications or associate degrees.  Service members and veterans can utilize their Post-9/11 GI Bill® or transfer the benefits to their spouses or their dependent children.

However, what happens when Tuition Assistance funds are frozen — as it was during the last two government shutdowns — or when Tuition Assistance funds run out.  Many service members were left scrambling to apply for emergency funds available at some colleges and universities, or at other military-affiliated organizations, or turned to banks for private loans.  What options are available to service members and veterans when tuition assistance or veteran benefits are not available?

Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

The first place to look is at the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.  The FAFSA will provide you with a snapshot of all available federal financial aid funds in the form of grants and loans. There are many misconceptions such as once you complete the FAFSA you are obligated to accept the loans, completing the FAFSA is too complicated to fill out, it requires too much personal information, most people will not qualify for funds from free sources, and so forth. Yes, the FAFSA form does require some nominal time to complete. However, equipped with a copy of your tax forms from two years prior, you can fill out the FAFSA form very quickly.  

The benefit from completing the FAFSA is that it provides colleges and universities with a snapshot of your financial aid eligibility which opens the doors to opportunities for free money for college. It never hurts to get an idea of what your options are upfront.  Once you receive your award notification from your school, you will have an idea of what you qualify for and can select the funds “a la carte” by accepting the grants and scholarships and forgoing the loans.  Loans should always be your last choice.

Over two billion dollars in available Pell Grant funds went unclaimed during the 2018-19 academic year.  Grants available through the Department of Education Federal Student Aid program include:

Since cost of living and housing allowances for military service members are not reported on the FAFSA and are not considered additional income, lower-ranking service members may qualify for grants.  Higher-ranking service members with family members may also qualify for additional funding.  Whatever the reason you have for NOT filling out the FAFSA form, think again!  Filling out the FAFSA form is the easiest step!  Learn more about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, scholarships and grants at https://studentaid.ed.gov

State scholarships

The second place, in addition to the FAFSA, is to look at your State Higher Education website.  There, you may find “Need-Based” grants, Legislative scholarships, and other available grants and scholarships offered by your state.  Please note that many states have their own military service scholarships which are not “need-based.”

Institutional Aid

Each school has different criteria for making their scholarships and grants available to students.  Some institutions may match you up with available grants or scholarships upon submitting the FAFSA.  Others are identified after you have been matriculated.  Institutional scholarships and grants are awarded based on three criteria: need, merit or a combination of both. Some institutional scholarships may be renewable.

Do your own search

Doing your own search will require the most time. You can browse specific scholarship web pages or use a Scholarship search engine. There are several reputable scholarship search engines you may want to take advantage of and will match you up with available scholarships.  Some are free and others are fee-based. Free scholarship search engines can be found at College Board’s Scholarship Search (https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/scholarship-search), Fastweb.com, Cappex.com, Scholarship.com and ScholarshipAmerica.com.

Tips for doing your own search:

  • Search from the bottom of the page up or scroll down to the last page on the search results.  Scholarship opportunities that pop up first are the ones people most frequently apply for.  Your odds of landing a scholarship may be greater if you apply for one of the ones people see less.
  • Search for scholarships for students pursuing specific degree programs such as STEM or Art programs.
  • Search unique scholarships such as those for left-handed people, people with natural red hair color, creating a greeting card, a special talent, and there’s even one just for being a fan of Star Trek (STARFLEET).  The sky’s the limit!

Private scholarships

Check out the webpages of Fortune 500 companies, private foundations and public charities to see if they offer any scholarships or grants.  Companies include Coca Cola, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Walmart, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation also offer scholarship and grant opportunities for students. 

Military-affiliated and Veteran grants and scholarships

If you are a service member, a veteran, a spouse or other family member, you may be eligible to apply for one of the many military-affiliated grants or scholarships like the ones below:

Check their websites for more information.  You may even find scholarships and grants being offered locally at Civic Clubs and Community Organizations.


Before clicking on a link or signing up for a fee-based scholarship search engine, remember to do your research!  There are many phony websites and emails promising scholarships and grants requiring fees upfront prior to completing an application. This is a BIG RED FLAG!  The FAFSA is free, as are many scholarship search engines. Never provide any form of payment or disclose financial information in order to obtain a scholarship or grant.  Do not click on any links sent to you in an email.  When in doubt, type in the website directly and find a number to call them back or check the Better Business Bureau for possible known scams. 

There are plenty of opportunities out there to help you fund your education.  All it takes is just a little bit of time and willingness to put forth some effort.