For some prospective college students, taking out student loans is a breeze. When you have a supportive parent there to explain the fine print and co-sign on the dotted line, all you really have to do is fill out some paperwork.
But not everyone is so lucky. Even students without the support of their parents need access to student loans – often more than their peers, who may have their educations partially funded by Mom and Dad.
So for applicants in this situation, what are the available options? Read below to find out.
Fill out the FAFSA
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the application that determines how much you qualify for in federal student loans. Colleges also use your FAFSA information to decide how much additional aid you qualify for, such as university-specific grants and scholarships based on your family’s income.
You can fill out the FAFSA as a dependent student receiving parental support or as an independent student. If you’re an independent student, your parents’ income information won’t be used to decide the financial aid package.
The federal government has strict rules about who counts as an independent student. Generally, you need to be at least 24 years old, married, applying for graduate school, a veteran, supporting dependents of your own or legally emancipated from your family. You can find a full list of qualifications here. If you’re an 18 year-old straight out of high school, you’re not likely to be eligible.
If you don’t count as an independent student, you should still fill out the FAFSA. When you get to the FAFSA portion that asks about your parent’s income, you’ll have to ask them to provide that information. If they refuse to tell you, you can designate on the form that you don’t have access to your parent’s financial information.
Each individual college is responsible for deciding which federal loans you qualify for. When you fill out and submit the FAFSA, it’s sent to all the colleges you applied to. They reserve the right to decide whether to give you a federal loan or not.
After you submit the FAFSA, contact the financial aid departments for those universities and explain your situation. If possible, ask your parents to write a letter stating that they aren’t providing you any financial support.
It’s best to contact the college before you receive your financial aid letter. By the time you discover that you didn’t qualify for anything, it might be too late to re-submit the application.
If you do receive federal student loans, they’ll likely be unsubsidized loans carrying a higher interest rate. You can receive a maximum of $57,000 total, so that amount needs to last you for all four years. If you run out or need another year, you’ll have to look for private funds.
Apply for Private Student Loans
If you don’t receive enough money in federal aid, your next option is to apply for a student loan through a private lender. The snag here is that many private lenders require a co-signer, which usually means a parent. A co-signer is someone who will take over your student loan if you stop making payments.
Some lenders may approve your application without a co-signer if you have a job or a high credit score. Funding University is a lender that never asks for a cosigner. You can be approved for $3,000 to $10,000 per academic year. This may be enough if you’re going to an in-state public university, but likely won’t cover the costs of a private college.
Other lenders that may be less likely to require a co-signer include LendKey, Citizens Bank and College Ave. If you have an account at a bank or credit union, you can also try contacting them.
If you can’t get approved, see if there’s an adult in your life who would be willing to co-sign, like a grandparent, aunt, uncle or close family friend. Remember that co-signing can have serious consequences for the co-signers credit score, so it’s not a small favor to ask.
Other Tips to Save on College
If you’re going to college without your parent’s financial support, you need to be more mindful of how much you’ll be paying. Here are some ways to minimize how much you need to borrow:
Go to Community College
Community college can be a great starting point if you’re worried about paying for college by yourself. According to the College Board, a year at community college costs an average of $3,440 a year, while an in-state public university costs $9,410.
Take your basic classes at a community college and transfer those credits to an in-state public university. You can often knock out two year’s worth of credits at a community college for less than half the price of a four-year institution.
Before you start taking community college classes, make sure those credits will be applicable to the state school you want to attend. Not all courses transfer equally, and it would be a waste of money if you discover this after the fact.
Apply for Scholarships
As a student without parental support, you should be more motivated to apply for scholarships and grants. No matter how small a scholarship is, you should still apply for it. Even $500 could be enough to buy all your textbooks for a semester.
If possible, try to note in your applications that you’re not receiving financial support from your parents. Ask your high school guidance counselor to write a letter verifying this.
Take a Gap Year
A gap year can be a good way to build your credit score, get some life experience and save money for college. It can also help you decide what you want to study – and if going to college is really the right choice at all.
If you do still want to attend college, focus on improving your credit score. A good credit score can raise your chances of getting a private student loan with a lower interest rate.
You can find your credit score for free through the Mint app. If you have a low or nonexistent score, try applying for a secured credit card.
A secured card requires a small deposit to act as collateral, usually between $75 and $200, that will act as your credit limit. Pay off your credit card on-time every month and spend less than 30% of the credit limit. When you use a secured card successfully, your credit score will increase over time.