How to pay for your kids’ college without spending a cent


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As a parent, you want your children to have as many choices as possible in life — and a college degree can help open up many social and professional opportunities.

Paying for college, however, may not be possible, especially if you have more than one child. Retirement, mortgages and maybe even student debt of your own might prevent you from paying for your child’s higher education.

But how can parents pay for college without going broke? Fortunately, there are ways to assist with those college bills without spending all your hard-earned retirement.

Having an honest discussion with your kids about how you can help is an important first step. And there are some great ways to help pay for college without actually putting much — or any — money on the table, according to parents and college graduates.


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1. Help your child fill out the FAFSA

One of the first steps your child should take when applying for schools is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This will let your child access federal financial aid that can be used to fund their college education.

Unfortunately, the process can be complicated. Helping your child fill out the form correctly can ensure they’ll get the most money (from grants to federal loans) possible. That’s what Jaime Leon and his wife did for both of their children who went to private colleges.

“When FAFSA time came, it was a parent-child team effort,” said Leon. “I can’t see how a high schooler by themselves could get through that. We guided them when they received their financial aid/loan offers and helped them to understand the bigger picture of how much they would owe at the end.”

Although the Leons did help pay for some tuition costs after their children brought home good grades, filling out the FAFSA helped cover the bulk of the costs.

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2. Help your child choose a major that will lead to a high-paying job

Parents often have the experience and knowledge to help guide a child’s interests and choice of college to make sure a pricey education is worth it. That’s what Nathaniel Turner did for his son when they were researching potential majors and schools.

“My son’s academic experiences were specifically structured so he would choose a major with an exceptional return on investment (ROI),” said Turner. “He also selected the university whose degree offered the highest ROI.”

To do this, Turner went through a series of guiding steps with his son:

  • Tailored his academic development around meeting the qualifications of the top institutions
  • Projected college costs for the types of universities he wanted to attend
  • Stayed abreast of employment trends via sources like the World Economic Forum and PayScale
  • Visited U.S. News & World Report to examine things such as average graduate salaries, EPS (endowment per student) and four-year graduation rates
  • Had his son apply to college and universities that reported the highest four-year graduation rates for African American male engineers
  • Helped him open an IRA when he started his first job, so he would also know the value of long-term financial goals

Instead of wondering, “Should parents pay for college tuition?” help your child find a well-paying job upon graduation to pay off any student loan debt they incur along the way.

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3. Help your child get a paid internship, side hustle or part-time job

There’s a reason summer jobs are a thing; they help your kids make their own money to pay for their own stuff.

Well, the same holds true while your child is in college, too. Having your child earn an income while they’re still in school is one way for them to help pay for college. Having a small amount of earned income could help them cover fees, books or give them spending money.

Although your child will be the one applying for jobs, you can certainly help guide them on how to get a job. This could include:

  • Reviewing how to craft a resume
  • Doing mock interviews before your child meets with an employer
  • Help them do research on the potential job
  • Put them in touch with your friends and family who might be hiring students

Even as a college student, your child could look into ways to put money toward tuition by working.

  • Getting an on-campus job, such as tutoring or working in the library
  • Stacking their school schedule with classes on certain days so that they can work on others
  • Taking on a side hustle, such as becoming a DoorDash Dasher or tutoring

Even better, you could encourage your child to get a paid internship. “My parents encouraged me to get a paying internship while in school,” said Gabriel Kirshtein. “This was great because I got credit for school, real-world experience and started making money to help pay back my student loans. The internship even helped me land a full-time job when I graduated.”

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4. Help your child earn college credits while in high school

Just because your child isn’t in college yet doesn’t mean they can’t start earning university credits. One way to do this is by taking AP exams and earning a high score. Your child can send those scores to your university or college (once you are accepted) and they may help you earn credits. Of course, this means outlying some cash, but taking AP exams could save you money in the long run.

Each AP exam costs $94 to take and $32 for low-income, eligible students. The exams are scored from one to five, and many colleges will give credit for scores of three or higher.

But AP exams aren’t the only way your child can earn college credits in high school. They can secure some credits through the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) and a dual-enrollment program.

Having more credits before even setting foot on campus also means your child could graduate early and save more on housing, food, and overall tuition costs.

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5. Help your child navigate private student loans

Although applying for federal aid and scholarships should be the first line of defense when looking for ways to pay for college, your child still might have a gap in financial coverage. Your kids could take out a personal loan or private school loan, but it might be difficult for them. So, do most parents pay for college then? Well, not exactly. Parents still have the option of cosigning their child’s private student loans.

Unlike federal student loans, which are issued and regulated by the government, private student loans are issued by independent lenders. That means their criteria for who can qualify for a loan is based on things such as a credit score and income.

Many college students might not meet those requirements and therefore need a parent cosigner to qualify for the loan or to potentially receive a better interest rate.

Cosigning can help your child get the money they need to pay for school without requiring you to spend any money upfront.

On the flip side, although your child is responsible for paying back the loan, you are on the hook if they can’t pay. Before cosigning a loan, it’s important to talk to your child about how the repayment process will work and the importance of staying on top of payments, so you’re not stuck paying back the loan later on.

Your lender might offer a cosigner release once your child makes a certain number of payments. This would relieve you of that burden and is something you should talk about with potential lenders and your child before signing off on any loan.

Need a student loan?

Check out our top picks below or learn more about other ways to pay for college.

Maya Dollarhide contributed to this report.

Editorial note: This content is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the financial institution.

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Image Credit: Deposit Photos.