Paying For College: The Broke Family’s 2-Step Guide

If you’re reading this blog, there’s a damned fine chance you’re in the same spot as Amia: you’re ready to go to college, except you’re broke and so is your family, so paying for college is a giant question mark. And even if “broke” isn’t exactly the right word, you still don’t have anywhere near the kind of cash lying around that your college expects you to pony up.

Heh! Just finished reading your old article on minority scholarships and how difficult it is to get a scholarship when you’re a middle-class non-minority, you have debt, blahblahblah (insert whining here.)

I'm running out of images to convey the whole "I'm broke" angle.

Yes, the minority scholarships post was quite the polarizing article, it seems. But you know what they say, any publicity is good publicity.

Not gonna lie, I find the complaints amusing. But that’s beside the point.

I’m a minority, and I live in a city that’s the southern hick version of the suburb Edward Scissorhands lived in. I have a job, my parents are both workaholics (a trait I developed), and we’re up to our eyebrows in debt. Hospital bills, a house that’s slowly crumbling, thieving/jealous relatives, and needy, broke, but loving grandparents have all but sucked us dry.

Wow….at least you have a job, I guess?

Not to mention I’ve got a little brother and sister not too far from graduating high school themselves.

With all that said…my university is great, but they offered me pennies in FinAid, FAFSA apparently thinks we’re strapped, and my parents can’t help me or they’ll literally end up in dire straits trying to support me.

We’re already struggling as it is. I’ve had to buy my family dinner out of necessity, not for a treat. I’ve also had to loan my mom most of the money I had set aside when I was an infant [chemical spill settlement fund that turned out to be…not that much.]
I haven’t gotten a single response from the scholarships I applied for, Sallie Mae turned me down (yay, credit scores!), and my current minimum wage job would barely be able to cover my medication and other cost of living stuff.

That’s all pretty rotten, agreed, except for the part about the feds thinking you’re strapped. I hope that means you have the full complement of federal financial aid available to you? More on that in a second.

As if this weren’t enough, I found out my Communication Design major might take 5 years to finish.

Try to finish in four. 🙂

Oh, and I can’t drive. No money for classes, no money for a license, no money for a car.

How much does a license cost? You may want to spring for the $20 for a license. Maybe you could make some side cash designated-driving for your drunken college friends. On the bright side, at least you won’t have to pay for a car, insurance, gas, upkeep, etc. (You know, if there’s a bright side here).

My college doesn’t allow freshmen to commute, either. So I HAVE to pay for housing.

…any ideas on paying for college and how to make it in 4 years without graduating when I’m 40, putting my family in the poorhouse, or selling my blood to make cash?

Yes, but first, about that blood thing — I actually sold plasma for an entire year to make ends meet when I started my Google advertising agency back in 2001. It’s actually not that bad of a gig if you’ve got some spare time on your hands. You get $20-$30 for sitting in a comfortable chair and watching some terrible new release on DVD and eating sugar cookies.

Do I move out early, homesickness aside, and try to see what declaring independent gets me?

No — it won’t help. You can’t just declare yourself independent, unfortunately. You’re going to be considered a dependent student even if your parents aren’t contributing to your education.

I’m 18, female, and my dad’s a cop. He’s a bit on the protective side. [Okay, more than a bit.] What do I do?

Well, let me summarize this for the folks reading at home: You’re broke and your family’s broke, but you still have big college costs to cover and you don’t see how you’re going to do it. That’s bad.

The good (sort of), however, is that you’re in the same boat as a couple million other college students, so it’s not a new problem, and we’ve figured out some ways to alleviate the costs. You might not like them all, mind you, but they’re here.

1) Go to community college your first two years of school. If you’ve heard it from me once, you’ve heard it 100 times, probably. But that’s because it’s good advice.

In short: wherever you go to school, your first two years of college are going to be spent fulfilling general-education requirements. Those courses are basically the same at community colleges as they are at four-year schools and they usually transfer without any problems — but they cost a fraction of what you’ll pay at a four-year school. So you slash your tuition over the first couple of years by doing that.

Also with community colleges, you don’t have that housing requirement sucking an extra few thousand annual dollars out of your pocket, either. So if you have a community college nearby, you can live at home and save tons of money. Not to mention how pleased Officer Dad will be to have his baby girl laying her head down to sleep a couple rooms over instead of out there who-knows-where in the cruel world. 🙂

I don’t know where you live, but I’m guessing you live somewhere near a community college (everyone seems to). Take the tuition cut plus the absence of room-and-board, and you’re looking at saving at least $20,000 over the first two years, if not closer to $30,000.

2) Use student loans. Yes, it’s better to NOT use student loans if you can avoid it, of course, because debt sucks and it’s good to minimize it. But it doesn’t sound like you have a lot of other options.

And you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in the majority — most students need loans to get through school because, like you, they and/or their parents just don’t have enough liquid cash sitting around to plunk down $15-$50K per year on college.

I’m assuming you didn’t get any federal grant money (Pell Grants, FSEOG grants) since you didn’t mention it. So let’s look at loans. Stafford Loans alone will allow you $5,500 your freshman year ($3,500 subsidized and $2,000 unsubsidized).

Stafford Loans are yours, unsecured (meaning you don’t have to put up any collateral), without regard to your credit. And the rates are low, and the repayment period is extremely flexible.

You won’t get that deal ever again in your life. It’s a special, one-of-a-kind deal for — well, for students and families that are broke but still want to send someone to college.

The Stafford maximum should probably cover all annual expenses at a community college, period, for each of the first two years.

That, Amia, is my best and final answer.

— OK, but what about you guys? Got any non-community college angles for Amia about how she can save money? Let us know in the comments below.

30 thoughts on “Paying For College: The Broke Family’s 2-Step Guide”

  1. Kelly Caracciolo

    Hi Amia,
    Even if there isn’t a community college near you, you can try the route I did.
    I live outside of the US, in the Caribbean, to be exact, Trinidad & Tobago and I always wanted an American Education. My mom is the sole breadwinner, because my dad has cancer and nearly died, twice. Most, if not all our finances went to sending him for chemotherapy years ago and medicine now.
    I applied to SUNY Plattsburgh and got accepted with a partial scholarship, but it still wasn’t enough. I decided to try online studies. I just recently graduated with my A.S. Degree in Business Administration, all online. Seeing that you are a U.S. citizen, you will get charged even less than I was, so my advice, give that a try, save up your money, and you’ll be fine.

  2. Katrina Simons

    Be careful with the community college stuff. It can definitely save a lot of money, but if you already have a specific major at a specific school picked out, make sure to check that courses at another school will transfer. If your major has very specific classes to your school, you could consider taking online/community college classes in the summer to speed things up and graduate in 4 years. It might seem hard to find the money to take classes year round, but if its that or a 5th year, it would probably be cheaper. Also, apply for as many scholarships as you can think of. The more specific they are, the better. If there is anything through your parents’ work, or if they are part of unions, that’s a good place to start. Also, many credit unions have scholarships if you have an account with them, so that is someplace to consider. If you only apply for the really big name scholarships that get a million applicants, your chances of receiving one is one in a million. Good luck!!

  3. Amia,

    The only advice I have for you on this matter (and mind you it has nothing to do with costs really) is be careful what classes you take at a community college. You should look into the classes and make sure they transfer to whatever university you want to go to as an acceptable credit. There should be an online site where you can see and compare course equivalencies from community colleges and certain universities. Otherwise, you’ll basically have wasted a few years and even more money. I wish you the best of luck!

  4. Amia, I was extremely close to being in your position. My parents filed for bankruptcy two years ago so their credit is 0, my mom had been doing whatever tutoring job she could find, and my dad couldn’t seem to hold a job for longer than a few months. Lucky for me, I really had busted my butt in high school and came out with 3.8 GPA. My good grades got me your basic dean’s scholarship at most universities, but it still meant 10,000+ in loans(something I am deathly afraid of) and I was really hesitant. Lucky for me, the one college I had written off(based on my friend’s biased opinion, NEVER do that) I eventually applied to in February. Arizona State offered me their Barack Obama Scholar Program for up to 4 years, meaning they found me enough scholarships and grants to cover my tuition(around $5,000 as I’m in-state) AND my room, meal plan, and any other costs. Why? Because my parents make under $60,000, my good GPA, and I live in Arizona. Now I’m looking at no loans(thank the lord) and a work-study job to cover the extra $2,000(easy, right?). So I’m not saying everyone gets that lucky, but I am saying it’s possible. You really have to be optimistic, I wouldn’t take loans for an answer and look, I didn’t have to. Now I have what feels like a full-ride at a school that’s near home(meaning I can still pitch in and help my family when they need it). So Amia, weigh your options. CC is a great one, like Judge Josh said, as is looking at your state’s public universities. But if that’s too much like settling for you, then go the loan route and really bust your butt to find scholarships your sophomore year. Good luck!

  5. I agree with going to community college. It can really slash down the cost, a lot. Especially if the university you’re going to go to isn’t a state college or is an out-of-state university. However, as some others have said already, check with the university to see what classes would transfer. Some universities are very lax about what they’ll allow while others are far more strict. Contacting the university advisors would certainly be a good idea.

    Also, I don’t know what state you’re in or whether you’re going to stay in that same state, but I do know that some states, such as Oregon, have a transfer degree you can get at a community college that will transfer completely to any college in that state.

  6. I am in the same predicament as you Amia, I am currently a rising sophomore in college. The only difference is that I attend an out-of-state school, which I fell in LOVE with my freshman year. This year however, I do NOT have the funds to pay 37K a year to attend. I am now considering staying out a semester to work and take a few classes at the local community college. I really don’t want to go that route, but you have to do what you have to do. I love my school and I will not consider transferring unless I absolutely have to. I believe that working to save up should give me the funds to pay off school until my junior year. I intended to work this summer but could not receive any type of employment. I am proud to know that I am not alone in this matter. It is very upsetting and frustrating to know that you cannot attend a certain school just because of costs. I hope that whatever you decide to do, works out. I wish you the best and please know and understand that you are not alone. If you want email me at, we can chat about our situation together! 🙂

  7. Heh, her situation sounds just a bit like mine would’ve been when I graduated high school two years ago. I did thankfully go to community college and I was given enough grants and FA from the school to where I don’t have to pay anything out of pocket.

    Although I kinda feel her on the not driving thing. She said she can’t afford the classes. That means she doesn’t know how to drive now (I don’t think anyways…) and, sadly, I’m in that same boat, lol!

    But anywho, I really do suggest looking into the community college. It’s saved my bank account a million times over and it’s a nice feeling knowing I’ve dodged the loan sharks for a few years at least ^_^

  8. Actually, licenses can be VERY expensive. We haven’t been able to get one for my husband since we moved to our Massachusetts a year ago. They’re $100 at best. The goal here is to stop college students from declaring residency by making it too costly to get the license, and you need a license to declare residency.

  9. I wanted to just give some advice on where to look for additional scholarships. If your dad is a cop, there are a lot of scholarships for children/dependents of police officers. I know this because I am a cop, and while looking for scholarships for me I found them. Too bad there are none for us that actually are still in the field… I hope you have better luck than me, I am 40k in at the completion of my bachelors, and just signed 20k for the first year of grad school. …

    Also if your dad is a member of a union, (I am with Texas Municipal Police Association) they almost always have scholarships. The bad part is this years awards are probably all given out, but check for next year. Good luck.

  10. I am in the same boat. I did the community college angle plus I took as many CLEP & DANTES Tests as I could for the core curriculum, even if the community college didn’t give me full credit for the class (3 credits rather than 6 for some tests) the university I transferred to did give me full credit for the test. These tests can be paid for with your financial aid & cost between $70-$100, saved me $100s.

  11. Parent PLUS loans are probably out of the question. However, if your parents can apply for the Parent PLUS loan and be denied for it, you are eligible to take out more in Unsubsidized/Subsidized student loans. (It’s a pretty big chunk–$4000-5000, if I’m not mistaken?)

    To cut down on loans after graduation even more, consider teaching in an underprivileged area (Teach for America) or doing Americorps/Peace Corps. You can get letters of support for forbearance, stipends to go towards tuition/repaying loans and/or part of your loans are forgiven for participating in the program.

    Yes, driver’s licenses are expensive, but if you end up commuting to CC (if you can’t invest in a bus pass!) then it could be necessary. If you go to a school that has them, consider doing a car-sharing service like Zipcar if you manage to score an internship or something and the bus isn’t gonna cut it (like in LA! boo Metro). It’s $35/year + whatever the hourly rate is for your car (~$7-9), which includes gas and everything. You don’t need insurance but you DO need a license. At my school, a good number of the work-study jobs are under the student-run nighttime escort service and they pay EXTREMELY well. (Something to consider!)

    Since your dad is a cop (making him a city/county?/state? employee), you might be eligible for more sweet scholarships that way. Check with his department perhaps?

    Don’t stop looking, and don’t give up! Best of luck!!!! We’re rooting for you!

  12. Helo Amia!.
    I am going to be very brief, because i’m sorta in a rush.
    Before giving you any advice, it would have been helpful if you have given us more info to work with, but this is my advice knowing that at least you have a job. The idea of going to a community college is good, and if you work at least 3 days a week, you could totally save enough for college. That’s how I do it, I go to a 4 yr college, and pay my school on my own. Of course, it includes some sacrifices (well, I don’t know what type of life are you used to, but by “sacrifices” i mean not buying clothing unless you really need to, using prepaid phone cards instead of a real plan, making your own food instead of eating outside…. for me is ok, idk about you thou). Thing is, if you can manage your money properly, you can pay your college cuz you have a job.
    Well, good luck, and be more optimistic, rmmbr: when you are at the lowest point of the hole, the only thing left to do is to climb up.

  13. Hey Amia,

    As the others have stated, community college is the way to go, it’s saved me a boatload of money rather than going to university. My suggestion is to search for a work study at the community college – could be manning the sign in desk at the college’s gym to doing basic office grunt work. Colleges usually have job openings. I might also add, they usually pay a lot better per hour and you get an ton of cash to go towards paying off college as well. Work Studies for the win.

    Another Suggestion I have is this – Make friends, lots of friends in both billing, Financial Aid, Student Life etc (at both colleges). The more friends you have, the more advice and help they are able to get you because they know exactly what your situation is. It works in Businesses – it also works in Real Life.

    Check to make sure classes transfer correctly – at least twice by at least two different people at regular intervals while your at the community college to make sure the requirements for the transfers are still the same.

    If you can get away with a online class at the 4 year college and get away with starting to transfer classes over as soon as you have done them, I would suggest giving it a go. As long as you are ok with online classes. (Take only classes that aren’t transferable).

  14. It kind of sounds like my situation. My parents made too much money, but were indebted up to or near their eyebrows. FAFSA wasn’t going to take care of a dime of my education. I had no money set aside, and my grades weren’t hot enough for academic scholarships. So I waited until I was 24.

    In the meantime, I learned to cook, and became very good at it. By the end of that 7 years, I was a classically trained executive chef, making an embarrassing amount of money. But I never wanted to do it in the first place. As soon as I turned 24, I left and started school. Because I’m independent, the government gives me enough money that I don’t have to work, and I can just focus on school. And seven years in the kitchen has given me the discipline and work ethic that I need to truly succeed in college.

  15. Try your local Lions club and see if they offering scholarships. BTW…I only wish I could give blood for money again. They don’t offer that out here where I live now but I did it when I was younger. I would gladly trade in sitting around waiting to be called to give blood for the effort I have to put in at the hot kitchen I work at. I would actually earn more per hour giving blood.

  16. Like everyone else has said make sure you explore ALL of your options. I also have no money to pay for college, so I was allready going the Community College Route. But, once I was all ready to go I was sent my financial aid package and did not have anywhere near enough money to attend. I REALLY didn’t want to take out loans my first semester if I could help it. Going to the community college closest to me and commuting isn’t an option because they do not offer the classes that I need to become a music educator. What I am doing now is living with a family member near another community college. So I still get the cheaper classes and don’t have to pay for the housing.

  17. Have your parents apply for the parent plus loan,
    If they get dennied ( bc of bad credit) your fin aid office will have to offer you a couple thousand more dollars in fed loans!

  18. If your heart is set on that particular college, talk to your advisor about commuting. An associate from work who is a single mom had two issues: 1) religious convictions about living away from home and 2) she couldn’t afford to pay for her daughter to live in the dorms. They worked it out by going through the channels: advisor, supervisor to the dean of admissions. Since they weren’t giving her any money (she had an outside scholarship) they made the exception. Ask and be determined, all they can say is yes or no.

    You may not be able to do anything about it for this year, but start checking in October for scholarships for your second year. Some schools have changed when they offer aid and have accelerated the deadlines, so check early for next year once your school begins. Also stop by the fin aid office to check on things, some of the small scholarships don’t get posted online and your particular school may have it’s own departmental scholarships not posted on the general scholarships page (School of Visual Arts will have art scholarships). I hope you succeed!

  19. Another thing that may keep you from staying broke is to stop telling yourself that. Things can always get worse and when you look at your life in comparison to the world average lives of people our age verses what you think the standard of living is supposed to be, you’ll notice that college is a privilege, not a necessity, and the fact that you can even try to go, that you have a job and the ability to buy your family dinner is a blessing.
    Telling yourself that you and your family are hopelessly poor (or work addicted, or are being used by other friends and family members) is unproductive, though we all do it a little and if you needed to this is the forum for it. I do think that changing your attitude about money and abundance in your life will make it easier for you to get out of debt, save, and progress in the long run. If you ever want to have a life without debt and financial struggle, you will have to have the ability to imagine yourself in that position first. Good luck to you!
    p.s. the most rich people who became so in their lifetime, typically will stay they trusted themselves, they followed their passions, and they worked like dogs for it. Sounds like your already working… all you need is trust and clear sight of where you want to go in life.

  20. I am invariably interested in somebody to trade articles with, I am a college student and possess a web log here on our campus web site. The topic of this blog and writting design and style would go great in some of my category’s, tell me should you be up for this.

  21. Amia,

    When I turned 19 years old I was already a mother to a 8 month old baby boy. I decided to go back to school. Planning a school was difficult for it had to be a school nearby. Many university I apply to denied me because of my high school back ground so instead I decided a community college was the best choice. It cost a lot less, and my commune time from the school to my house was only 30 minutes. Also the classes are much smaller than a university and you get more attention from your professors. I already graduated with a degree in honors and got accepted to a university nearby (the same one that rejected me back in high school) because of my academic accomplishment. I have to say going back to school was the second best choice I made- my first best choice ofcourse is having my son.

  22. First off, I love reading these posts! I am working toward my associates degree in Registered Nursing. I like the community college system and recommend it from experience. BUT: Go to counseling first and find aid IN PERSON, and set an ed plan (this is very important and will help you avoid my mistake: too many units).

    Second and even more important to those under 24 who are not getting support:
    You can file paperwork with your school to get the aid you need, by declaring yourself an Independent Student. I found out about this one at a find aid class that they used to make you take, and I’m glad they did. It was one of these 4 hour seminars for a half unit, and they run down all the options to pay for school. The Q & A hit home for me, as I stopped attending school due to lack of fin aid after 2 years of working on an art degree. Now going back 12 years later, I find out that I didn’t have to stop attending! I moved out of my Dad’s place after my 18th bday. That’s the moment that my status changed, but it could be argued that it started sooner, as my costs of education have always been paid by my work outside of school. If I had had that simple information: THERE IS A FORM! I could have become a starving artist, instead of a starving student. OK, bad example. That’s why I said I have too many units. All my art, history, and philosophy, and newspaper production, etc = humanities, and I only needed 3 units! But for me, this is the way it had to happen, I suppose. I should have stuck with my first choice major, Nursing.

    One last thing about working in an under-served area to pay back loans: I think that it’s a win-win. I get my loans paid back, I get to get to the community, and get paid/experience and hopefully make a difference. That’s the kind of job you get “for now” and end up retiring with a nice plaque or something…

    Oh, and good luck whatever you decide!

  23. Are there states that REQUIRE driving classes in order to get a license? I always assumed that a parent took you out to empty parking lots or back roads in the family grocery-getter to let you practice, and then you take the test in said grocery-getter. The cost of getting a license shouldn’t be too much, the getting of the car and insurance and tag fee is what will really cost ya’.

  24. When I went off to college (2008) my parents supported my decision, but they were not able to give me any financial assistance whatsoever. I come from a low income family to start with, and my parents have a lot of debt to boot. (Plus, my mom doesn’t work so its a one income home.) I go to a private school that runs about $30,000 per year, and a lot of my friends will be graduating with $100,000 or more in debt. I will be graduation in May (a year early) with $8000 in debt! Here is how I cut costs….
    1. Apply for scholarships! This can’t be emphasized enough. Don’t get discouraged and quit when you aren’t seeing results…in all my years of applying (dozens and dozens of applications…) I only got one or two scholarships per year. But it totaled thousands in the end. And definitely look into scholarships related to what your parents do….I got a few based on my dad’s occupation, and I know there are good ones out there for children of officers.
    2. My second and third years of living in the dorms I applied for Residence Life. I got to be an RA, which looks excellent on resumes, and I got free room, which is over $4000 at my school. (I wasn’t allowed to live off campus due to age policies, but this made up for it nicely!)
    3. Summer class. Sure its nice to think of laying on the beach or working a job and getting away from classes, but if you wanna get out in a timely manner you should really utilize this!
    4. CLEP tests. A lot of colleges will accept up to 32 credits through this testing program ( to learn more…search for CLEP on the website). The tests cost about $85 and typically you’ll get about 4 credits. I complete 4 of these for 16 credits…pretty much a whole semester for a couple hundred dollars!
    5. Get a job. If you work 15-20 hours a week you can usually keep your head above water!
    Good luck!! Hannah

  25. Definitely follow Josh’s advice. BUT… meet with an advisor at the school you hope to attend after Community College and find out EXACTLY what to take in your comm. college. Some comm colleges even have transfer degrees that will flow perfectly into a specific 4 year college. I am doing this right now and it does require some planning and leg work, but it’s worth it because I know my credits will ALL transfer. No wasted money or time!

    Good luck!

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