How do people pay for a Bsc without taking massive loans? Is there enough time in a waking day to both study and financially support yourself with a job that is relevant to your field of study? Is it possible to 'slow down' the degree to allow more work hours?

EDIT: In the united states, as a person with barely any savings.

  • 9
    Not going to happen, online degree programs are the future for a large variety of reasons and this is one of them. Jun 13, 2021 at 14:51
  • Why do you think they do? (Not take loans) Jun 13, 2021 at 15:34
  • 4
    What do you mean @AzorAhai-him-
    – Anonymir
    Jun 13, 2021 at 15:37
  • 3
    I worked a job and did my undergraduate degree online and am now doing a PhD. This worked because the online degree only had one-third of the tuition fees (so I effectively just paid them upfront from my salary as I went along) and in terms of study, you can choose when you want to study.
    – Tom
    Jun 13, 2021 at 23:07
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    @Anonymir I believe Azor is referring to this line of your question: "How do people pay for a Bsc without taking massive loans?". I believe he is contending that most people pursuing a Bsc do have to take out massive loans and that you are perhaps assuming that this isn't the route most people take.
    – Tyberius
    Jun 14, 2021 at 17:05

8 Answers 8


The question seems to ignore other kinds of financial aid that can make it possible for a student to complete a degree with minimal or no loan debt. Some sources of non-loan financial aid to consider are:

  1. Federal Pell Grants.

  2. State scholarship programs. Several states have scholarship programs that cover the cost of tuition for residents. For example, the New Mexico Lottery Scholarship pays 100% of tuition for New Mexico high school graduates at public institutions.

  3. Institutional financial aid. Many colleges and universities have scholarship programs that can provide more help.

An important consideration is the cost of tuition in various states and at various institutions within a state. You could be in a state with high tuition costs, but you should check.

Also, public community college tuition is usually much lower than tuition at four-year colleges. Thus one way to save money is to start at a community college and transfer to a four-year institution after two years.

Until you've considered all of these factors, you really shouldn't jump to the conclusion that you can't afford to go to college.

  • 1
    +1 I'd suggesting modifying the format to include attending an in-state public college and starting out in a public community college as #4 and #5. Those two items may very well allow steps 1, 2, & 3 to pay for much (or all) of the costs. Jun 14, 2021 at 15:28
  • It's worth noting that these programs can reduce the tuition cost close to zero, but rarely cover any substantial amount of cost of living. Jun 14, 2021 at 19:21
  • @KevinArlin here in New Mexico, the Pell Grant and institutional financial aid is on top of the lottery scholarship (that covers 100% of tuition) In some cases, this can even exceed the FAFSA expected contribution. Jun 14, 2021 at 19:27
  • @MichaelRichardson How does going to public colleges allow steps 1,2,3?
    – Anonymir
    Jun 15, 2021 at 15:42
  • @Anonymir It isn't required for those steps, but going to public college makes it much more likely that steps 1,2,3 will fully pay for college. Private (and out-of-state) colleges and universities tend to be more expensive. Jun 15, 2021 at 16:15

If you can land a part time job that pays about $60,000-$80,000/year it would be possible, but few exist and fewer young people would be qualified for them. If you can land a fully paid scholarship and can live extremely modestly, or with family, it might be possible. If you have a well paid spouse and an established residence it might be possible. If you can spend ten years or so as a part time student it would be possible, though work would be pretty much full time. If you can go without sleep for four years it might be possible (provided you live through it).

Jobs that are "relevant to study" are hard to obtain for most undergraduates.

There are a few (very few) other possibilities, but generally it is no longer possible to manage this.

While loans may be necessary, there are a few strategies to minimize them. First, of course, is to avoid predatory lenders.

You can possibly continue to live at home, supported by parents while attending a local community college for two years. Some of these are excellent for the low level courses. Some have highly qualified faculty, but qualified as teachers, not researchers.

You can attend a state university rather than a private one, though, some private colleges will have scholarships available that make the cost difference quite low. Sadly, even state university tuition is far too high and reflects poorly on the priorities of legislators.

You can have a part time job, but something that pays more than minimum wage. If you have certain skills, such as programming, you might be able to find something. And with a job, you will need to carefully manage time so that you meet your main goals. And don't neglect your health. Get enough rest and enough exercise to maintain balance.

Some campus jobs may be better than outside jobs. Some might come with tuition reduction. Some might come with housing in a residence hall.

Avoid expensive habits of all kinds.

People laugh when I suggest that you don't ignore the "rich uncle" option. Maybe someone in your family thinks highly enough of you and has the resources to provide some support.

  • 9
    Sadly, yes. But try to make other arrangements so that you can limit the total loan balance. And lobby congress and your state legislature for a better way to fund the future.
    – Buffy
    Jun 13, 2021 at 11:25
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    Citizen, lived my life abroad
    – Anonymir
    Jun 13, 2021 at 12:34
  • 1
    Wonderfully said.
    – Anonymir
    Jun 13, 2021 at 13:48
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    Universities don't need more funding, they need costs cut. I can think of a ton of ways to do it. Jun 13, 2021 at 16:02
  • 1
    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore., yes, thanks. Don't know how that one slipped by. Fixed.
    – Buffy
    Jun 14, 2021 at 14:50

Scholarships have higher rates of return than jobs

If you're able to get good scholarships through keeping your grades up, it can be way more lucrative than a job. If it takes you 10 hours to apply to 10 scholarships and you only get one worth $1000, you just made $100/hour. If you spend 100 hours (2 and a half weeks full time pay) at a similar ratio, you'll get $10,000 in scholarships. Many scholarships are renewable, so you can keep getting that money through college and not have to apply each year.

I went to college in 2012, was fortunate enough to get a full ride freshman year through ROTC. But I dropped ROTC, so I lost the scholarship. Thankfully, I had good enough grades that I applied for a bunch of smaller departmental scholarships and earned enough to pay for tuition & fees in 1-10k increments for all 3 remaining years of college. Most scholarships at the university (not country wide) are only applied for by a handful of students. Often times a department will have like $5000 worth of scholarships available and only 10 or so students apply.

If you happen to be a minority or interested in niche areas, there are scholarships that only have a handful of people who can apply. I applied for a scholarship meant for secondary education majors who wanted to coach sports. Surely only 3 or 4 people in my entire college applied for that scholarship.

  • 3
    Definitely apply for everything. I know of one anecdote of a young lady making it her job to apply for scholarships between her junior and senior years of high school. The number I recall is that she applied for 1,000 scholarships. She ended up not getting the vast majority of them, but still ended up with enough rewards to pay for her entire four years. Jun 14, 2021 at 15:36
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    As one counter-point though (and possibly counter intuitive), I believe there was a study that showed the grades of those students who had some kind of job while attending school, tended to have higher grades that those who did not have a job. Jun 14, 2021 at 15:36
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    It could be a correlation/causation thing. I imagine people who have someone else bankrolling them and don't need a job are probably more likely to flunk out, because they're not financially responsible for their education. Someone with a job knows just how expensive it is. I imagine if one views one's job as getting/maintaining scholarships, you're also more likely to have good grades. Jun 14, 2021 at 16:03

In the US at universities with competitive admissions (e.g. state flagships, prominent SLACs, ivies, etc.) the expectation is that college is paid for by parents, grants, and loans, with student jobs paying a relatively minor role (typically enough to pay for books and spending money). In particular, if your family income is in the bottom half of US incomes and you get into a competitive university, a very large proportion of your tuition, room, and board is covered by "need-based financial aid." To give two examples, at the state flagship that I work at, people with family income between $30K-$70K typically graduate with $16.5K in debt (quite below what the "sticker price" for 4 years is), while at the Ivy I went to for college if you make under $65K/year then college (including room and board) is completely free. Of course, there are important caveats to this, most notably students with rich parents who are bad at finances, students with families to pay for, families with substantial non-liquid assets, etc. I don't know the situation at other universities (including 2-year universities) as well, so I won't try to comment on them.

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    Graduating with 16k in debt doesn't sound half bad, sign me up. what if i am moving to the US alone and have no family there?
    – Anonymir
    Jun 13, 2021 at 16:43
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    There's a separate "Formula B" for calculating expected contribution for independent students (including anyone born between Jan 1 1998). Whether you're eligible for financial aid depends on your immigration status (in addition to citizens and permanent residents, this includes refugees, immigrants from Cuba, and some other categories). But again, generally if you are an eligible resident, have a low income, and get into a school with competitive admissions, the cost to you will be much smaller than the "sticker price." Jun 13, 2021 at 19:09
  • 3
    @Anonymir since you are moving, you can as well move to a country with a better suited education market or policy. Like, say, a random country in the EU where you can study a lot cheaper or even nominally for free with comparable results.
    – fraxinus
    Jun 14, 2021 at 10:13
  • I am not an EU citizen but i am a US citizen. I definitely would've picked Europe if i could
    – Anonymir
    Jun 14, 2021 at 10:42
  • 2
    @Anonymir In France (and some other EU countries), your nationality (even from outside the EU) does not impact your tuition fees at university, they remain essentially equal to zero. Jun 14, 2021 at 11:20

As someone who graduated debt-free from a private undergraduate institution with a STEM major, I would like to add a couple points. Some of these options are case-specific, others are more generally accessible.

Of course, scholarships, scholarships, scholarships. While these are very important and what you will need to spend a large amount of time applying for, it is still not guaranteed you will get all the scholarships you need. The options for applying to scholarships via the different colleges you applied to have already been well-addressed in the great answers above. However, there are some scholarships online you can apply to. These are small and hard to get, but it could be worth it. Small scholarships that are easier to get are local ones in your hometown, businesses or organizations wanting to support students in their local community. In addition to hunting up scholarships, there are a few things that are almost entirely under your control that you can do to reduce the amount of money you spend on a college education that are not as well known as they should be.

  1. This only applies if you are still in high school: Running Start or ACE programs provide high school students the opportunity to take college courses at a hugely discounted price, one that is not unreasonable to pay for out of pocket. These are available to homeschool as well as traditional high school students, can be done through the high school or through the college itself depending on the programs available in your area. You generally don't have to meet any other requirements other than to have the necessary prerequisites (e.g., to take calculus you will need to have had pre-calc).
  2. CLEP tests: depending on what college you go to, if you can study the material on your own and test out via CollegeBoard CLEP tests, you can get many of your general requirements out of the way. I know someone who tested out of 30 credits with their undergraduate institution this way; that was basically an entire year of college out of the way for them and instead of costing the annual sticker price to go to college and take those classes, it cost a few hundred dollars.
  3. Taking GenEd requirements at a community college; depending on what you want to major in/how transferable the credits are, you can do a lot of your general requirements at a local community college for way cheaper and just transfer the credits. You have to be aware of what does and does not transfer to your target college(s). (Note as mentioned above this can also be done with online school. Some colleges actually have online programs specifically for this reason. Some colleges actually partner with local community colleges with an agreed upon set of classes that are transferable, helping students save money.)
  4. Live off-campus. Many colleges charge way more for room and board than you would pay if you lived in town and bought groceries at the store. I think the trade off here is: do you want to have the convenience of living on campus and pay more debt off later, or can you get a job now and pay rent month to month (if possible sublet in the summer if it is okay with your landlord). Upperclassmen often do this in the last year or two of college. Be careful, though, some colleges require one to live on campus for the first year or the first 2-3 years.
  5. (Hard to do and very rare) If you are required to take a course by the university but you know much of the material already, you can petition the university to take a test administered by the professor of the course. If you pass it, you pass and get credit for the course. This is more of an uphill battle than just taking the CLEP test route, but it's something you can try.

A late late edit: I just discovered that you can apply to so called "work colleges." There are about ten of them around the country and they require that all students participate in work-study programs. In exchange, tuition is free. I believe most, if not all, of them are religious-based, though, so if that is a factor in your decision you should be aware of this fact. The acceptance rates, though, are very low (for obvious reasons).


Many schools nowadays offer substantial need-based scholarships. My alma mater (an Ivy-level school), for example, offers full ride need based scholarships to any student who shows no ability to pay (of course, parental help is assumed if they're able to by the federal standards, so this doesn't necessarily help students who have parents able but unwilling to pay) and even includes room and board and books for those with very low family incomes (and assets). This is becoming more common from top schools - who don't want to lose any students that should be there, and have extremely substantial endowments. And that's a full ride with no loans!

If you're in that tier of college, don't assume you won't be able to go there without massive loans, and don't be too scared off by the price tag (my alma mater is over 50k/year for undergrad, just tuition!) - that price tag is meant for the rich, not for the rest of us. Apply to where you want, and then talk to admissions and financial aid after to figure out what you will need to pay. Odds are if you're a strong candidate, they'll do everything they can to help you attend.


I worked my way through my BS in engineering without taking any loans. I had $1000 in support from my family total for the course of my degree, other than that I did not have any scholarships (as a total idiot, I missed the application deadline for the full-ride scholarship I qualified for, and I don't qualify for identity-based scholarships).

I started at a community college and took a job that was basically just answering phones so that I could do homework while I worked. My state has pretty low tuition rates, so I could pay for tuition by working full time through the summer and part-time during the school year (~20 hours). I transferred to a four-year school with low tuition rates. Once in my program, I got a job doing undergraduate research, which paid better and was more in line with future prospects. Any kind of skilled labor you can do to pay your way also helps make the math work out easier. I had friends who would do door-to-door sales through the summers and that would pay for everything (they were good at it).

I lived in the cheapest housing I could find, and never ate out. I would budget meals to find the absolute cheapest ingredients I could buy (lots of potatoes/rice), and cooked everything myself. It could be really stressful to manage everything. I almost had to take a loan a couple of times.

I graduated in 2015.

For some people, this is an option that works. I don't recommend it for everyone, though. My standard of living was pretty low, and my grades definitely suffered from working through school. If you have to decide between work and a degree that will pay for itself, go for the degree. I didn't take a break, but taking a break from school also makes your grades suffer, as you lose some information throughout the break. It also commonly results in dropping out.


As someone who has recently graduated with a 4-year undergraduate degree, I can confirm that it is possible. But - and this is very important - it depends on the cost of living where your university is, and it also requires you to choose a university that is actually affordable.

For me this came down to two things:

  1. Scholarships
  2. Making the most out of your time on school breaks (Like getting a summer job).

For the first point, many others have talked about scholarships, so I will just note that there are scholarships available in many different places, such as your high school, local community, as well as the university you are applying to. Try your best to get as much as possible, as Robin Clower mentioned, "Scholarships have higher rates of return than jobs".

Second, if you want to pay your own way, you will have to get a part time job, of course, but you will also need to work as much as you can during the summer months and possibly even weekends. These savings, if used wisely, can last you through each year.

If you are anything like me, the idea of working that much while still trying to make decent grades sounds horrible. Don't let that discourage you, because it actually isn't nearly as bad as it sounds. I had a few part time jobs while I was in school (and I will note that the best part time job I had was at the university itself. The "minimum wage" that they paid student workers was higher than most local jobs), I cleaned rental houses at least every other weekend, and I had at least two jobs during the summer. Through all of that, I would say that the impact to my studying was very minimal, although it requires some self discipline. The impact to my social life was also very minimal, because most people I knew were already spending a lot of their free time working and studying.

Again, this is all dependent on the university you choose. Actually, I went to two different universities. The first was a "prestigious" (code for extremely overpriced) private university, and the second was my local 4-year university. To make a long story short, I wasted ALL of my scholarship money on the private university, and despite that it still accounts for 90% of my student debt. If I had chosen to attend the more affordable, and in my opinion superior, university then I would be debt free today.

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