What to Do if You Can't Afford College (Even With Financial Aid)

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Learn about your options if college feels like too big of an investment for your budget right now.

[Featured image] A recent high school graduate sits at a long table in a co-working space on a laptop researching his career options.

Although going to college is the normalized post-high school path, the reality is that prospective students are increasingly recognizing that it may not be the right next step for them.

Undergraduate enrollment has been declining over the past couple of years, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Currently, the undergraduate student body is 7.4 percent smaller than it was before the pandemic [1]. (That’s 1.2 million fewer undergraduate students.) Additional research suggests that the cost of college is among the top reasons why prospective students are seeking alternatives.

If going to college doesn’t align with your current financial reality, there are several options available, including pursuing lower cost credentials or heading straight into the workforce. The best next step for you will depend on your current priorities and long-term career goals.

In this article, we’ll discuss some common ways to fund a college education, as well as ways you can approach your next steps if you can’t afford college.

Common ways to pay for college

People commonly draw from several financial resources in order to pay for college. According to research from Sallie Mae, the typical family pays for college through the following funding sources [2]:

  • Parent income and savings (43% of total funding)

  • Scholarships and grants (26%)

  • Student income and savings (11%)

  • Student borrowing (10%)

  • Parent borrowing (8%)

  • Relatives and friends (2%)

According to this data, financial aid—including scholarships, grants, and loans—accounts for only 44 percent of tuition, leaving students with an immediate cost of 56 percent of the tuition, or about $14,200 per year. For most people, this is not an insignificant sum of money. Parental support typically accounts for over 75 percent of out-of-pocket costs.

These numbers are based on averages across all types of colleges, but there are some lower cost college options as well. Public, in-state schools tend to cost less than private schools—with an average sticker price of $10,940 annually compared to $39,400, according to the College Board [3]. Some community colleges also offer bachelor’s degrees. Although this is a rare offering, it can be a more affordable option. Additionally, online colleges tend to cost less than in-person institutions due to lower overhead expenses.

Learn more about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and key application deadlines.

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Working while attending college

Many students work while attending college. Flexible education options, such as evening classes, attending school part-time, or taking online courses, enable students to balance their jobs with school.

In the US, full-time workers with a high school diploma earn a median wage of $809 per week [4]. Not accounting for taxes or any living expenses, it would take about 18 weeks of full-time work on this salary to earn the $14,200 that people typically pay for one year of college. You may also be able to earn money through passive income streams or side hustles.

Working full-time while pursuing your degree may not be the easiest or most practical path, particularly if you are looking to have a more traditional social experience when you attend college. In this case, it may be worth pursuing an alternative, lower-cost credential before you pursue your degree.

Alternatives to college

Earning your bachelor’s degree isn’t the only way to continue learning after earning your high school diploma. Depending on your career goals, you may be able to qualify for entry-level positions by pursuing the following alternatives to college:

  • Certificate programs are a series of courses designed to build and enhance job-specific skills. They tend to cost significantly less than a degree and take less time—Professional Certificates on Coursera take about six months to complete with 10 hours of study per week.

  • Bootcamps are intensives that focus on specific job skills, often related to technical or coding careers. They often require a few months of full-time study.

  • Apprenticeships are paid, hands-on job-training programs that last between one and three years. They’re typically offered in industries including construction, cybersecurity, energy, health care, hospitality, and transportation.

  • Trade school programs require one or two years of study in preparation for a specific career path, such as plumbing, carpentry, cosmetology, and dental hygiene. These programs will typically prepare students to sit for licensing exams in their desired field.

  • Associate degrees are not really an alternative to college, but they are shorter programs than a bachelor’s degree, usually taking about two years to complete and at a lower cost. With these programs, you can expect to take some general education courses and some major courses.

In addition to qualifying for an entry-level position, if you pursue any of the above options, you may be able to earn college credit toward your bachelor’s degree, which can reduce the overall time and money you spend on your degree when you are ready to continue your education. This is often referred to as stacking credentials.

Stacking credentials is becoming increasingly popular among undergraduate students. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, students with stacked credentials are driving undergraduate degree growth. Whereas the number of first-time graduates remained steady between 2020 and 2021, the number of graduates with prior credentials grew by 3.9 percent [5].

When you are ready to pursue your bachelor’s degree, look for transfer-friendly programs, like Georgetown’s Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies or the University of North Texas’s Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences to maximize the number of previously earned credits that count toward your degree.

Entering the workforce

You don’t have to pursue any education in order to start your career. You can use the skills you’ve developed so far to enter the workforce through internships, entry-level jobs, or by starting your own business.

Many people opt for this route. In fact, the number of nontraditional students earning a degree for the first time is growing at a faster rate than traditional students. While the total number of bachelor’s degree recipients under 25 grew by 0.3 percent from 2020 to 2021, the number of recipients in their thirties grew by 5.8 percent; in their forties grew by 5.1 percent; and 50+ grew by 2.7 percent [5].

How many people can’t afford college?

College affordability is a widespread concern across the United States. A survey from Morning Consult found that 77 percent of people say that college is difficult to afford, while 52 percent say that even in-state, public universities—which are typically intended to be more affordable options—are not affordable [6].

What’s more, most people recognize cost as the greatest barrier of entry for college. In a survey from NORC at the University of Chicago, 75 percent of adults named cost as the perceived reason most people who don’t attend college opt not to go [7].

With the worsening student debt crisis—a collective $1.7 trillion owed by 48 million US borrowers, as of September 2022 [8]—it makes sense to consider your financial health alongside your education goals. When you do, you may find that pursuing the traditional college path may not be the best path for you.

Discovering your next steps 

Keep learning with Coursera. Explore the types of careers you can prepare for with a Professional Certificate from industry leaders like Google, Meta, and IBM through Career Academy, or browse online bachelor’s degrees from world-class universities like Georgetown and the University of London. Sign up today for a free seven-day trial to see if online learning is right for you.

Article sources


National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “Current Term Enrollment Estimates, Spring 2022, https://nscresearchcenter.org/current-term-enrollment-estimates/.” Accessed February 6, 2023.

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