Chapter 8: Paying for your education

Table of contents

8.1 Introduction

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If there’s one thing that stresses future college students out, it’s what their future bills will look like. Higher education is notorious for its high costs, so it should come as no surprise that financial fears keep many people from trying to attend college at all. Don’t let that be you! Keeping your own financial situation in mind is important in order to keep your plans realistic, but there are resources out there that exist solely to help people like you get the education they want—regardless of how much money they have.

This chapter will help you to:

  • Navigate the many financial resources out there to find one that’s right for you
  • Apply for scholarships, grants, student loans, and other financial aid for both four-year colleges and universities trade schools
  • Understand and file your FAFSA

Applying for financial aid can seem like a daunting task, but it’s not an impossible one. We will take this one step at a time and walk you through each option available. Paying for education is not a one-size-fits-all situation. Perhaps you’ll be able to earn a scholarship, or maybe you’d like to join a federal work-study program. Maybe you have family to help you out, or maybe you’re figuring out this next stage of your life independently. You could be looking at an in-state school, or maybe you’ll need some extra help in order to attend that school of your dreams two states over.

Keeping in mind that everyone’s situation is different, we hope that this chapter will be able to guide you in figuring out what road you should take. Everyone should have a chance to get a better education, and that includes you. Don’t give up, even if it seems tough! We will figure it out together. So, let’s get started!

8.2 Paying for college and university

Many colleges, especially private colleges, are expensive, and the average student’s post-college student loan debt has skyrocketed in the past few decades. However, even if you lack financial support from your parents and aren’t sure how you can pay for college, there are various options for paying the least possible amount for a quality college education. This section describes several strategies that may be particularly helpful for homeschool alumni, whether or not you are supported by your parents.

8.2.1 Net price calculators

Before walking through the various financial strategies available, it is helpful to get a sense of how much your education might cost. If you have landed on a school or a set of schools, you can use a net price calculator to estimate the cost of attendance. Almost all colleges are now legally required to offer these calculators, which are usually on their websites. Using the calculators will give you an idea of how much it would actually cost to attend each college. The total for tuition, room and board indicated on college websites is often not the actual price of attendance for most students. Colleges offer students grants and scholarships once they have been accepted. There is often no way to know for sure how much a college will cost until you apply, are accepted and receive the actual net price from the college.

Once you have filled out the FAFSA, you will have all the information needed to use these calculators. If you want to use them before filling out the FAFSA, you will need to gather information including your and your parents’ income and wealth. The net price calculators can help you exclude colleges if it is likely that their price tag will be too high for your budget. 

We will now introduce strategies for paying for your education.

8.2.2 Community college

The first strategy is attending community college before transferring to a four year college or university. An undergraduate college education in the United States typically takes 4 years to complete. Some students can complete college in less time, while others will need extra time to complete their degree. Typically, colleges charge tuition and other fees by semester. Most colleges offer two semesters per year (fall and spring, plus possibly an optional, shortened summer semester). Other colleges follow a quarter system (4 semesters per year including an optional summer quarter). The more semesters you attend a college, especially an expensive school, the more tuition you will have to pay.

If you decide to attend a public (state) college, your semester tuition bill will likely be much less than a semester bill at a private college. But public colleges, depending on the state, still may not be affordable. Fortunately, in many states, you do not need to attend all four years at a public college in order to graduate with a diploma from that college. Community college can be an excellent option to keep costs down and receive the exact same degree.

Community colleges are two-year colleges designed to offer the classes that students would typically take in their first two years of college no matter which school they attend. Tuition prices at community colleges are typically lower than at public state colleges, and far less than at private colleges, but they may offer many of the same classes taught at pricier schools. Importantly, many states have agreements between their state colleges and their community colleges that allow students to transfer credits earned in community college to the state four-year college. This means that you may be able to take cheaper classes for two years at community college, then transfer to the state college for the final two years, but still graduate with the same diploma you would have received if you had attended the state college all four years. 

Every state is different, but if you are interested in this option, we recommend searching online or contacting your local community college for assistance. So long as you have a high school diploma, a GED, or otherwise fulfill the homeschooling high school requirements in your state, you should be able to take advantage of community colleges just like any other student.

Below, we also describe programs in some states that may even make community college entirely free.

For more information, you can consult the resources below.

8.2.3 Exams for college credit and dual enrollment

If you haven’t graduated from high school yet and you are fairly sure you want to attend college once you graduate, one way to decrease your expenses is to start earning college credit while still in high school. 

There are two ways to earn college credits. One is to take an exam which will later be accepted at your college for credit towards graduation. Another is to take college courses while still in high school, and later transfer those courses to your college for credit. This second path is called dual enrollment.

There are two well-known high school exam programs which will allow you to earn college credit at many schools. One is the Advanced Placement (AP) program, and the other is the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP).

The AP program includes fast paced, college-level classes for high schoolers. After students take an AP course, they may choose to take the AP exam which is based on the course. Students may also take an AP exam without taking an official AP course. Homeschooled students may self-study for AP exams and take them with other students. AP exams are offered once per year, in the month of May. Registration for homeschooled students is somewhat complicated and during the pandemic the rules for registering changed. Homeschooled students must find a nearby school which offers the exam they want to take and contact that school to determine if they will allow the homeschooled student to take the exam. Many schools do not allow homeschooled students to sit for the exam with their students. For up-to-date information about AP exams, go to the College Board website.

The CLEP program is much simpler for homeschooled students. Each exam costs $90 and can be done at home on your computer at any time during the year. If you achieve a passing score, thousands of US colleges will give you college credit, which saves time and money. CLEPs are available in subjects typically taken in a student’s freshman or sophomore year of college, so it is possible to earn a year or more of college credit before even stepping foot on a campus. 

The non-profit organization Modern States offers a program to allow students to earn a freshman year of college for free. The student registers for a free college-level course through the Modern States website. After the course is completed, the student receives a code to register for the corresponding CLEP or AP exam for free. 

When considering a CLEP exam or AP exam, it’s good to know that as a general rule, selective schools often do not give credit for CLEP exams, but they will often give credit for AP exams. If a school gives credit for CLEP exams, they will usually also give credit for AP exams. Each college will usually list the exams for which they offer credit on their websites. You can also call the schools you are interested in attending and ask about exams for which they offer credit.

Another option to earn college credit while still in high school is dual enrollment. This means you are taking at least one course which counts toward both your high school diploma AND a college degree. Often community colleges offer dual enrollment programs for high school students. Sometimes the programs involve students taking the course on their high school campus, and other times it means high school students take the courses online or on the community college campus. Each state and community college is different, so please explore your local community college website or call the school to ask how homeschooled high school students can participate in their dual enrollment program.

There are also colleges in the United States which offer online classes and allow high school students to register. Examples are Husson University and Arizona State University. For more information on earning college credit while being homeschooled, check out the Homeschooling for College Credit website. The website is geared towards homeschooling parents, but if you are taking charge of your homeschool-to-college journey, the information will be helpful to you. 

8.2.4 In-state tuition and discounted tuition programs

Private colleges generally charge the same tuition to everyone, regardless of whether you grew up in the same state where the college is. However, public state colleges, or community colleges, often charge different tuition rates based on whether you have residency in that state (meaning you have lived in that state for the past number of years). This is most commonly known as “in-state tuition,” and homeschooled students can take advantage of these rates like any other student.

In addition, some states offer programs that severely discount or even eliminate tuition for students who meet certain eligibility requirements (usually including both significant financial need and strong academic performance). Some states make community college free, while others offer semi-merit-based scholarships that discount tuition for in-state students if the student maintains a specific GPA or academic performance. Additionally, some states or regions offer College Promise programs that fund tuition based on where the student lives, and these programs are expanding to new states

Because every state is different, we recommend you search online for [your state] and public college scholarship programs or in-state tuition to learn more. Most programs, however, will only be open to students who went to high school in that state. A state-specific guide found online will be most beneficial, but these webpages offer nationwide lists of potential programs to consider:

8.2.5 Scholarships

Scholarships are awards of money that you can use to pay for tuition, room and board, and other necessities for college. Scholarships may also be available for career schools! Some scholarships are awarded directly by a college only for admitted students to that college, while other scholarships are awarded by third parties and can be used at the college of your choice. Scholarships awarded by colleges will have college-specific requirements, but other scholarships can be searched for, and applied to, online. The Department of Education has recommendations for applying for scholarships, including a list of potential sources of scholarships:

  • The financial aid office at a college or career school
  • A high school or TRIO counselor
  • The U.S. Department of Labor’s FREE scholarship search tool
  • Federal agencies
  • Your state grant agency
  • Your library’s reference section
  • Foundations, religious or community organizations, local businesses, or civic groups
  • Organizations (including professional associations) related to your field of interest
  • Ethnicity-based organizations
  • Your employer or your parents’ employers


There are also many websites dedicated to finding third-party scholarships, and while many are valuable, beware of scams or other false promises. Most importantly, do not pay anyone to apply for scholarships and follow advice for avoiding scams. Some resources include:

Scholarships can be need-based (meaning they are awarded based on financial criteria or based on factors in your background) or merit-based (meaning they are awarded based on test scores, GPA, or academic achievement, with little-to-no consideration of financial need). Scholarships can be one-year (meaning they only provide money for the next school year and not subsequent years) or multi-year. Take note of any GPA requirements for scholarships, as failing to maintain these requirements can make school much more expensive afterwards.

8.2.6 Pell grants and work-study

Pell grants are a form of federal need-based aid administered by the Department of Education that typically does not have to be repaid, similar to a scholarship. As of the 2022-2023 school year, the maximum Pell grant award per year is $6,495. You are automatically considered for Pell grants based on your FAFSA (see below).

In addition to scholarships, you may be eligible for a federal work-study job. According to the Department of Education, work-study jobs are part-time jobs typically related to your course of study that are in the public interest. The types of jobs vary, including on campus and off campus, but jobs must be in the public interest and are arranged by your college. To be considered for work-study, answer “Yes” to question 28 on the FAFSA. However, work-study grants are limited in number and may be awarded to those who apply earlier, so fill out your FAFSA and apply for work-study jobs as early as possible.

8.2.7 Student loans

We highly encourage you to prioritize researching free or reduced tuition programs, scholarships, and other ways to receive money to help pay for college. Student loans are the last resort way to pay for college, as student loans are debt that you will need to repay after you leave college. Student loans are issued in your name, and you will control the entire process. Loans you take out are your responsibility and yours alone, but your college’s financial aid office can help you with this process.

There is one exception to this rule: parents can take out “parent PLUS loans” for the benefit of a child, and only the parents are responsible for repaying the loan. Of course, this only applies if your parents filled out their portion of the FAFSA and are willing to take out loans for your benefit that are your parents’ responsibility to pay.

Your college’s financial aid office will include your loan options in the financial aid offer that they send to you, and once you decide to take out student loans, the loan money is paid directly to your college. If you choose to take out loan money beyond the cost of tuition or other school fees, your college can deposit the excess into your personal bank account (see Chapter 2 for information on bank accounts).

We strongly recommend only applying for federal student loans issued by the U.S. federal government, which are described at and in this handout. Federal student loans do not require a cosigner and feature a wide range of financial protections and benefits, both during and after college, which are especially important if you do not receive financial assistance from your parents or otherwise have outside financial assets that could be used to help repay your loan.

By contrast, private student loans (issued by private banks and companies) vary widely in quality, protections, risk, and interest rates, and they may require a cosigner. In some situations, the benefits of federal student loans will outweigh any disadvantages, especially if you are in an unstable financial situation! But if you feel that you cannot afford college using only grants, scholarships, and federal student loans, we recommend reassessing whether your current college choice is right for you. Nearly all colleges will require you to fill out the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, in order to apply for scholarships, loans, and other forms of financial assistance. The next section discusses how to fill out the FAFSA and some potential problems that homeschooled students and alumni may encounter.

8.2.8 The FAFSA

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is an annual form that the US Department of Education, colleges, and universities use to determine students’ eligibility for financial aid, grants, student loans, and work-study. Completing the FAFSA is free. It should be completed by you and (typically) your parents at A PDF of the form is available to preview the questions. Filling out the FAFSA

To complete the FAFSA, according to the Department of Education, you need:

  • Your Social Security Number
  • Your Alien Registration Number (if you are not a U.S. citizen)
  • Your federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of money earned.
  • Bank statements and records of investments (if applicable)
  • Records of untaxed income (if applicable)
  • An FSA ID to sign electronically.

Importantly, most students will also need their parent(s) to provide the same information into the FAFSA application, and your parents will also have to sign the FAFSA, even if you are 18+ years old. (Although typically both legal parents must provide this information and sign, this may vary if you have a stepparent, or if your parents are unmarried, divorced, and/or don’t live together.) There are also certain exceptions that may allow you to file a FAFSA without any information from your parents, which will be described in the next sections. It is important to know that filling out the FAFSA does not obligate anyone—you or your parents—to pay anything or take out any loans. The FAFSA is designed to assess your financial ability, and your parents’ financial ability, to pay for your college. Similarly, it also helps determine your eligibility to receive certain grants or loans. 

The FAFSA is designed to accommodate students who were homeschooled. As of the 2021-2022 FAFSA, question 26 asks: “What will your high school completion status be when you begin college in the 2021-2022 school year?” If you are homeschooled at the end of high school, you should select the “homeschooled” answer. Do not select the “high school diploma” answer, even if your parents will create a homeschool diploma for you, because this answer prompts you to enter a code for your high school, which you are unlikely to have.

The FAFSA process is described in detail by the Department of Education here and helpfully summarized in this graphic.

Once the FAFSA is complete, regardless of whether your parents cooperated or not, the process for applying for scholarships and student loans will be the same for homeschooled students and non-homeschooled students. Dependent versus independent

An important question to ask yourself when filling out the FAFSA is whether you wish to apply as a dependent or an independent. You may have heard these terms before in the context of taxes, but for the FAFSA, these terms have unique definitions and don’t necessarily depend on whether you practically financially support yourself.

The Department of Education states that all undergraduate students are presumed to be dependents of their parent(s) unless you can answer yes to one of the following questions:

  • Were you born before Jan. 1, 1999? 
    • *Note: This is for the 2022-2023 academic year. This criterion will change each year, and you can check it here.
  • As of today, are you married?
  • Are you currently serving on active duty in the U.S. armed forces for purposes other than training?
  • Are you a veteran of the U.S. armed forces?
  • Do you now have or will you have children who will receive more than half of their support from you […]?
  • Do you have dependents (other than your children or spouse) who live with you and who receive more than half of their support from you […]?
  • At any time since you turned age 13, were both your parents deceased, were you in foster care or were you a dependent or ward of the court?
  • As determined by a court in your state of legal residence, are you or were you an emancipated minor?
  • Does someone other than your parent or stepparent have legal guardianship of you, as determined by a court in your state of legal residence?
  • At any time on or after July 1, 2021, did your high school or school district homeless liaison determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or were self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?
  • At any time on or after July 1, 2021, did the director of an emergency shelter or transitional housing program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or were self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?
  • At any time on or after July 1, 2021, did the director of a runaway or homeless youth basic center or transitional living program determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or were self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?

If you can answer yes to any of these questions, then you may be considered independent for the purposes of the FAFSA. If you are considered independent, then you are not required to provide your parents’ information, and you can submit your FAFSA based solely on your own financial information. Potential need-based aid will be based on only your income and assets, excluding your parent(s)’ information, likely resulting in a higher aid award at many colleges. However, if you cannot answer yes to any of these questions, then you will be treated as a dependent for purposes of the FAFSA, even if you are practically not supported by your parents. This is an unfortunate reality of the FAFSA and student grants and loans; many students who practically are on their own for college may be penalized by their unsupportive parents’ finances. What if my parents won’t fill out the FAFSA?

Even if your parents refuse to fill out their portion of the FAFSA, don’t worry, there are still options for you to receive financial aid and loans. The Department of Education advises that if “you have a special circumstance that prevents you from providing parental information, you may still be able to submit your FAFSA form. However, your FAFSA form will be considered incomplete. You must contact the financial office at your college or career school and provide them with documentation to verify your situation.” Unfortunately, your parents cannot be forced to provide their information or sign the FAFSA form. In this situation, you cannot be treated as an independent; that decision is based on the factors mentioned previously. 

If you are considered a dependent under the FAFSA definition, but your parents refuse to fill out the FAFSA for you, the Department of Education provides the following advice for completing the FAFSA:

  1. When the FAFSA form asks you to provide information about your parents, select the “I am unable to provide information about my parent(s)” option. (If you are using the myStudentAid app, you will need to select the “Learn more” link when you get to the point in the app where it tells you that it looks like parent information is required to calculate your EFC.)
  2. You will then be provided with an explanation of what’s considered a special circumstance. After reading through the options, select the one that says you don’t have a special circumstance but you still can’t provide parent information. (If you are using the myStudentAid app, you will need to select the option indicating that you’d like to be considered for an unsubsidized loan).
  3. The application explains that if your parents don’t support you and refuse to provide their information on the application, you may submit your FAFSA form without their information. However, you won’t be able to get any federal student aid other than an unsubsidized loan—and even that might not happen. The decision is up to the financial aid office at the college or career school you plan to attend. If you agree to this, you may submit your FAFSA form without parent information.
  4. Your FAFSA information will be sent to the colleges you list, but you won’t get an EFC (Expected Family Contribution, the amount that offsets potential grants or loans you could receive).
  5. You must immediately contact your school’s financial aid office to discuss the possibility of getting an unsubsidized loan. The financial aid office may ask for a written statement from your parents, indicating that they refuse to provide their information on the FAFSA form and that they no longer support you. (Forms of support include allowing you to live in their home, including you on their car or health insurance, providing a car to drive on a regular basis, and payment of your tuition or fees).
  6. The financial aid office will look at your situation and decide whether you may receive an unsubsidized loan. That decision is final and cannot be appealed to the U.S. Department of Education.
  7. If you’re considering following this process, think about this first: If you submit your FAFSA form without parent information, you will not receive an EFC. Some state- or school-based aid programs look at the EFC in order to determine your eligibility for their funds; because you won’t have an EFC, you won’t be considered for those aid programs. You could be giving up a chance at many sources of aid. So encourage your parents to provide their information—doing so won’t require them to support you in any way, it’ll just help you be considered for as many sources of financial aid as possible.

If you have a relationship with your parents where you can relay this information, we recommend stressing that providing this information is an obligation of your parents and that providing the information does not force parents to pay for anything. However, if this is unsuccessful, we recommend contacting the financial aid department of your intended college to discuss the situation. Ultimately, it is the college’s decision to determine whether or not you will be eligible for a limited sublet of federal assistance, even if only an unsubsidized federal loan.

8.3 Financial strategies for technical/trade/vocational education

As with colleges, some post-secondary education and/or training opportunities can be expensive. However, there are arrangements that may be more economically advantageous, too.

8.3.1 Apprenticeship programs

Apprenticeships, which we covered in Chapter 7.2.4, allow you to get paid while you are gaining skills, credentials, and relevant workplace experience. To get started on looking for apprenticeships, you can consult:

8.3.2 Scholarships

Scholarships are not just for colleges! As described in Chapter 8.1.3, many scholarships can be searched for, and applied to, online. Besides asking about financial aid or tuition assistance from the trade school, career college, or vocational program administrators, you can also look into industry associations for the specific trade or vocation you are pursuing, such as:

Here is a list of general resources for scholarships that you can check out. 

Finally, some companies will offer tuition assistance or reimbursement or other kinds of benefits to pay for their employees’ continued education. If you are already working at a job, you can find out if your company offers this perk and how it works. 

8.4 Conclusion

If the process of financing your education feels daunting, we hope that the strategies in this chapter have put you at ease. There are many funding opportunities available, so it takes planning and persistence to secure the opportunities that work for you. 

In this chapter, we hope that you have gained:

  • Insight into strategies that may work best for you
  • Knowledge of how to navigate the processes surrounding financing your education 
  • Ideas for next steps in the financing process

As we stressed in the chapter introduction, everyone’s experience will be unique. However, equipped with the tools provided in this chapter, you have a solid foundation for pursuing the right option(s) for financing your education. 

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