Should I Go To A College If I Can’t Afford It?

The cost of college can freak both students and their parents out, but is it that price tag even worth it? 

So, should I go to a college if I can’t afford it? If you decide to go to a college that you can’t afford, then you could be making a compromise with your future. The burden of student loans can get in the way of future investments, such as retirement. The decision is up to you, but understand the consequences of going to a college you can’t afford. 

How do I know if I can afford a college?

Afford means completely different things based on who you ask. For me, afford means that I can pay something without accumulating any debt. I believe that a college education is worth it, but I don’t want to go into any debt over it.

An article by CNBC reports, “60 percent of student debt borrowers expect to pay off their loans in their 40s.” That’s about 20 years after they’ve graduated from college.

Do you really want to spend that much time paying off loans and not saving for other things such as retirement? Does a bunch of loans really mean you can afford the college?  

Is it worth going into debt for college?

This is entirely my opinion, but I don’t think you should ever go into debt over any college unless it’s a couple of thousands of dollars (at most).

What you gain from college is based on how much you choose to make out of your time there, not the price tag. You could go to a state college and gain more knowledge, skill, and experience than someone who went to a top 20 school. 

So, if you’re wondering whether you should attend that prestigious university and fall into thousands of dollars in debt or attend a less prestigious school and come out debt-free, choose the latter option.

The college you attend doesn’t determine your future success; in fact, coming out of college debt-free is a huge advantage for you. 

I’m not trying to say that you shouldn’t go to an expensive college like Duke. If you can pay the price with no debt, you should definitely go because of the numerous opportunities they offer. 

What should I do if I can’t afford a college even with financial aid?

I won’t elaborate too much on this question because I already did a thorough job explaining in a previous article, but I will say this: a college accepted you because they want you to attend their school.

If your financial aid is not sufficient, you can always email the college and tell them about your situation. In that previous article I just referenced, I was able to get a direct response from 4 colleges on a student not being given a good financial aid package.

Every school that I got a response from said that if you find yourself in such a situation of not having enough financial aid, call the school, and they will try to readjust your aid package.

What should I do to be able to afford a college?

Even though being at the age of 18 ish can limit your opportunities to earn money, there are ways to earn money to pay for college costs. 

Always remember the FAFSA 

If you want any federal financial aid (in the form of grants, loans, and/or work-study), you need to fill this form out. This form asks you for information such as your social security number and tax returns, which will most likely be provided by your parents or guardians.

Don’t think that all the money goes to those who need it most. Most students are eligible for some amount of aid, even if the amount they receive doesn’t cover everything.

If you want to know more about the FAFSA (which I recommend you do), visit the article by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) here.


If you are still a teenager or young adult, it is very unlikely that you will find any high paying salary job. But work means money, and money means you can pay for some of your college costs. 

As I mentioned above, filling out the FAFSA can qualify you for work-study. Work-study tends to be more service-based such as a tutor or tour guide (for your college).

Your school determines the amount of money you get paid for work-study, but it needs to be at least the federal minimum wage amount ($7.25 per hour). However, you are only allowed to work up to 20 hours during a school week. 

If you want to be able to work more and, in turn, earn more money, then consider a regular part-time job. Your options range from a cashier, waiter/waitress, barista, and pretty much anything else that you can find.

You aren’t limited to just being a cashier, waiter/waitress, and barista, but depending on where you live and what’s around you, you are going to find different part-time job opportunities. 

I would make my own list of jobs for high school/college students, but I found this amazing list of 38 jobs that aren’t all your typical part-time jobs. You can also check out my own article on the benefits of having a part-time job here.

One last thing on the topic of jobs. I recently interviewed Mehrshad, who is president of UMBC’s SGA, and gets paid for his work. And not just him, his colleagues who work in SGA with him also get paid.

I don’t know if this is an example of work-study, but I suggest looking for money-making opportunities offered by your school (separate from federal aid). 

Tell your college that you can’t afford them

A college accepted you because they want you at their school, so they may be willing to negotiate your financial aid package.

For one of my previous articles on early decision acceptances (you can check that article out), I called many colleges to ask them if I could reject their ED offer because I couldn’t financially afford them. 

Columbia University picked up the phone and told me that “if this [inability to pay] were the case, there would be a whole process with the financial aid office and the board of admissions directors.” Even if this may not be the case for all colleges, it never hurts to try to get more aid from a college. 

There are so many scholarships out there 

Scholarships can come from many different places. For one, you can get merit-based scholarships from your college. A lot of top schools don’t offer many full-ride (college pays for everything including room & board) or full-tuition (college pays for the tuition), so the stakes are high.

To be eligible for these scholarships, you need to be at the top in terms of academics and standardized test scores.

For moderately selective colleges, having a high SAT or ACT score also can determine whether you get a full-ride or full-tuition scholarship. I am currently striving for a very high SAT score to get a full-ride scholarship to my own state school. 

If you don’t get a full-ride or full-tuition scholarship from your school, you can consider applying for external scholarships. There are the really big, competitive scholarships such as the Coca-Cola and the Doodle 4 Google scholarships, but there are also smaller and less known scholarships.

You can definitely try out for those big-name scholarships, but don’t put all your eggs in that basket. Those smaller scholarships that grant you a few hundred or a few thousand dollars can accumulate to some substantial amount of money.

And, not everyone knows about those smaller scholarships, so your competition is less. The qualification of these less-known scholarships range, but there are literally millions of these scholarships. 

In order to be able to find scholarships that you are eligible for, you can sign up for scholarship websites that will sort through the millions of scholarships for you. Here is a list of some of those scholarships websites:

  1. Going Merry
  2. Cappex
  3. Petersons
  5. FastWeb
  6. FinAid
  7. The College Board
  8. Unigo
  9. ScholarshipMonkey
  10. Chegg

This is something you need to take seriously. Which college you go to can have a big impact on your life, especially financially. There is no correct answer to this question, but I advise you not to risk graduating with debt for any college. 

Related Post: How Do You Know If A College Isn’t Right For You?

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.

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