A Guide for Low-Income College Students: Where to Find Resources and Support

If you or a family member is scratching your head wondering how in the world you’re going to pay for college, you’re not alone. Between 1980 and 2020, the base cost to attend a four-year college as a full-time student — including tuition, fees, and room and board — increased 180%.

One year at a public institution cost the average student $10,231 in 1980. By the 2019-20 school year, that price had increased to $28,775. The price tag for one year at a private nonprofit college in 2020 soared to almost $49,000.

People from low-income families bear the brunt of this education cost increase. For example:

  • Low-income students are less likely to finish college. While half of the people who grew up in more affluent households will obtain a four-year college degree by age 25, only 10% of 25-year-olds from low-income families will finish an undergraduate program. The No. 1 reason low-income students have such low graduation rates: financial strain.
  • It’s hard to move ahead without a degree. College degrees support upward mobility. College graduates who come from households in the bottom 20% of family income increase their chances of moving up to the middle 20% of family income by 53%.
  • It’s harder to get and keep a job without a degree. The 2020 unemployment rate for workers with a college degree was 5.5%, compared with 9% for those whose highest level of education was a high school diploma.

While it’s certainly more challenging, support systems can help low-income students make it through college. This guide discusses the unique challenges that low-income students face, covers resources to find money to help pay for college, and offers tips for saving money on everything from food and housing to books and school supplies.

  • What Defines a Low-Income Student?
  • How Are Low-Income Students Paying for School?
  • 5 Tips to Lower the Cost of Textbooks and Supplies
  • Housing Options for Low-Income Students
  • 3 Ways to Find More Affordable Meals
  • What Are the Health Care Options for Low-Income Students?
  • Transportation Options for Low-Income Students

What Defines a Low-Income Student?

According to the U.S. Department of Education, a student coming from a family of four in the continental United States with a household income of less than $41,625 is considered low-income. These amounts are a bit higher for Alaska and Hawaii.

Typically, low-income students fall into one or more of these three groups.

  • Single parents: Individuals raising children on a single income often fall within the low-income category. Not only do they have to support a family on their own — and provide shelter, food, and clothing — but they also may lack access to routine child care, making attending college seem both economically and practically unfeasible.
  • First-generation college students: Half of the students who are the first in their families to go to college come from low-income households. These first-generation students are more likely to come from minority communities. Without generational family support, it becomes more difficult for these aspiring college students to apply to college and make concrete plans to attend. Not only do they likely lack funds to attend school, but they may also lack qualified mentors and academic advisors to help them figure out the ins and outs of how to acquire a postsecondary education.
  • Homeless youth: Young people without housing or a permanent address face a number of hurdles when it comes to pursuing higher education. Not only are they often alone — without any financial or family support to fall back on — but they may also encounter difficulties taking the steps necessary to apply to school (especially since they lack a reliable mailing address). A potential student facing homelessness needs to find a way to fill out college applications and apply for needed financial aid to have a chance of getting into college.

For those who fall into one or more of these categories, figuring out how to afford college can seem impossible. Thankfully, tools and resources are available to help. Read on to learn more.

How Are Low-Income Students Paying for School?

It’s easy for low-income students to become discouraged about attending college, especially since tuition — already out of reach for many low-income students — continues to rise.

Jumping through all the necessary hoops to find ways to pay for school is very stressful. Fortunately, financial aid money from government and private sources is available for low-income students. The trick is knowing how to find it.

Federal Financial Aid

The federal government offers several types of financial aid to eligible students through the Department of Education. These include federal grants, scholarships, work-study programs, and student loans.

Your eligibility for financial aid — and the type and amount of aid you can receive — depends on several factors that are determined after you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). These factors include your expected family contribution (EFC), your year in school, your enrollment status (whether you’re a full-time or part-time student, for example), and how much attendance costs at your school. When looking into financial aid options, check with your high school counselor or your college financial aid office for help with the application process.

Grants

Grants are the most attractive type of financial aid. Unlike loans, which must be repaid, you don’t have to repay grants. Two of the most popular types of federal student grants are Pell Grants and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG, available to eligible students attending four-year colleges, community colleges, and vocational or career schools).

Federal Pell Grants are awarded only to undergraduate college students who can demonstrate exceptional financial need and, generally speaking, have not earned a bachelor’s, graduate, or professional degree. There’s an exception for teachers seeking certain certifications after receiving their bachelor’s degrees.

The Pell Grant amounts change on a yearly basis. The maximum amount you can receive for the 2022-23 academic year is $6,895. Not all students who apply will be eligible for this grant or, even if eligible, will receive the maximum amount. It will depend on their EFC and the other factors mentioned above.

Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) are awarded through your college, university, or career school. Along with the requirement that the student is seeking an undergraduate degree, these grants are awarded based on financial need, any other aid received, and the availability of funds at your school when applying for the grant. The school receives a lump sum of grant money and awards anywhere from $100 to $4,000 to students for the applicable academic year based on their criteria.

Along with federal grants, you can find grants administered by state governments, individual colleges, career schools, and various nonprofit or privately funded organizations and companies.

Scholarships

Like grants, scholarships don’t have to be paid back. They are typically based on merit (such as grades or other achievements) or financial need (EFC or other financial criteria).

Federal scholarships vary in amount and can be awarded through a school, directly from a federal agency — like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Transportation (USDOT), or the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — or through an organization working in partnership with a particular branch of the federal government. Sometimes, federal scholarships are awarded in conjunction with a fellowship, internship, or other type of federal government employment.

In addition to federal scholarships, hundreds of thousands of private scholarships are available to students each year. Some are open to all based on merit or financial need. Others are specifically earmarked for recipients based on some other selective criteria (e.g., gender, ethnicity, religion, or academic pursuit). Schools, companies, nonprofit organizations, community foundations, employers, social clubs, and religious institutions offer scholarships. The trick is knowing how to find them and applying on time. Resources like Finaid, Department of Labor Scholarship Finder, and Scholarship America are great places to start your scholarship search.

Federal Work-Study Program

The Federal Work-Study Program provides jobs for financially strapped undergraduate and graduate students. Eligibility for the program is established by financial need. Students who can be enrolled in school either full time or part time are offered part-time employment.

Administered by each school’s financial aid office, work-study jobs can be community service-oriented or related to a student’s area of study. Jobs can be on or off-campus.

Loans

Many students take out federal loans to help pay for school. Under these programs, the Department of Education acts as the lender. The primary difference between student loans and scholarships or grants is that loans have to be paid back with interest.

There are several types of federal student loans.

  • Direct Subsidized Student Loans: These loans are reserved for undergraduate college students who can demonstrate financial need. Each school determines the amount you can borrow. With Direct Subsidized Loans, the Department of Education pays the interest on the loan while you’re in school, for a six-month grace period after you leave school, and during any periods of deferment.
  • Direct Unsubsidized Student Loans: These loans are available to all undergraduate and graduate students regardless of financial need. The school, however, will look at your financial situation and the cost of attendance when deciding how much they’ll let you borrow. Unlike Direct Subsidized Loans, Direct Unsubsidized Loans start accruing interest from the time you take out the loan. You don’t have to actually pay the interest amount while you’re in school and during grace and deferment periods; unless the federal government makes an exception, the interest will accumulate and be folded into your principal amount.
  • Direct PLUS Loans: Parents of dependent undergraduate students and graduate students or students in a professional program can take out these loans. While you don’t have to show a specific financial need to be eligible for a Direct PLUS Loan, you’ll have to pass a credit check to receive the loan.
  • Direct Consolidation Loans: With a Direct Consolidation Loan, you can combine all of your eligible federal student loans into just one loan serviced by a single company. This can be useful in helping borrowers keep track of their financial aid status and payments.

Private Financial Aid

While it’s always best to pursue federal grants, Direct Subsidized Loans, and other federal financial aid first, since interest rates will be lower and payment terms will be more favorable, a number of private student loans are available to students.

Private student loans are offered by a private lender, typically a bank, credit union, or other lending institution. Your eligibility for a particular loan and the terms (i.e., how much you can borrow and what the interest rate will be) will depend on your credit score, income, and other factors, much like a credit card or personal loan.

Your school’s financial aid office is the best place to begin your research into private student loans.

5 Tips to Lower the Cost of Textbooks and Supplies

Textbooks and school supplies are a significant cost of a college education. With the average textbook costing close to $85 in 2020 and school supplies costing north of $1,000 each year, you could easily shell out thousands of dollars on school materials annually.

To cut down on these costs, consider the following measures.

  • Rent your textbooks: If you don’t think you’ll need your textbook after the course ends, consider renting. Check out textbook rental services like TextbookRentals.com and Amazon.
  • Buy used books: Most campus bookstores offer used textbooks. You can also buy them from private sellers online.
  • Use e-books: Electronic books are cheaper than printed materials. You can purchase or borrow digital versions of many textbooks online through libraries and services like Amazon. See if the assigned textbook is available online as a free open educational resource (OERs).
  • Participate in book exchanges: Find out whether your school offers a book swap program where students lend their previously used textbooks to other students.
  • Buy in bulk: Partner up with other students to purchase school supplies like paper, pens, printer ink, etc., in bulk from discount stores and then divide up the supplies.

Housing Options for Low-Income Students

Housing is a huge concern for low-income students. About half of college students at two-year schools and 43% of college students at four-year schools are at risk of becoming homeless. Further, 14% of all students are homeless.

If housing issues are keeping you from pursuing your education, resources might be able to help.

Contact Office for Student Residence

See if your college or university has a housing office to help students find affordable places to stay. Often, schools offer low-income students options like on-campus subsidized dorm rooms and university housing for families. Based on your FAFSA, you may even be eligible for a housing grant.

Look Into Public Housing

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) offers a housing program for low-income individuals through its Section Eight housing voucher program. Depending on where you live and the availability of housing under this program in your area, you may be able to find a safe and affordable place to live while pursuing your studies.

Contact your local Public Housing Agency (PHA) to see your options and apply for Section Eight housing in your area.

Contact a Local Shelter

You may need to seek temporary shelter while looking for a more permanent housing situation. Some homeless shelter options cater specifically to students. Look for area nonprofits and charitable organizations that cater to homeless students.

Resources for finding a suitable homeless shelter in your area include:

3 Ways to Find More Affordable Meals

Approximately one-third of all college students report experiencing food insecurity. Almost 60% of four-year-college students say their food insecurity level is high.

If you’re concerned about how to afford to feed yourself while attending college, consider opting for an affordable on-campus food plan, filling your pantry from your local food bank, or signing up for food stamps.

Contact Office for Dining Services

Most colleges and universities — especially those offering on-campus housing — offer dining service options. Even if you can’t afford to sign up for your school’s published meal plan, consider talking to the person in charge of campus dining services. They might be able to offer you low-cost meal options or direct you to school services or programs directed at food-insecure students.

Food Banks

Many communities offer food pantries to help their food-insecure neighbors. Some schools even operate food banks on campus. Check out the college and food bank alliance affiliates at Swipe Out Hunger or search for a food bank near you. Feeding America is a good place to start.

SNAP

Consider applying for food stamps under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) through your state SNAP office. Your household must meet income limits and other criteria to be eligible for food stamps under SNAP.

What Are the Health Care Options for Low-Income Students?

Health insurance coverage varies significantly across the United States, with nearly 14% of college students going uninsured in Texas alone. Other states don’t compare, but they still have a significant number of students going without health care.

Given the high cost of health care in the U.S., finding affordable health services can seem daunting. Where higher-income families can afford to keep their children on their own insurance policies while they’re in college, students from low-income families rarely have this option.

Some colleges and nonprofit organizations make health-related support services available to students. Federal and state governments can also lend support.

Contact Campus Health Care Center

Many university campuses have health care centers and clinics that cater to students. These clinics might offer some care free of charge or at a reduced cost. Some universities also offer access to affordable insurance at group rates.

Look Into Local and National Health Organizations

Finding health care is a challenge for students who don’t have a permanent home. Some organizations are devoted to helping homeless individuals find health care free of charge. You just have to search for them in your community.

Some good places to start are with the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, an organization dedicated to finding ways to make health care available to low-income and homeless people. You can find resources in your state through their directory of health care providers, which the organization helps fund.

Medicaid

College students who aren’t claimed as their parents’ dependent (meaning they must be living on their own and not covered by their parents’ health insurance) may qualify for free health insurance through Medicaid.

Medicaid is a federally funded health care program for low-income earners who can’t afford health insurance on their own. Many students either don’t work or only work part time, which means that they might be eligible for Medicaid under the program’s income parameters.

To find out if you might qualify, check with your state’s health care exchange or go to HealthCare.gov to see if you’re eligible for free health insurance coverage under Medicaid or reduced cost coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

Transportation Options for Low-Income Students

The expense of finding transportation to and from school and work can also affect a low-income student’s chances of succeeding in college. Fortunately, some resources can help.

Look Into Transportation Discounts Using a Student ID

Many public transit systems offer student discounts. Check with your municipal transit authority or your school’s transportation office to see if there is a program in your area. Usually, you will need to present a valid student ID to qualify for ride discounts.

Consider Carpooling

A great alternative to owning and maintaining a car is carpooling with other students. With the rising cost of gas, many of your fellow students will be happy to offer you a ride in exchange for helping out with the cost of gas. It’s a win-win. You get a virtually free ride, and they get help covering some of their transportation expenses.

Find More Savings and Resources

Managing all the costs of going to college and the living expenses of a student — including paying for tuition, books, housing, food, medical care, and transportation — can be a struggle for most students.

If you come from a low-income background with little or no financial support, the struggle can be overwhelming. Creating success as a student is possible as long as you take some time to understand and take advantage of available programs.

It’s important to budget wisely and watch every penny; that’s where CouponFollow can help. The best coupon offers, cash-back opportunities, and savings tools are just a click away.

about the author

Marc Mezzacca
Marc Mezzacca is CEO of CouponFollow, a consumer savings engine that surfaces popular coupons. He has been in the coupon and deals industry for over a decade with a deep interest in evolving e-commerce technologies.