A college degree often comes at a hefty cost for low-income students. Students who struggle to afford college are more likely to face financial worries, stress, and housing and food insecurity than their peers. Fortunately, many students overcome these burdens.
Qua’On Thomas, a low-income student at the University of Southern Florida, was concerned about how he would pay for college. Thanks to finding the right financial resources — which included the Pell Grant and the Florida Bright Futures Medallion Scholarship — he was able to make his dream of attending university and becoming a software engineer possible.
Perhaps your journey is like that of Qua’On. If so, you also have a variety of free or reduced-cost resources available to you as a low-income student. To make it easier to find them all, we’ve compiled a massive list of 40 impactful and effective resources for low-income college students. Get ready to bookmark this guide, take notes, and make your college dreams a reality.
Financial Aid Guidance for Low Income College Students
The average college degree in the United States cost $35,551 per year in 2020-2021, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. To help finance their degree, over 83.8% of students utilize financial aid. As a low-income student, you’ll want to consider filling out the FAFSA and other free resources to access as many financial aid opportunities as possible. Below, find various financial aid options, services, and organizations that exist to help low-income students succeed in college.
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau provides valuable information on the cost of college and different financial aid options. It also provides information on the student loan forgiveness initiative and ways to repay your student loans once you have graduated.
When financing college, the first step all low-income students should take is to complete the FAFSA. The FAFSA is used by federal and state governments to determine the distribution of grants, scholarships, and loans administered by the government. Many private organizations and universities also use FAFSA to distribute need-based aid. To learn more, check out our guide to understanding FAFSA.
Financial inTuition Podcast
If you want to learn about financial aid but prefer an audio format to the written word, this podcast is most likely for you. It covers topics like how to fill out the FAFSA and how to factor finances into the college decision-making process.
Online College Costs
Often, attending university online can be more affordable than an in-person program. In this guide, we break down how much online college can cost and different budgeting hacks and tricks to make your degree as affordable as possible.
Pay for College Without Student Loans
For low-income students, paying for college without student loans may seem like a pipe dream. Yet some low-income students have been able to attend college without loans, thanks to scholarships, employer-tuition assistance, and other financial aid opportunities. Read our no-loan college guide for more about creating a debt-free university experience.
Scholarship Search Engine
When you research scholarships, it can be tricky to locate available options that meet your eligibility requirements. Luckily, there is a free search engine that lets you search through thousands: Scholarships360. This hub features a search tool that allows you to filter the results based on eligibility. You can also view lists of themed scholarships and read advice on how to navigate the scholarship application process.
Understanding College Costs
For almost all college students, it can be tricky to get a clear idea of just how much college will ultimately cost. Sure, you can look at the tuition price, but you have other factors to consider, such as room and board, food, transportation, and college books. To help, the Department of Education created this guide to understanding the cost of college.
Income-based Scholarship Opportunities
Over $46 billion in scholarships is awarded annually, according to the U.S. Department of Education. While you should apply to as many scholarships as you can, make sure to search for need-based scholarships. These scholarships are awarded based in part on your income level, making this a great way to finance part of your education. Below are just a few income-based scholarships you may want to consider.
Banatao Family Filipino American Education Fund
If your heritage is 50% Filipino or more and you have demonstrated financial need, you may be eligible for the Banatao Family Filipino American Education Fund. This $5,000 annual award ($20,000 total) is granted to four students from certain California counties each year. Applications open in spring and are due by mid-summer.
The Gates Scholarship
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation offers full-ride scholarships to high school seniors who demonstrate significant financial need. The deadline to apply is Sept. 15, and there is a significant application process involved with this scholarship. Visit their website to apply and get full details.
Herbert Lehman Education Fund Scholarship
If you’re a member of an ethnic, cultural, or racial minority and can demonstrate financial need, consider the Herbert Lehman Education Fund Scholarship. All applications are due by April 4, and awards are typically $3,000 per year for four years if the student continues full-time study, remains in good academic standing, and fulfills all other requirements. Apply here.
Jack Kent Cooke College Scholarship
High school seniors who demonstrate financial need may be eligible for a Jack Kent Cooke College Scholarship. These scholarships provide up to $55,000 in funding each year and can be used in any area of study. The deadline to apply is Nov. 16.
LULAC National Scholarship Fund
If you are a Latino student who is currently enrolled in college and can demonstrate financial need, you may be eligible for an award from the LULAC National Scholarship Fund. Scholarship amounts range from $250-$2,000, and scholarships are awarded to students in specific states. Applications are available in February; for more information on other eligibility requirements, visit their website.
Ron Brown Scholarship
Black students who come from low-income families should consider applying to the Ron Brown Scholarship. This $40,000 scholarship ($10,000 a year) is offered to 40-50 students annually. The committee begins accepting applications on Aug. 1 each year. If you’re interested, apply here.
Academic Support Resources
Because low-income students experience college in a different way than their peers, they are often overwhelmed or unlikely to access academic support resources. However, a 2023 study demonstrated that when they do access free academic resources, they are just as successful as their peers. To that end, here are seven resources to help you boost or maintain your GPA and level of academic performance.
Almost everyone has a few courses that trip them up. When this happens, it’s often useful to seek out an academic tutor. This is someone employed by your university who can often provide free help based on their expertise in specific courses. These tutors frequently work through academic achievement centers such as the one at Ohio University.
While your university may offer career coaching services, there’s also a national organization that offers these services to college students free of cost. That nonprofit is the National College Attainment Network. To qualify for free career coaching through this organization, students must demonstrate financial need.
Low-income students are more likely to drop out of college according to some studies, but The Education Trust is a nonprofit on a mission to change that. This organization provides several free resources for first-generation and low-income college students. These resources help them navigate college courses, create an effective study plan, and figure out how their major translates into a career.
Professional Development Center
College isn’t just about getting the grades; it’s also about using your amazing GPA, education, and experience to create a better post-grad future. To help, many universities have professional development centers that often provide guidance on resumes and interviews at no cost to students. They may also advertise entry-level jobs and internships. The professional development center from Elon University is a good example to explore.
Purdue Online Writing Lab
If you need help on citation styles, writing strategies, and grammar, consider checking out Purdue Online Writing Lab. This free online hub provides a number of resources, from a citation generator to videos explaining key communication principles.
Mentorship can play an important role in your academic life and post-grad plans, yet it can be tricky to find a mentor. To fix this problem, many organizations have created free virtual mentoring programs. A popular program that students from any major can apply to is the On Call Mentoring Program through Grad Resources.
If you’re struggling with a paper at the brainstorming, writing, or editing phase, your university writing center can help. Often, you can find your university writing center by typing “writing center” and your university’s name into Google. If you’re interested in exploring a college writing center, the University Writing Center at Texas A&M is a solid example of a robust resource center.
Food and Housing Assistance in College for Students in Need
Worrying about where your next meal is coming from or where you’ll sleep after class is something no one should experience. Yet 34-36% of college students face housing or food insecurity. These insecurities can make it harder to focus in class, participate in extracurriculars, and enjoy the college experience. Luckily, there are some free resources that can help, and the below suggestions are a good place to start.
Conquering Student Hunger
If you’re facing food insecurity, our guide to conquering student hunger may be a good resource to explore. In this guide, we detail the factors contributing to student hunger, how student hunger may impact you, and steps you (and colleges) can take to minimize food insecurity.
Federal Food Assistance Programs
The federal government offers a number of food assistance programs, such as SNAP, TEFAP, and WIC. This alphabet soup can be hard to understand; fortunately Feeding America offers guidance on the types of food assistance and eligibility requirements for each. The federal government also offers more information, as well as instructions on how to apply.
Federal Rental Assistance
Low-income students are often eligible for rental assistance, where the government pays part of your rent or provides subsidized government housing. There are various rental and housing security programs hosted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The website helps you navigate through the options, explore eligibility requirements, and apply to the right program for you.
Along with federal housing options, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development offers free housing counselors. These counselors help low-income individuals navigate housing options, rental prices, and can act as an advocate during the rental process. They can also speak about federal housing types and help you determine the type of aid for which you as a low-income student may qualify.
Meals Under $10
With the rising cost of groceries, many low-income students find it harder and harder to cook nutritious and filling meals on a budget. To help, the popular food blog Budget Bytes offers a long list of meals that families and individuals can make for less than $10 a meal.
If you make just above the poverty level or are ineligible for federal aid, the nonprofit Modest Needs may be able to help. This organization provides self-sufficiency grants that can help folks who are low income but above the poverty line. Grant money can be used on food and housing, along with other basic necessities.
Swipe Out Hunger
Swipe Out Hunger is a national non-profit working to end food insecurity and create hunger-free campuses. The organization advocates for hunger-free campus bills to be passed in all 50 states and offers community-based and campus-based resources for food-insecure students. They also have toolkits in case you need to advocate for food security on your campus.
Mental Health Support for College Students
Students with financial worries are more likely to experience insomnia, anxiety, and depression, suggests a 2021 study. But your mental health doesn’t have to suffer. It is possible to maintain good mental health as a low-income student, and the resources below can help.
For many Americans, getting a college degree is a stressful experience. When you add financial worries to the pressure of midterms, exams, and post-grad plans, it becomes almost unbearable. Luckily, there are solutions to managing stress, and some of the most effective options are outlined in our guide to stress management in college.
Campus Mental Health Resources
Many college campuses provide online therapy and other mental health programs. Often, they partner with a teletherapy company, such as BetterHelp, which connects students to mental health counselors and therapists at no cost to the student. Check with your campus to see what free or reduced-price therapy options are available.
College Student Journal Prompts
If your thoughts feel too overwhelming or loud to meditate, writing them down may help. Northwestern University provides journal prompts for college students around the themes of mental health and self-discovery. You can answer any (or all) of these prompts on paper, in a notebook, on your computer, or in your phone’s notes app.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal ideation or another mental health crisis, the mental health crisis hotline is a critical resource. Available for free, callers can talk to a trained mental health professional to address a crisis in the moment. The professional will also provide free or reduced-price mental health resources you can utilize after the call.
Meditation for College Students
Meditation is one of the most powerful forms of mental health maintenance. Plus, it’s free and can be done anywhere. By searching meditations on YouTube, you can find many free options, including this meditation designed specifically for stressed-out college students.
Mental Health Resources
This website created by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is devoted to providing free and reduced-cost mental health resources and education. It provides information on different mental health conditions, resources that you can utilize to improve your mental health, and guidance around how to talk about mental health.
ULifeline is a national nonprofit devoted to helping students discover free ways to boost their mental wellness. The organization provides a tool to locate mental health resources in your area or on your campus, advice on how to help a friend who is struggling with their mental health, and guidance about how to recognize the signs of mental health issues in yourself.
Other Resources for Low-Income College Students
While housing and food insecurity, financial aid, locating need-based scholarships, and mental health conditions are some of the biggest challenges low-income students face, they aren’t the only ones. To help you navigate other challenges, explore the resources below.
Balancing Work and School
Working a part-time or full-time job is an amazing way to earn some extra income while attending college. However, it can be tricky to navigate working and attending university at the same time. To help, Stanford University created a guide to balancing work and college obligations.
College books and materials can become expensive quickly. However, you can cut costs by buying used books on Amazon or a similar site. For an even more cost-friendly option, you can rent college textbooks. Campusbooks.com is one of the most affordable places to rent your college textbooks.
If you’re juggling parenthood and college, you might struggle to pay for childcare while attending class. Luckily, many universities offer free or affordable campus daycares to faculty and students. For example, the University of Michigan and the University of Washington offer subsidized or free childcare for students with children. Check with your institution to see what resources are available.
First-Generation Student Support
Many low-income students are also first-generation college students. As the first in your family to attend university, the transition is often harder, and you can feel more alone in navigating college courses and your post-grad plans. To help, the University of Oregon created a hub of resources for first-generation college students.
FirstGen Fellows Program
Students who are the first in their family to attend college or who want to address social justice issues upon graduating should consider the FirstGen Fellows program. This program coordinates paid summer internships for accepted students. During these internships, fellows receive hands-on experience advocating for civil rights, participate in training and professional development seminars, and join a growing community of emerging leaders.
Living Without a Car
Low-income college students often have to travel back and forth to campus without a car. Even if your program is fully online, it can be tricky to get to a part-time job or other obligations without a car. Luckily, Money Crashers created a guide to life without a car, which includes cost-effective alternatives and ideas for those who may not have access to a vehicle during college.
50 More Resources
If you didn’t find everything you were looking for on this list, there are many more resources to explore. Before you click out of this browser to search for other tools and tips, check out our list of 50 resources for in-person and online college students.
Expert Interview: Support for Low Income College Students
Felicia Keller Boyle
What was your experience applying to colleges as a low-income college student?
I remember angsting over how to apply to college or afford to go. It was a scary time in many ways, and I felt like there was no room to make the “wrong” choice. I was raised by a single mom who worked as a house cleaner and massage therapist. She didn’t have any money to help me with tuition.
I was accepted into every school I applied to, including UCLA and Berkeley, but decided to go to Pepperdine because there was a chance for me to graduate early due to having taken so many AP classes in high school. Due to academics and need, I was able to get quite a few grants and scholarships, but I still had to take out loans.
What are some underrated budgeting hacks you used?
At school I was very careful about every penny I spent, including meal points. I stopped drinking soda because I thought dessert would be more satisfying. I participated in the work study program and took a job in our campus museum. During summers, I moved back home and worked, usually taking multiple low-paying jobs.
How can low-income students seek out mentors or advisors who can provide guidance on their academic and career paths?
Ask. You’d be surprised that many people would be happy to help you and would love the opportunity to share their own stories and expertise. Look for people you admire and ask them to meet with you for a coffee or a video call. Ask them to share their story with you. Be a curious listener. If you hit it off, you ask them to be your mentor. Even if you get some no’s, or it takes a while, keep on asking until you get a yes.
What strategies did you use to maintain your physical and mental health while working during college?
My college made therapy available to its students. One semester, I decided to go to the counseling center and was able to meet with a therapist for a few months. That was really helpful. Many colleges have special resources specifically for first-generation and low-income college students. You can talk to your academic advisor to help you get connected. Don’t let embarrassment stop you from taking advantage of free resources. You’ve already faced significant challenges getting to where you’re right now, so milk those resources for all they’re worth!
When you’re the first person in your family to go to college and you don’t have a lot of money, it can feel like there isn’t any room to experiment or make a mistake. If I had college to do over again, I would have taken some classes for fun instead of hustling through my major and graduating early. If I could give your younger self some advice, I’d say, “You don’t have to be perfect. Have some fun.”
How can low-income students ensure they have access to the necessary technology and resources for their coursework?
Look for scholarships specifically for low-income students and giveaways for tech supplies. Some companies offer discounts on laptops for students, and there are scholarships that are specifically to help students acquire the tech they need. Unless you plan to pursue an arts degree, you likely will only need a simple device to access the internet, research, and write papers. You can get a Chromebook for a few hundred dollars. Look to see if your school has a resource center for low-income students, or clubs or affinity groups that you qualify for. They may offer tutoring and technology resources that aren’t available to the general student body. And whenever you see a gap in services, ask for it to be filled. You could spur changes at your institution that not only help you, but other students like you.
What steps should low-income students take to prepare for their careers while in college?
Talk about your dreams and goals. Make them known, and don’t downplay your skills. One of the hard things about being a low-income student is that you may deal with insecurities. Though you may not be in the same financial situation as many of your peers, you get to be just as confident and sure of yourself. Learn how to speak about yourself in a way that puts your best qualities forward. Look for internships that align with your career. I studied psychology in school and got an internship at a local nonprofit. While there, I developed good relationships with the social work staff and managers. The next semester, while I was still in school, I was offered a part-time job. I used the experience in that job to help me get my first job right after school. Look for jobs that are in your career path and know you can keep on trading up for better positions. Nurture relationships wherever you go. Having a solid network can help propel your career forward.
How can low-income students prepare for and handle unexpected financial emergencies while in college?
If possible, get a part-time job just to have some cash coming in. Look for jobs on or near campus first to cut down the money you’d spend commuting to your workplace. Even if it’s only a few dollars a week, get in the habit of setting some money aside. For the rest of your life, it will be helpful to have an emergency fund, and you can start right where you’re at. Even if you’re not able to save that much money right now, the habit will be immensely helpful.
How can low-income students address and overcome any social stigma or stereotypes they may encounter on campus?
Find other people like you who can relate to your unique challenges. This will be helpful in moments of stress when you need to vent and know that the person listening really understands your experience. But don’t let your differences stop you from making friends with people of different socioeconomic levels. Know that wealthy students who have more money only have it because of the families they grew up in. They aren’t actually better than you. You may have a lot more in common than you think, and spending time with peers of different socioeconomic levels could introduce you to new experiences and opportunities. There may be some tense moments when you get invited to a trip or dinner that’s out of your price range. It’s always possible that that could strain the relationship, but know that the best friendships will survive these moments.
On the off chance that you encounter someone who has an issue with your current socioeconomic level or is cruel to you, don’t waste your time with them. Remember that their actions have way more to do with them than with you. Being a low-income student isn’t who you are. It’s just your current life circumstance. By going to college and pursuing a career, you are actively trying to change your socioeconomic status. You’ve taken a brave step to invest in yourself and pursue your dreams.