You've got your course schedule for the semester, your packing is all done and then, all of a sudden, you realize, "Help! I can't pay my tuition!"
Most students fund their education through a variety of sources, like scholarships, grants, and loans. Sometimes, however, there's a last-minute financial gap—a remaining few hundred or thousand dollars that you still have left to pay. When you need help paying college fast, applying for scholarships isn't going to cut it. But there are a few things you can do. Here's our step-by-step guide on what to do when you're in a financial pinch just before your next semester.
1. Get an extension
Before you do anything else, call your college's financial aid office and ask for an extension. Because you're nearing a deadline for payment, you want to make sure that you have some extra time to sort things out.
2. Fill out a special circumstances form
If you're short on tuition money because you've experienced a change in your financial situation, i.e., if your parents were laid off or your family had large, unexpected medical bills, you may qualify for a special circumstances consideration.
Because your FAFSA is based on income from the previous year, it doesn't always reflect your current financial situation. This process could allow you to receive additional need-based aid. Call your financial aid office to find out how to fill out this form.
3. Set up a tuition payment plan
Many colleges offer payment plans. Essentially, they are plans that let you pay tuition costs in installments rather than a lump sum.
So instead of paying an entire semester or year's worth of education, your institution splits the bill into smaller, more frequent payments. Usually, you an pay your college tuition monthly with these plans.
While these plans are interest-free, there may be fees or charges. However, these plans are probably a good idea if you're strapped for cash and you plan on working or lowering your expenses to make your payments.
4. Find out what the drop date is
In most cases, you can drop a class after your semester has begun in order to lower your tuition costs. However, know that there's usually a cost associated with dropping a class after a certain timeframe. In other words, when you drop a class makes all the difference in whether or not you'll be charged a fee or whether or if you can recoup the costs of the class. Check with your school for these dates.
You should also be aware that dropping classes could affect your financial aid or scholarship status because there's usually a minimum requirement for credit enrollment. Always talk to your academic advisor and/or financial aid advisor before dropping a class.
5. Get a side hustle
In addition to work-study programs you might already be headed into, there are all sorts of side gigs you try to earn extra income. First, do you have any stuff that you could sell or post on Craigslist? Have a garage sell before heading off for college.
For longer-term side hustles that can put you through college, consider any skills you have or amenities you can offer. Are you an art major who can sell your work on Etsy and at local farmers' markets? Are you living in a house or apartment with an extra bedroom that you could post on AirBnb? Do you have a functional car that you can to drive people through an app like Lyft?
6. Rethink your expenses and budget
You should already have an idea of what your basic expenses will be for the semester. But now that you know exactly how much you're short for your tuition payment, it's time to revisit your budget.
Take the time to figure out how much money you plan on bringing in each month compared to your monthly bills.
Now, how much can you contribute to your tuition each month? What could you contribute if you cut back on your spending? If you can find an extra $50 or $100 each month, that's less money you'll need to borrow.
7. Borrow money from family
It's not always easy or ideal to ask your parents or other family members for money, but if there's a financial gap when it comes to tuition, it's worth considering it as an option. After all, your education is at stake.
If you have parents or family members who are willing and able to contribute to your upcoming semester's tuition, it might be time to ask for help. You can take out an informal, no-interest loan that you'll pay back when you can.
8. Consider emergency loans
Students who have last-minute financial barriers to paying tuition could be eligible to apply for an emergency, short-term loan. These loans are often used for tuition installment payments when you just can't meet your financial obligation - and they're becoming more common, with three out of four public colleges offering them.
Be sure to ask your college about borrowing limits, interest rates and repayment terms. These loans are especially useful if you are waiting on scholarship or grant money to come through but need to pay your tuition now.
Another option is borrowing the exact amount you need for the semester or year from a private lender. If you go this route, you can compare lender rates and repayment terms on our guide to the Best Private Student Loans of 2018.
9. Use a low-interest credit card
You might be wondering, "Can I pay tuition with a credit card?" Technically, yes. But use extreme caution. Millions of Americans are in credit card debt, and it's exactly the kind of debt that can quickly spiral out of control, especially if you have a high interest rate.
Ask yourself: Do you have a low enough interest rate - or can you get a better interest rate with a private student loan? Are you going to be able to make monthly payments on your credit card to not default? Does your college charge a fee for paying with a credit card?
Many people actually advise against using a credit card to pay for tuition, but if you're making a last-ditch effort to pay for your semester's tuition, it could be worth it.
Looking for more information on what to do if you have a last minute tuition guide? Check out our recent report.