Can You Still Afford College Without Money?

That’s a resounding YES; here’s how without talking about student loans. Start learning about how to learn (see what I did there?) right now.

A 100 dollar bill with ben franklin wearing a graduation cap.

College, with good reason, is typically associated with a few things: ivy-laced campuses, overcrowded lectures with either nearly asleep students or full-on asleep students, and money. The latter is simply because college is not cheap (or at least many colleges are not cheap); it never has been, but now, according to both Business Insider and Inside Higher Ed, as more people want to attend college, it remains extremely expensive. In essence, college is like a splurge purchase that really ought to be available for anyone and everyone. And right now, with both the pandemic (per Vox) and unemployment skyrocketing (per Pew Research Center), people don’t think they can afford that expense. But college can be more affordable than you think, and it’s worth it too.

In this blog, we’re going to discuss receiving Financial Aid to pay for college as well as how to handle the coursework, registering for classes, and paying for books and materials once you begin, especially for students a bit low on cash. To learn more about this subject I spoke with Chinh Pham, Director of Coastline’s Financial Aid Office, and Mai Le, Director of EOPS/CARE/NextUp & CALWorks at Coastline. Let’s hear what they had to say.

A young man pumps his fist while wearing a graduation robe and cap; the cap has a dollar sign on it.

Financial Aid

Talking to Chinh, it became clear what the major obstacle was, at least for Coastline, for people receiving Financial Aid, and it’s not what you’d think. “A lot of times,” Chinh says. “In our office, we get students who just don’t think they qualify.” The result: they don’t apply to FAFSA, aka Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

“They think ‘oh my parents make too much money,’ or ‘my parents’ income plus my income means I shouldn’t even bother applying,’” continues Chinh. It doesn’t help that the FAFSA application is over 100 questions long, leading to a classic case of form malaise.

I wish I could patent that feeling of staring down a long questionnaire and willing myself to fill it out, but not actually doing so. If I could patent it, I’d be richer than Jeff Bezos (and it would be more eco-friendly too). Chinh pointed out that congress may make the application shorter (according to CNN), which can’t happen soon enough.

A set of FAFSA forms.

Financial Aid: Reloaded

Chinh’s advice was to just fill out the FAFSA anyway, even if you think you don’t qualify. “People are always surprised that they qualify, even for just a little aid,” he says. This brings up another question: alternatives to FAFSA.

Chinh mentioned the California Dream Act, which is specifically designed for undocumented students who wouldn’t qualify for federal aid. There is also the California College Promise Grant, which waives your enrollment fees ($46/unit). Chinh recommends you fill out the FAFSA first, but if you refuse to, there is a way to apply only to the California College Promise Grant.

A calculator, so you can calculate your financial aid, after filling out FAFSA

Financial Aid: Revolutions

Furthermore, there is the AB19 Bill, otherwise known as the California College Promise (but not the same promise as the first California College promise—it’s all very confusing, which may be partially why more people don’t apply). You can apply to this Promise through your specific California community college, and check eligibility requirements specifically at Coastline HERE.

Chinh brought up that there are various scholarships around the country as well, which I’ve touched on in the past too. But, he also mentioned that many of these require FAFSA enrollment, which brings me right back (full circle) to Chinh’s first point: “Students should fill out the FAFSA or California Dream Act if they can,” because so much potential aid rolls out from those two programs.

A counselor talks to a student about academics.


The reason many students don’t sign up or apply to EOPS, which stands for Extended Opportunity Programs & Services, says EOPS Director Mai Le, is not the same as it is with Financial Aid, but it does rhyme. “There’s a stigma,” Mai says. This stigma arises in students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the exact backgrounds EOPS is designed to serve.

“They don’t want to admit that they need this aid,” Mai continues. It can be especially difficult since EOPS is intended for low-income students as well as people whose first language may not be English.

A young woman who is starting college talks to her EOPS counselor via Zoom.

EOPS 2: EOPS Harder

Much of what EOPS does involves a certain amount of “hand-holding” says Mai. EOPS will help you register for courses, nowadays over the phone or via Zoom, if that’s possible. But, Mai cautions, they don’t do the work for the students: “We’ll walk them through how to register, so maybe it takes ten minutes instead of fifteen,” and then soon enough it will only take five.

An academic counselor talks to a student who has his head in his hands.

EOPS With a Vengeance

Beyond registering courses, where EOPS really shines is in its support system and counseling. EOPS participants can call and ask their counselor for help in a class, with a professor, questions about applying to four-year colleges, anything at all, even if it’s not necessarily academic.

Mai wants to create an environment where these students can do more than survive; it’s a place to cultivate thriving students, where academic goals actually become attainable and within reach with actionable steps and guidance.

A 100 dollar bill is crowned with a graduation cap; it sits on top of a diploma.

Wrappin’ It Up

There’s no doubt that college is a financial burden. But, as I’ve written before, delaying college, even just by a year, can actually have a large impact on your financial future down the line, an approximately $90,000 impact. That shouldn’t be the case, but it unfortunately is; it’s worth investing in Financial Aid and EOPS, if only to see whether you qualify and can afford to start learning today. Education is more important now than ever before; with a pandemic and high unemployment, finding an affordable college that can teach you what you need in a career with high demand is paramount; if you’re uncertain if you can afford college, apply for Financial Aid today; and once you arrive at Coastline, apply for EOPS to make your educational journey a thriving one.

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