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43 Heartbreaking Stories About How Families Paid For College

"My parents had to take out a 401(k) loan, but in the end, they were homeless while I was in college."

Posted on July 31, 2019, at 3:33 p.m. ET

BuzzFeed News

Students and their families told BuzzFeed News they are going to extreme lengths to pay for college: withdrawing money early from retirement plans, moving in with relatives, and even taking out second mortgages on homes. In some extreme cases, parents are giving up custody of their children to qualify for financial aid, ProPublica reported this week. At Tuesday’s Democratic debate, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders spoke of their plans to cancel debt and create tuition-free colleges.

We asked the BuzzFeed Community to tell us how they paid for college. We received hundreds of responses.

"Anyone who says costs like this are manageable is sadly ignorant about people's real-life situations," one reader wrote. "Sometimes 'just work harder' doesn't work."

Some students financed it on their own by taking out loans — before they were old enough to drink. One person said they have $200,000 worth of debt. Another took out private loans even though though they and their parents were working seven jobs combined — it "wasn't enough." A few were only able to pay for school with a dead parents' life insurance payout or legal settlement. "In truth, my mom's life insurance paid for my bachelor's degree." Others participated in programs like AmeriCorps or state college savings programs (Florida Prepaid, for instance), or joined the military. Some parents, on principle, expect their children to pay for their own education; other parents paying off their own student loans and other expenses were unable to contribute.

Going to college remains a choice and a privilege in 2019, yet stories like these raise concerns about how much sacrifice universities can expect families to make.

1. My mom moved us back in with her parents.

It was a huge hit to her confidence (a fortysomething moving in with her parents). But she was able to save what we were paying for rent and put it towards tuition.


2. The summer after high school graduation, we moved from our apartment into our family friend's basement.

My mom had to get a second part-time job. I had a part-time job that allowed me to pay for a portion of my studies. I am proud to say that my family did it.


3. My parents had to take out a 401(k) loan, but in the end, they were homeless while I was in college.

Bodnarchuk / Getty Images

It sucked being at school knowing my family didn't have anywhere to live and that it was all my fault.


4. My parents withdrew money from their retirement accounts, and we got money from the VA due to my dad being a disabled vet.

We all worked at least part time while we were in school, and got grants and scholarships (we all had good grades and test scores). My dad worked all through his fight with cancer, up until a couple of months before he passed away. We still ended up with over $20,000 in student loans.


5. My mom is in hundreds of thousands of student loan debt herself from pharmacy school.

She has taken out thousands of parent PLUS loans for both my brother and me so that we could afford university, living, groceries, and more. She works countless hours.


6. My dad is still struggling with his own student loans from a Bible degree that went nowhere. He has borrowed money from me in the past.

He made sure I knew that school was not the only option and to really weigh my choices about college carefully. I went to a community college and then transferred to an institution that guarantees that low-income students can graduate debt-free.


7. I’ll graduate, but in about $100,000 in debt.

My parents only make around $30,000 to $40,000 a year. Between owning a house, a child living at home, and paying off their OWN college debt, there was no other option.


8. My mom just finished paying off her student loans for her master's degree after 30 years. I knew that they could never actually pay for me.

I took a gap year after high school to find a job and worked as many hours as I could before attending school and continued working as much as possible while I was in school to pay for tuition myself without any loans.


9. My best friend's dad was a landscaper and took a second job as a night janitor to pay for her expensive art school.

Unfortunately, he got injured two years in and lost both the jobs. Now they’re hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and he’s working at a call center. My friend feels terrible because her job doesn't have to do with her degree — but it’s money to pay off the debt.


10. My dad worked weekends as an event DJ.

Weddings, retirement parties, etc. —gennaw2

11. We lived behind our store as kids.

I’m the daughter of immigrant parents from Hong Kong. My parents ran the local grocery store for 360 days of the year, seven days a week, 12 hours a day for over 25 years. We lived behind our store as kids and were a main source of our parents' labor and help at the store. Truly, my parents and this store is what paid for all FOUR of us to go to school. I’m currently 29 in the health profession (I am paying off those LOVELY loans by myself) and so dang proud of how I got through college. —daltrial

12. My mom paid for my books and I had an uncle who gave me $1,000 per semester for tuition. Both of which I was super grateful for.

We were blue collar, lower-middle class. They had nothing. Not even a retirement account. I did work study jobs and had two AmeriCorps positions that I got $8,500 from. During grad school, I worked an internship and two jobs to support me and my daughter. Yet my student loans are more than what I owe on my house. Student loans make up $115,000 still of the amount of debt I have.


13. My brother's middle school principal helped secure a scholarship for me.

My mother was a single parent, and my two younger brothers are both on the autism spectrum. We lived paycheck to paycheck, and sometimes that just wasn’t enough. When I applied for college, I qualified for aid, but would have had to take out loans as well. I did a lot to take care of my brothers and keep my family going. My brother's middle school principal took notice. He wrote a very kind letter to my university, securing a scholarship that would cover all remaining costs, including room and board. To this day, I am so incredibly thankful for his kindness.


14. My grandmother was actually a huge contributor to my college fund.

Rgstudio / Getty Images

Not only was she working in an era when most women were expected to stay at home, but she became a partner in an accounting firm that she helped build. She was able to save a lot of money and put a good portion of it aside for my dad's education and eventually my brother's and mine as well.


15. My grandfather left my mom and her two siblings each a piece of property.

My mom sold off this gift from her late father to help me out with my senior year tuition.


16. My mom used the inheritance from my grandma to help pay for my schooling.

I worked throughout college and received an enormous scholarship from my school. When I graduated in 2017, I had about $32,000 in loans. My mom calculated that between her four children, she paid over $100,000 for us to go to college, most of which came from her 401(k) and inheritance.


17. In truth, my mom's life insurance paid for my bachelor's degree.

My mother was a nurse practitioner, and my dad was a social worker. I found a public in-state school I loved (go UNC Greensboro!), but when the time came for me to go to college, my mother's breast cancer returned. It eventually took her life.


18. The only reason my dad was able to pay for my tuition was that my mother passed away my senior year of high school and she had life insurance.

When people bring up how lucky I am, I remind them that I’d rather have a mom than money.


19. My dad was killed in a workplace accident.

Part of the settlement was that my post-secondary education was covered 100% until I turned 26.


20. We were expats who lived in nine countries as a family.

Nadezhda1906 / Getty Images

Part of my father's expat deal was that his company would pay for private school and college tuition.


21. My parents participated in Florida Prepaid.

Basically they got in a locked-down tuition amount, and made monthly payments for like 15 years.


22. My city introduced an education grant where if you went to our city schools from at least sophomore through senior year, you got free tuition to a limited number of schools.

I lived at home (the grant didn’t cover room and board). I don’t know how I would have afforded school otherwise.


23. I was lucky enough to have a small trust fund...but still came away with about $27,000 in debt

It's about $30,000, left by a grandfather. That still only covered the first 1½ years. After that, I had to work weekends and use loans and grants completely. I saved as much as I could, but still came away with about $27,000 in debt. I live within my means and I've refinanced and consolidated where possible, but I've made very little progress in paying them off since graduating six years ago.


24. My parents made too much money for me to get a government loan but not enough to pay for school.

I got a bank loan they cosigned. I’m still paying it off 12 years later, and it will probably be another three years at least before it’s paid off. And I’m not even working in the field I went to school for.


25. I ended up receiving $11,000 in aid and took out a $13,000 loan, and used everything in my 529 for one semester.

I don’t think FAFSA really understands what that’s like. You can be middle class and still not have enough money for college. —caitlino496915876

26. I joined the Army and they paid for it.

Bumblee_dee / Getty Images

I believe the responsibility of paying for college should be on the student, not the parent.


27. My parents cut me off for good when I came out as gay.

I transferred to a more affordable school. I worked my ass off in crap jobs all through undergrad and then grad school. I have a PhD now and $200,000 of debt.


28. My parents had me sign an agreement that I would pay their loans back as if they were my own.

My parents believe that college is an individual’s choice and if I wanted to go, I should pay for it myself. I have almost $100,000 in loans (shout-out to accruing interest) from a state school in NY. Now I’m in law school taking out more loans.


29. My dad was the sole income provider for a household of six (I have three sisters).

We lived in a one-bedroom apartment until I was 9. We had to forgo vacations and other simple luxuries (going out to eat, new clothes for school, etc.). I picked the most affordable college and elected not to live in a dorm. I worked random jobs like babysitting and answering phones while in school. I still graduated with loans but it was manageable once I found a job.


30. My dad was in a union and worked a slightly later shift to get overtime pay two hours a day.

He put the shift differential in an account every payday. I am so proud of my family and so thankful.


31. My mom worked three jobs and my dad worked two. I also worked two jobs.

And I still owe money to credit cards and private loans because all those seven jobs combined wasn't enough. —thelmanaranjor

32. I worked three jobs to pay my way through college. I participated in medical studies to help pay the way. I got student loans.

I am now a full-time RN but I still work three jobs and had to take out another student loan to pay towards getting my BSN.


33. My parents saved for 18 years. However, my college fund has officially run out.

My dad has been working much longer hours than usual to be able to pay for my school.


34. My dad paid for my books and I paid the tuition. A combo of scholarships and six jobs for me. Naps in my car during lunch.

Comzeal / Getty Images

I made it out with $3,400 in student loans from my senior year when I was sick from exhaustion and anxiety. I was so caught up trying to pay for college that I barely experienced college.


35. I worked while going to college, and also took out federal loans for the expenses I couldn’t pay for.

Graduated college with $35,000 in debt, worked two jobs and continued living with roommates to pay it all off in two years. Paying off college loans before taking out grad school loans was huge for me.


36. I had to work, get loans, and pay for it myself while raising a child of my own, because my family thought college was not important.

My parents said they wouldn't pay a dime so I waited until age 25 to go. I have two master's degrees now.


37. In high school, I took classes at a community college for credit to make sure I could graduate in four years.

I went to a school that was more affordable than my top choice. Then I did two years of AmeriCorps to earn education awards to pay off most of my loans. I paid off my $18,000 in loans when I was 32.


38. The 27 college credits from the college classes I took in high school saved me over $20,000 in tuition and other fees. I applied for so many scholarships.

I had a $14,000 bill for my whole first year, which my amazing moms helped me pay for by taking out a couple loans. Now I have earned enough scholarships to have my account credited this semester, which means I do not have to pay anything.


39. I worked at least 24 hours a week and studied. It was not easy and it was not fun.

Last summer I was working 48 hours a week between a full-time internship and my more permanent employer along with my full-time classwork. I luckily landed the Pell Grant and Oregon Opportunity Grant, which helped a lot. I still graduated with $16,000 in student loan debt. If there's any advice I can offer, it's go to community college for as much as you can. Only take what you need in loans and don't let the interest accrue on unsubsidized or private loans. —happyhat

40. I took out loans, got grants, and worked up to three jobs to pay my bills.

I’m still $60,000 in debt.


41. My mom cosigned a private loan for me for $10,000, which my parents then paid the interest payments on for three years until I took over the payments.

For my last semester of college, I was short financial aid funds. My dad took out $3,000 from his retirement fund.


42. I got a job at 16 and at least half of my income went into a savings account for college. My parents also put money aside.

I had a part-time job throughout college. I was awarded a full scholarship for my first two years and I lived at home then. The last two years of college, I moved to the main campus and used the money we had saved.


43. Graduated in the mid-’90s and I’m probably one of the last people to get a college degree for the bargain basement price of $15,000.

My father was an oil tech, blue-collar worker. Mom was a state employee. Between cashing in vacation (he’d been with his company for 20 years) and selling off small bits of company stock, my parents paid for my college in full.


Note: Submissions have been edited for length and clarity.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.