Financial Aid Information
If you're thinking about attending online college, one of the first things you'll want investigate are financial aid opportunities. Finding the money to attend school can be a bit overwhleming if you've never done it before. Researching what steps to take, looking for programs, filling out forms and meeting deadlines can throw potential students into a tailspin. We're here to take some of the confusion out of the process and give you a good head start.
Start with the FAFSA
Most student financial assistance programs will require the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). FAFSA is used to determine your eligibility for federal, state, and college-sponsored financial aid, including grants, educational loans, and work-study programs. The FAFSA form is submitted to, and processed by, a federal processor contracted by the U.S. Department of Education (ED). The results are then electronically transmitted to the financial aid offices of the schools that you list on your application.
The FAFSA form is very comprehensive, and will require you to provide extensive information about your family's income, assets, size and the number of family members attending college. All of this information will be used to determine your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) toward paying for the cost of your education. The difference between your EFC and the costs of attending school is calculated as your financial need. Don't worry though, nearly everyone qualifies for financial aid of some type.
To be considered for the most financial aid opportunities, you should submit the FAFSA right after January 1st of the year you are attending school. So if you're starting school in September, you should submit your FAFSA as soon after January 1st as you can.
Applying for Financial Aid
You should apply for as many financial aid opportunities as possible. There are two reasons for this. One, most student aid programs will not cover the full cost of your tuition. The way to get around this is by using multiple student loans/grants, and/or scholarships to pay for your education. Two, you won't always get the financial aid program you apply for. So don't be caught short when you're pursuing your education. Do the work up front to prevent yourself from being caught in a tight financial situation.
There are a great variety of financial aid programs out there. We review the major ones below, but remember that these are only a starting point. As you start to do your own research you'll find other opportunities.
A grant does not need to be repaid. Grants are often available through state agencies and the federal goverment. Some of the most popular goverment grant programs are listed below, but there are many others:
- Federal Pell Grant: The largest federal grant program, this is based on the financial need of the applicant. The grant is up to $5,500.
- Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG): Grants range from $100 to $4,000 and are based on financial need.
- National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent (SMART) Grant: Grants are limited to those who are in their 3rd or 4th year of study and are majoring in math, techonology, engineering or physical/life, or computer sciences. A minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0 is required to be considered. Grants are up to $4,000.
- Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant: For those taking classes to begin a teaching career. Grants up to $4,000 a year. Note, although grants don't need to be repaid, for this particular one if you don't become a teacher you will need to repay the grant with interest.
State Grants and Scholarships
States award a variety of financial aid to students. Just like a grant, a scholarship does not need to be paid off. Because the offerings vary by state, you should investigate what's available in your state. A good place to start is the ED.gov site. They have a page that rounds up where you should go to find information about your state.
Most universities have a financial aid department. We encourage you to take advantage of this resource as it can be a gold mine of information. Your school might even have their own financial aid program.
Avoid Scholarship Scams
Beware of offers from sites or organizations that want money, too much information, and make too many promises. FinAid.org offers this bit of advice, "If you have to pay money to get money, it is probably a scam." Beware of any upfront expenditures such as "disbursement" or "redemption" fees. Be wary of "too good to be true" offers, and be suspicious of offers that promise you more money than you need.
Finally, the Federal Trade Commission offers these tell-tale signs of a scholarship scam:
- "The scholarship is guaranteed or your money back."
- "You can't get this information anywhere else."
- "I just need your credit card or bank account number to hold this scholarship."
- "We'll do all the work."
- "The scholarship will cost some money."
- "You've been selected by a 'national foundation' to receive a scholarship" or "You're a finalist" in a contest you never entered.
To aid in your search, we've put together some helpful financial aid sites. This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a good place to start.
- Federal Student Aid on the Web: Free financial aid information from the US Dept of Education
- Sallie Mae: Education company that provides federal and private student loans
- National Student Loan Data System: Central federal database to access and ask about your grant and/or Title IV loan
- National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators: Information about available financial aid opportunities
- Simple Tuition: Compare federal and private loans from multiple loan lenders
- Finaid: Student guide to financial aid
- Fastweb: Free scholarship matching service
- CollegeBoard: Not-for-profit association with financial aid information and scholarship searches
- CollegeScholarships.com: Information on a broad array of funding opportunities.
- Online Student Financial Aid: Search service that connects students with aid packages
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