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Whether you study online or on campus, financial aid can help you pay for college. Online learners are eligible for the same financial aid options as traditional students, including federal financial aid.
Accredited colleges and universities offer various types of financial aid for online students, ranging from loans to scholarships to grants. A good starting point is checking your eligibility for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
We'll walk you through all the financial aid options for online college students and the application process for securing funds.
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Types of Financial Aid for Online College
Many students use multiple sources to fund their degrees. Each type of financial aid can have varying requirements and limitations. We'll walk you through some of the most popular financial aid options for online students.
Scholarships for Online Students
Private donors, organizations, state governments, and colleges provide scholarship aid. Your grades, career interests, or financial need can all qualify you for a scholarship. You can also narrow your pool of competitors by looking for scholarships specifically for online students studying your major.
Explore organizations or foundations for private scholarship opportunities that are specific to your program, advises Raquel Arevalo, assistant director of financial aid at Rice University.
When applying for scholarships, you'll usually need to provide an essay writing sample, college transcripts, and information about your expected family contribution.
Loans for Online Students
Loans are borrowed money the federal government or private lenders provide to students. You'll want to look specifically at the varying loan terms and interest rates when choosing.
Based on the FAFSA form, you can apply for subsidized loans, unsubsidized loans, Direct PLUS loans, or direct consolidation loans.
Undergraduates in financial need can apply for subsidized loans, which do not accrue interest while they attend college. Unsubsidized loans, for students not necessarily in financial need, collect interest while in college.
Grants for Online College
The federal and state governments, as well as colleges and nonprofits, offer grants. Unlike loans, grants do not need repayment. For instance, Pell Grants provide low-income students with funding for college that doesn't need to be repaid unless they leave college early.
Typically, grants are given for financial need. Scholarships can be granted based on a wide variety of factors, including financial need, academic merit, special interests, and achievements.
Work-Study for Online Students
Federal work-study programs allow online students to get paid to work part-time on campus or off campus. Often, work-study positions allow students to engage in community service while earning money for college.
Online college students are eligible for work-study programs — they just have to complete the FAFSA application, indicate that they have interest in the program and meet the school's eligibility, said Arevalo.
How to Apply for Financial Aid as an Online Student
The financial aid process does not differ between online and traditional students, said Arevalo.
Students would still be eligible for the same type of funding such as grants and loans as long as they complete the FAFSA application and the school is accredited.
Your college's financial aid office offers guidance to help you pay your tuition. These steps can ensure that you apply for all eligible funding.
1. Check Your Eligibility
The federal government sets basic eligibility requirements for financial aid. As an online learner, you can qualify for all the loans, scholarships, and grants that are also available to traditional students.
Your eligibility for aid often hinges on your financial need or what you and your family can contribute to your education. To qualify, you must also hold U.S. citizenship and pursue an accredited degree or certificate program.
2. Fill out the FAFSA
The FAFSA is the first step to getting federal financial aid as an online student. You'll fill in basic information about yourself and answer questions about your family's financial strength.
Your application will determine your eligibility for financial aid and how much you'll receive, so make sure you answer correctly. It's common for online colleges to require a completed FAFSA with a student's admission application. All students need to create a StudentAid.gov account to complete this free form.
3. Submit Applications
To complete a FAFSA, you need to submit your Social Security number (or A-Number if you do not hold U.S. citizenship). Also, expect to submit federal income tax returns, with the option to transfer your filing directly from the Internal Revenue Service.
The FAFSA form also requires bank statements, income dates, and bank account balances. If you qualify as a dependent student, your parents or legal guardian must submit their financial information.
Financial Aid Challenges Online Students Face
Colleges sometimes place limitations on financial aid for online learners. You may need to go to school full-time to receive certain aid or attend courses on campus to qualify for federal or state aid.
Generally, studying online does not exclude you from the same federal financial aid offered to traditional students. However, going to an unaccredited college or university makes you ineligible to receive federal financial aid.
Frequently Asked Questions About Financial Aid for Online College
Can a Pell Grant be used for online classes?
Pell Grants go to any qualified online or on-campus program. You do not need to repay these funds for your online degree. The federal government allows you to receive Pell Grants for six years, or what equates to 12 terms.
Is online college cheaper than attending on campus?
Online degrees offer a lower overhead, which usually makes them more affordable. Many colleges also offer in-state tuition to out-of-state learners.
That said, sometimes colleges charge the same or more for online degrees because of required technology fees, support services, and marketing fees. According to a 2020 CHLOE 4 report from Quality Matters and Eduventures Research, most colleges charge similar tuition rates to online and on-campus students.
While the cost of attendance can vary, online degrees are not more expensive, and in fact, students can save some money on commuting, housing and other expenses, said Arevalo.
Is there a deadline for submitting the FAFSA for online college students?
Yes, there are three deadlines to keep in mind. Your college sets an early FAFSA deadline, which varies by institution. Submitting your FAFSA early means maximizing the amount of aid you receive.
States also determine FAFSA dates, which differ from the U.S. Department of Education (ED), which needs your FAFSA by June 30 at the latest.
Does FAFSA cover online certificate programs?
Yes, the FAFSA can be used to find aid for certificate programs. The ED provides federal financial aid in the form of loans, grants, and work-study opportunities that can go toward covering certificate programs from accredited colleges.
Can I transfer my financial aid from another institution to an online college?
You cannot always transfer your financial aid from one college to another. Check with your new school to make sure that you can receive financial aid and see if you need to file withdrawals to cancel your payments.
You'll also need to update your FAFSA with your new school. Keep in mind that if you transfer to another school, this could affect the amount of aid you receive. Based on the tuition costs and when you transfer, you may receive less aid. And doing so may also put your loans into repayment status.
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