How Do You Get Financial Aid for Online Schools?

financial aidIt’s the rare student, traditional or otherwise, who can afford to pay for higher education in cash. Most students rely at some point on financial assistance, or even a combination of funding resources, to cover the rising costs of attendance that include tuition, fees, books, and more.

As an undergrad student, I had loans and a scholarship, but also participated in a work-study program on campus to help defray the costs. Statistics presented by American Student Assistance show that of the 20 million students enrolled in college annually, roughly 60% are borrowing money to do so.

Online students face the same funding challenges that traditional students face, and sometimes even find their programs to be more expensive. So, how so do you get financial aid for online schools? This question was posted to our Facebook wall recently, and like many college-related questions, the answer is multi-faceted.

Get Started

Applying for financial aid is similar across online and on-campus institutions, but there are still specific processes to work through. Where should a prospective online student begin?

  • Gather your materials. No matter what kind of funding you apply for, you are likely to encounter an application process that requires information about your status related to income and prior learning. Start collecting documents that verify this kind of information – such as tax returns and bank statements, diplomas and transcripts – in a central location.
  • Know what you need. You may already have a specific school and program in mind or be in the process of comparing your options. Either way, it’s never too early to research the costs associated with completing a degree program. The U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE) College Scorecard provides searchable details, by institution, that include estimated costs, average amount borrowed, and loan default rates.
  • Know your budget. How will college costs impact your personal finances and existing budget? Take a look at FinAid.org’s student budget calculator and family budget analyzer. These tools are part of a larger series of online calculators that can help you get organized and set realistic expectations.

Explore All Funding Sources

When you hear the term financial assistance, you may think first of student loans, but there are other options out there as well. As the Federal Student Aid website states, “aid can come from the U.S. Federal Government, the state where you live, the college you attend, or a non-profit or private organization.”

  • Federal Student Aid: This can include a combination of grants, loans, and work-study opportunities. Basic eligibility criteria for federal resources are listed online.
  • Scholarships and Grants: Offered by a wide range of organizations from schools and religious groups to professional associations and private individuals, eligibility may be based on grades or other criteria, such as special interest or membership.
  • Private Loans: SallieMae and other banking options are another source of college funding. These loans, like mortgage and auto loans, include credit verification and offer different rates and repayment options.
  • Employer benefits: If you are employed and thinking about going back to school, check with your company’s human resources office to see if any resources are available. You may find support in the form or tuition reimbursement, or encouragement to enroll in a school with which your organization is already partnered for continuing education and training of its employees.

One of the most basic things to keep in mind when comparing funding options is that loans become debt that has to be repaid, often with interest, while scholarships and grants do not need to be repaid.

SallieMae recommends first looking for “free money ” such as scholarships that don’t have to be repaid, followed by federal loans with fixed rates, then you can “fill in the gap with private education loans.” You won’t know the details and obligations of any of these options until you start asking questions.

Talk with Financial Aid Advisors

Before you commit to a financial aid package, take a little time to research the options available, starting with the schools you are interested in attending. Some institutions provide a lot of good information about costs and financial support on their websites – Kaplan University and Capella University are two examples. Also look for net price calculators. This is an initiative from the DOE designed to help prospective students estimate the annual cost to attend the colleges of their choice.

Prepare a list of questions and concerns you may have, then work directly with admissions and financial aid representatives to identify potential problems and solutions. The College Board provides a list of questions to ask financial aid officers that includes the following:

  • How much have the college’s costs increased in the last three years?
  • Does the college offer need-based and merit-based financial aid?
  • Are there scholarships available? Do you need to complete a separate application?
  • What are the deadlines for applying for financial assistance?
  • If the financial aid package the school offers isn’t enough, can it be reconsidered?
  • What are the terms of the programs included in your financial aid package?

The College Board also wisely advises that you need to “be sure you understand what is available” and “check to see if the answers to these questions appear on the college’s website or in their print materials.” Each institution should be able to provide guidance on widely used forms of assistance, such as Federal Financial Aid, as well as funding options that are specific to the institution and the program in which you want to enroll.

Apply for Financial Assistance

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the first step in finding out if you are eligible for any of the federal funding programs. You can use the FAFSA4caster tool online to estimate which types of financial aid you may be eligible for and the amount you could receive.

Completing the FAFSA application is free on the DOE website, so you should never pay to access it. But before you can complete the form, you’ll need to register for a PIN. Review the application and registration process online, along with a list of documents you’ll need, before you begin.

Note that the FAFSA form is also used by schools and other organizations to determine your need for financial assistance.

Maintain your Eligibility

Meeting specific eligibility requirements to apply for and receive financial assistance is just the beginning. Before accepting a loan, scholarship, grant, or other form of aid make sure you know what’s required to remain eligible to receive the funding throughout your academic program. Your school and the organizations providing the money may have set standards for your grades or the number of courses you are enrolled in each term, for example.

Whether you are taking courses online or on-campus, at an institution that is considered for-profit or not-for-profit, make time to assess your finances and explore all of the options available to support your academic success.

Join Melissa Venable on Twitter and Google+.

Source: Inside Online Learning Blog