Attending college has many challenges, not least of which is meeting the financial obligations. It is no myth that the cost of education is going up. Over the last 10 years, the prices for undergraduate tuition and room and board at public institutions rose 37%; during that same time, costs at private institutions rose 25%, taking into account adjustment for inflation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

As tuition continues to increase, many students have good reason to worry. When you add in the textbooks, living expenses, and other necessary supplies, students can expect to pay high dollar for an advanced degree. According to the NCES, “For the 2009–10 academic year, annual prices for undergraduate tuition, room, and board were estimated to be $12,804 at public institutions and $32,184 at private institutions.” These numbers are staggering, prompting many students to consider the cost benefits of online learning. Taking classes remotely saves on gas, housing, and other exorbitant fees. Distance learning can lower expenses, but the cost of tuition is often still too much for some students to afford.

College does not have to be paid entirely out of pocket. There are ways to save money and keep debt manageable. The financial aid options outlined below will help students find ways to meet and quite possibly reduce the cost of higher education. Online learners are eligible for the same financial aid and scholarship programs as traditional students, provided the college is accredited. Both government programs and private sources provide tuition assistance to students. Funding options are out there, and with the right resources and a little perseverance, you may find that you qualify for significant benefits.

Applying for Financial Aid and Student Loans

Federal Student Aid: The Free Application for Student Financial Aid (FASFA) is used to determine a student’s eligibility for financial aid. Students may be qualify for Pell Grants or Work-Study programs. Students may complete the application online by creating a PIN for electronic signing and document retrieval. The following information and documents are needed to fill out a FASFA:

  • Social Security number
  • Driver’s license (or if you don’t have one, a state-issued ID)
  • Previous year’s records of money earned (W-2 Form, etc.)
  • Income tax returns from the previous year (and your spouse’s, if you are married)
  • Parents’ federal income tax return (if you are a dependent student)
  • Untaxed income records (for example, Social Security, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, welfare, veterans benefit records)
  • Current bank statements
  • Investment records
  • Your alien registration or permanent resident card (if not born in the U.S.)

Overview of Federal Loans:
Federal loans with lower interest rates such as the Stafford and Perkins typically make up a substantial portion of a student’s financial aid package. There are several differences between the two:

  • Stafford: Stafford loans are either subsidized or unsubsidized. A subsidized loan means the government pays the interest while the student is enrolled in school. If a loan is unsubsidized than the student pays either pays interest while in school or may elect to defer the payment until after graduation. Regardless of need, all students are eligible for the unsubsidized Stafford Loan.
  • Perkins: Students with exceptional financial need are awarded the Perkins loan. A school’s Financial Aid office determines the amount awarded to the qualified student. Then the school acts as the lender and distributes the government funds. The annual maximum loan allowed for an undergraduate and graduate student is $4,000 and $6,000, respectively. An undergraduate is allowed to borrow up to $20,000 under the Perkins loan. If the student continues on to graduate school than the limit raises to the $40,000 maximum.

Tip: It’s important to fill out a FASFA as soon as possible after January 1 if you plan to attend school in the fall. Even if your previous year’s tax return has not been filed, getting a head start on your application is a very good idea. Gathering all the necessary information takes time and careful preparation.

Finding and Applying for Scholarships and Grants

  • Student Gateway to the U.S. Government: This site provides the U.S. government’s current information about available scholarships, financial aid, and career development. The FAQ section helps students sort through financial aid information to identify potential scholarship opportunities.
  • U.S. Department of Education: The Department of Education provides information on various scholarships and financial aid programs. This resource is especially useful when researching state-funded scholarships and grants. Search “scholarships” in the search box to access links to hundreds of different tuition assistance programs as well as unique scholarship opportunities.
  • U.S. Department of State: The U.S. Department of State is another credible source for researching scholarships, financial aid, and even student internships. This site also dedicates a section to scholarship information for various ethnic groups, veterans, and others.
  • Pell Grants: Pell Grants are awarded by the Department of Education to low-income students. Unlike federal loans, Pell Grants do not have to be repaid. These awards are typically given to first-year undergraduate students. Visit their site to learn more about Pell Grants and how to apply.

Research Tips:

  • Cast a wide net when conducting a scholarship search. You never know what you might be eligible for. Scholarships are available for students with specific backgrounds, academic interests, and admission needs. For example, scholarships are available to minorities, single mothers, military personnel, and particular ethnic groups.
  • Many professional organizations offer scholarships for qualified candidates. The American Marketing Association, The National Society for Accountants, and the Business and Professional Women’s Foundations are just a few of the organizations that help students afford college.
  • To avoid scholarships scams, please visit the below links to confirm that websites are legitimate. Applying for scholarships can be confusing at times and it is important to know the warning signs of a potential scam.
    http://www.finaid.org/scholarships/common.phtml
    http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/scholarship/cases.shtm

In addition to filling out lengthy college applications, wading through financial aid information brings another level of commitment and time for prospective students. Armed with the right tools to conduct a thorough search, you’ll know how to look and where for tuition assistance. Once you’ve requested information from any of the online colleges listed below, kick off your financial aid application process and see what additional awards you qualify for.