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Financial Aid for
Online Colleges
Updated on: 01/30/2018

Meet the experts

  • Robert Friedman

    University Director of Student Finance, Yeshiva University

  • Scott Seibring

    Director of Financial Aid, Illinois Wesleyan University

  • Connie Brown

    Associate Director Student Financial Aid & Scholarships, Texas Tech University

  • Linda Parker

    Financial Aid Director, Union College

  • Bob Walker

    Financial Aid Director, Creighton University

  • Heather McDonnell

    Associate Dean of Financial Aid, Sarah Lawrence College

Written by:

Financial Aid, FAFSA® & the Online College Landscape

Did you know? Many online colleges offer financial aid to students enrolled in full-time degree programs. However, students who qualify for federal financial aid must attend an online school regionally accredited by agencies approved by the U.S. Department of Education to secure funding. There’s virtually no difference between an online or on-campus student receiving federal student aid, and today’s nonprofit campus schools are no different than their online school counterparts. Also, many legitimate and respected brick-and-mortar institutions offer online programs for completing a college degree.

If you qualify for financial aid, you should be able to receive those benefits at any school shown here. Use our Program Search Tool to find specific online colleges that accept FAFSA, or to explore campus-based colleges with accredited online degree programs and courses. It all starts here by answering a few questions to determine what’s most important to you in selecting an online program, and then you’ll be shown schools that are a great match. Use the drop down menu and click “search now” to find your accredited, FAFSA-approved school.

It doesn’t have to be a chore to secure financial aid for online colleges and degree programs. Start here, ask questions, find answers, and make the educational move that’s right for you.

Financial Aid 101: The Basics

While every student – online and traditional – is encouraged to seek out federal student aid, there are some basic requirements that need to be met. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid Office, students must meet the following criteria in order to be eligible for federal assistance:

  • Have a high school diploma or recognized equivalent
  • Must demonstrate financial need
  • Be a U.S. citizen or an eligible non-citizen (the most common example of eligible non-citizenship status is a green card holder, also referred to as a permanent resident)
  • Have a valid Social Security Number
  • Be registered with Selective Service, if you are a male between the ages of 18 and 25
  • Be admitted to or enrolled in an eligible degree or certificate program as a regular student
  • Complete and sign the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®)
  • Be enrolled at least half-time in order to be eligible for Direct Loan Program funds
See Online Degree Programs at Schools that Offer Financial Aid

Once you have met the above requirements and received your federal aid package, you will need to stay eligible throughout your college career in order to continue receiving financial assistance. This means maintaining a satisfactory grade point average and meeting all quarter or semester course load requirements (credits, hours, etc.). Each college and university has a satisfactory academic program policy for financial aid. Be sure to consult with your school’s financial aid office to find out specific details as well as how you can regain eligibility in the event that you no longer qualify.

Lastly, you will need to fill out the FAFSA® each year that you wish to receive federal financial assistance. The FAFSA® website has made this process easier by allowing students to submit a Renewal FAFSA® that will auto-complete certain information from the previous year to relevant sections for the new FAFSA®.

The FAFSA®: Maximizing Your Financial Aid

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as the FAFSA®, is a form you submit to the office of Federal Student Aid at the Department of Education. It collects information about student and family finances, which the FSA uses to determine your eligibility for any of nine federal financial aid programs, such as grants, work-study, and federal student loans, as well as more than 600 state aid programs. For many, it’s the first step toward an affordable education.

The FSA sends your FAFSA® information to the colleges and universities you select. These institutions often require students to complete another college-specific financial aid form and use the combined information to award scholarships and other monies. Together, your federal and institutional aid make up your financial aid package. Each school will award you a different package, or none, depending on your eligibility.

How the FAFSA® Works

Whether seeking financial aid for colleges or financial aid for online schools, experts agree all undergraduate and graduate students should file a FAFSA®, even if they think they or their parents make too much money to qualify. You could be leaving loan dollars on the table, but you won’t know unless you apply. It’s free, so there’s nothing to lose and perhaps much to gain.

See Online Degree Programs at Schools that Offer Financial Aid
Understanding Your Student Aid Report & EFC

Within two weeks of filing the FAFSA® electronically, you should receive a Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR indicates the contribution you and/or your family are expected to make toward your education expenses that year (Expected Family Contribution or EFC.) The government assumes you and/or your family will contribute to the cost of your education. The EFC is not the amount you’re expected to pay; it is simply a number each school uses to calculate your eligibility for financial aid from that institution. Each school subtracts your EFC from its cost of attendance to calculate your need for that specific institution. Confused? Think of it this way:

Cost of XYZ College – EFC = Your Financial Need for XYZ College

Colleges award financial aid on a first-come, first-served basis. The sooner you file your FAFSA®, the more aid that will be available to you. The FSA begins accepting FAFSA® forms after October 1. You may file anytime after October 1st, even if you need to estimate your tax information for the previous year. Each of the colleges you’re applying to may require additional financial aid forms and may have different deadlines. Know these and keep track of them on a spreadsheet.

Filling Out the FAFSA®

While it’s certain not rocket science or brain surgery, knowing a bit about the FAFSA® form before diving in can help. The following lists run down the items you’ll need handy when finally putting pen to paper.

  • Social Security numbers

  • W-2 forms for the previous year

  • Federal tax returns for the previous year. Also accepted are the foreign tax return or tax return for Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federal States of Micronesia, or Palau

  • Records of additional, untaxed income (child support, welfare, veteran’s benefits, interest income)

  • Bank statements/account information (including balances)

  • Investments records for the previous year

  • Social Security numbers

  • Driver’s license number (if applicable)

  • W-2 Forms for the previous year

  • Federal tax returns for the previous year (including spouse’s, if married). Also accepted are the foreign tax return, or tax return for Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, The U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federal States of Micronesia, or Palau

  • Records of additional, untaxed income (child support, welfare, veteran’s benefits, interest income)

  • Bank statements/account information (including balances)

  • Investments records for the previous year

  • Student’s Alien Registration Number (if not a US citizen)

Selecting a Format

Students and parents filling out the FAFSA® have three options:

  • 1. Online at www.fafsa.gov

  • 2. Fill out a PDF FAFSA® (go to https://www.fafsa.ed.gov/options.htm and select desired year.) You must submit the PDF FAFSA® by mail.

  • 3. Complete a paper FAFSA®. To order, call 1-800-4-FED-AID ( 1-800-433-3243 ) or 334-523-2691. If you are hearing impaired, contact the TTY line at 1-800-730-8913. Your high school college counselor may also have forms available.

Filing online comes with a handful of benefits:

  • A secure and easy-to-navigate website
  • A built-in help guide
  • Skip logic that eliminates questions that don’t apply to your situation
  • IRS retrieval tool that automatically populates answers to various questions
  • Option to save your work and continue later
  • Ability to send FAFSA® to as many as 10 colleges that accept financial aid, vs. the print form, which limits you to four schools
  • Reports get to schools more quickly

Understanding FAFSA®: Question Groups

Questions on the FAFSA® are organized into certain categories. Here’s a glimpse of the specific groups:

Questions 1-31: General personal information and citizenship status questions.

Questions 32-57: Financial information questions, such as income, assets, exemptions, and household size.

Questions 45-57: Questions to determine whether the student is a dependent.

  • 1. If the student is a dependent, Questions 58-92 will gather financial information about the parents.

  • 2. If the student is not a dependent, skip to Questions 93-100, which review number of family members.

Questions 101a-h: Choose the schools you want to receive your report.

FAFSA® Deadlines

For the 2017-2018 academic year, you must complete the FAFSA by midnight Central time on June 30, 2018. Any corrections or updates need to be made by midnight Central time on September 15, 2018.

For the 2018-2019 academic year, you must complete the FAFSA between October 1, 2017, and June 30, 2019, midnight Central time. Any corrections or updates need to be made by midnight Central time on September 14, 2019.

It’s important to note that many states and colleges will have earlier deadlines than the federal deadlines. Students can find the state deadlines on the Federal Student Aid website and should check with individual colleges for their deadlines. To be eligible for the most amount of aid, students should apply as early as possible during the enrollment period.

Common FAFSA® Mistakes to Avoid

  • Complete the FAFSA® whether or not you’ve been accepted to a college. Better to be ahead of the game.

  • Double-check your answers, especially the numbers. If your social security number is wrong, it will slow down the process.

  • Do not use nicknames. Only legal names as they appear on the Social Security cards are acceptable.

  • If an answer is “0”, do not leave it blank. Write in the “0.”

  • When the FAFSA® refers to “you” and “your,” it is referring to the student, NOT the parents.

  • Don’t forget to count the student as one of the people in the household attending college.

  • When parents are divorced or separated, the parent with whom the student lived the most time in the past year is the parent who fills out the FAFSA®. Legal custody does not come into play here.

  • If you answer “yes” to work-study and student loan questions, you will be eligible for more aid options, but not required to accept them.

  • Fill out the FAFSA even if you’re sure you don’t qualify for federal aid. Most schools use the information from your FAFSA to determine financial aid at the institutional level.

What Happens Next

  • 1.

    Once you submit the FAFSA®, you’ll receive notification that your submission is successful. If there are issues with your submission, Federal Student Aid will let you know how to remedy this situation.

  • 2.

    You should then receive your Student Aid Report (SAR), which will show your Expected Family Contribution.

  • 3.

    The schools you’ve selected to receive your FAFSA® info will receive it within a few weeks. They will then create a financial aid package for you based on the information you submitted to FAFSA®.

FAFSA® Financial Aid Eligibility

In order to be eligible for federal student aid, students are expected to meet the following requirements:

  • Be a U.S. citizen or

  • Be an “eligible noncitizen,” i.e.:

    • A U.S. national (includes natives of American Samoa or Swains Island), U.S. permanent resident (who has an I-151, I-551 or I-551C [Permanent Resident Card]), or an individual who has an Arrival-Departure Record (I-94) from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) showing one of the following designations:

    • “Refugee”

    • “Asylum Granted”

    • “Cuban-Haitian Entrant (Status Pending)”

    • “Conditional Entrant” (valid only if issued before April 1, 1980)

    • Victims of human trafficking, T-visa (T-2, T-3, or T-4, etc.) holder

    • “Parolee” (You must be paroled into the United States for at least one year and you must be able to provide evidence from the USCIS that you are in the United States for other than a temporary purpose and that you intend to become a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.)

  • Have a social security number

  • Males between the ages of 18 and 25 must be registered with Selective Service

  • Must be accepted for enrollment or enrolled in an eligible program offering degrees or certificates

  • Will need to be enrolled at least half-time in order to be eligible for Direct Loan Program financial aid

  • Must show satisfactory academic progress in the educational program

  • May not be in default on a federal student loan

  • May not owe money on a federal student grant

  • Must certify that they are using federal student aid only for education expenses

  • Must have a high school diploma or recognized equivalent, such as the GED

  • If homeschooled, the setting must be approved under state law or student must obtain a completion credential. Exception would be made for a student enrolling in an “eligible career pathway program.”

Losing FAFSA® Eligibility & Gaining it Back

There are numerous reasons why a student may lose federal student aid eligibility. The ability to gain it back is determined on the factors that caused the student to lose it in the first place. Below are some examples of a student may lose and regain federal aid eligibility, but this list is not exhaustive. For more information on this topic, visit the FAFSA® page on eligibility.

Past Student Loan Default

How student is affected and solution: Get your loan out of default. You may need to pay it back in full or try for loan rehabilitation or consolidation. Loan rehabilitation may be the best solution, but it’s a several-tiered process that can take up to 10 months and requires on-time payments during that time.

Failure to Make Satisfactory Academic Progress

How student is affected and solution: You may need to petition your school if you have been deemed ineligible to receive federal financial aid due to poor grades, withdrawing from or failing too many courses or not taking the required number of credits each semester in order to move towards graduation. Possible reasons to appeal your ineligible status include illness, death in the family or other extenuating circumstances. You may also be able to pay for classes without federal aid and show a pattern of satisfactory progress and appealing after doing so. The key is to have a clear understanding of what your school deems as “satisfactory progress” and adhere to that standard.

Drug Conviction

How student is affected and solution: If convicted of certain drug offenses while receiving federal student aid, a student may lose federal student aid eligibility. Students filling out the FAFSA® are asked if they have received a drug conviction. If they answer “yes,” they are directed to a worksheet that will help them determine if their student aid is suspended. If federal student aid is suspended due to a drug conviction, qualified students may regain eligibility by attended an approved drug rehab program or passing two unannounced drug tests.


How student is affected and solution: Inmates at the state or federal level may not receive federal student loans or Pell grants. Inmates at other detention facilities may receive a Pell grant, but not other federal student loans. Upon release, eligibility restrictions are removed for most parolees, unless student was incarcerated for drug offenses as mentioned above or is subject to an involuntary civil commitment for a sexual offense. People who are on probation or parole or living in a halfway house most likely will be eligible for FAFSA® aid, notwithstanding the drug offenses as mentioned earlier.

See Online Degree Programs at Schools that Offer Financial Aid

Ask the Experts: FAFSA® Advice for Online Students

When researching financial aid for online college, there’s no better place to get advice and tips than from the experts. The people who have worked in financial aid for years and help hundreds (if not more) students every year reconcile their financial needs and their desire to earn an online degree. These veterans have seen it all and share key information about aid and FAFSA®.

Robert Friedman University Director of Student Finance Yeshiva University New York, NY

  • The person in the household who communicates with the accountant should file FAFSA®. If another person tries to file it, there may be pain and suffering involved!
  • Don’t wait – estimate. Estimate your income and file the FAFSA®, instead of waiting until you file your tax return. If you wait, you risk missing the school’s deadline. In addition, institutional aid is generally awarded on a first-come first-served basis.
  • If you’re filing online, use the “help” button. A detailed explanation will pop up and should answer your questions.
  • If the answer to a question is $0, put $0. Don’t stress if you have nothing to report to a specific question. Put $0 and move on.
  • Don’t include the value of the primary residence in real estate value.
  • Don’t include the value of retirement accounts.
  • If you’re a parent, get the student involved! This is a learning process for them too, and for many is the first step on a journey of managing their own personal finances.

Scott Seibring Director of Financial Aid Illinois Wesleyan University Bloomington, IL

  • Have as much documentation on hand as possible before you begin filling out the FAFSA®.
  • Read the instructions carefully. Most mistakes can be avoided by reading and following the instructions.
  • If you’re estimating your taxes, but your income hasn’t changed much, it may be best to use last year’s tax return until you file the current year’s. People who estimate frequently use the amount of taxes withheld. This can result in an underestimated amount if you pay additional taxes at the time of filing, or an overestimated amount if you get a refund.
  • Do not use the tax withholding amount or the self-employment tax amount when estimating. Neither of those is cited in the FAFSA® instructions as an amount to use for taxes paid.
  • It is important to note carefully what is excluded as what is included in the asset question. Applicants frequently list home equity and retirement funds, such as 401Ks and IRAs, even though the FAFSA® instructions say to exclude place of primary residence and any qualified retirement funds.
  • Payments to tax deferred pensions are frequently not answered correctly. This amount is on the W-2, but people frequently omit the answer on the FAFSA®, because it is not on the tax return.

Connie Brown Associate Director Student Financial Aid and Scholarships Texas Tech University Lubbock, TX

  • Rest assured that, while the FAFSA® application takes some time, it is not difficult to complete.
  • Since financial aid in most institutions is limited, getting the FAFSA® submitted as early as possible is important. Find out what the priority application date is for your college, and don’t miss the deadline.
  • Submitting the FAFSA® online is the fastest way to get the information processed.
  • Be sure you are submitting the correct FAFSA®. 12-13 and 13-14 are both currently available at www.fafsa.ed.gov. A student beginning his/her college study in the fall of 2013 will submit the 2013-2014 FAFSA®.
  • Unless a student is 24 years old or meets some other specific criteria, the student is likely a dependent and will need to supply parental information on the FAFSA®.
  • Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to access the IRS tax return information needed to complete the FAFSA®. If you are eligible to use the tool it is the easiest way to provide your tax data; it’s the best way of ensuring that your FAFSA® has accurate tax information, and you won’t have to provide copies of the tax return transcript to your college.
  • Contact your school’s financial aid office after your FAFSA® is processed to ensure they’ve received it and to ask whether they need any additional documents to complete your financial aid file.

Linda Parker Financial Aid Director Union College Schenectady, NY

  • Make sure you understand and meet the requirements, which vary between schools.
  • Early decision applicants must meet earlier financial aid deadlines.
  • If you estimate your tax information, make the estimate as accurate as possible so that schools can make awards that don’t require dramatic changes upon verification of the final tax data.
  • Every incoming freshman has access to $5,500 in unsubsidized Stafford loans, an amount that increases every school year. Whether families need students to shoulder some college costs or simply want children to make a personal investment in their educations, access to loans can be helpful. Remember, students don’t have to accept loans. But the money is there if needed.
  • Don’t answer “No” to the question: Are you planning to apply for need-based financial aid? Checking “No” directs students’ applications away from schools’ financial aid offices, taking them out of the running for awards. Families should check “Yes” on this question to ensure the student’s application reaches a school’s admissions and financial aid offices.
  • If you have special challenges that aren’t reflected on the applications – say a parental job loss or major medical expenses write a letter to the school’s financial aid office. Such factors can be considered when awarding aid.
  • Do everything online. Union has access to FAFSA® information within 10 days of a student’s submission. It’s the most efficient way to conduct all financial aid business.
  • All colleges and universities are required to offer a net price calculator online, which enables you to estimate the real price of attendance. These estimates can contextualize the perceived “sticker shock” of higher-priced schools, which might actually offer more aid. Families can use the calculators years before students apply, which may help influence choices.
  • Proofread all forms. Some parents who fill out applications for students accidentally enter their own names, causing major confusion.
  • Stay away from “services” that charge to fill out FAFSA® forms (some up to $500). There is so much free help available, and families can also call schools’ financial aid offices, the College Board, and federal processors with questions.
  • Above all, stay calm and follow directions. FAFSA® usually only takes about an hour to complete. Updates can be made at anytime.

Bob Walker Financial Aid Director Creighton University Omaha, NE

  • Be sure to use the student’s full legal name and Social Security number. The FAFSA® is compared against SSA records and the two must match.
  • Dependent FAFSA® filers should not include parents in the number of people in college, even if one or both is attending a post-secondary school.
  • If at all possible, use the Data Retrieval System provided by the Department of Education and IRS, as this will speed up FAFSA® processing once the information is received by the school(s).
  • Respond promptly to all requests for additional information from schools in order to not delay your financial aid award.
  • Whenever questions come up, contact your school for help, guidance and assistance. That’s what they’re there for.

Heather McDonnell Associate Dean of Financial Aid Sarah Lawrence College Bronxville, NY

  • Take your time filling out the form. Speed causes mistakes.
  • When the form asks for your Social Security number, it’s asking for the student’s number. Many parents put down their social security numbers, which is a fatal mistake and very difficult to undo.
  • Pay attention to the deadlines. Any deadline in the college process is important, because it means there’s a limitation.
  • When parents are divorced, figuring out whose information to include can be tricky. For FAFSA® purposes, the parent with whom the student resides is considered the custodial parent. If this custodial parent is remarried, the step-parent information must also be included in the FAFSA®. Schools don’t assume step-parents will contribute to the student’s education, but they do feel step-parents may be able to take over more of the household expenses, relieving the custodial parent from some of that responsibility.
  • Don’t call schools with questions before the FAFSA® data has arrived. The most effective conversations occur when the financial aid officer has your information on hand.
  • Everyone should fill out the FAFSA®. Only your school can evaluate your financial aid situation, and the only way for the schools to do so is to review your FAFSA®.
  • If you make an egregious mistake, the college will likely see it and help you correct the information. They, too, have a vested interest in ensuring the information is correct.

Types of Financial Aid

You might be surprised to learn that more than $181 billion in financial aid was available to college students in the 2016-2017 academic year. While the primary source is the federal government, aid also comes from the colleges themselves, state governments, and scholarships from private companies, non-profits and religious organizations. According to The College Board, each source contributed as follows to that $181 billion:

Federal Aid

Federal Perkins Loans are fixed-rate, low-interest loans given to students with the greatest financial need. They are federally funded, but administered by your school. Approximately 1,700 institutions participate in the Perkins Loan program. Graduates have up to ten years to repay these loans, although working in certain fields (teaching, military, health care) or certain volunteer work (Peace Corps, AmeriCorps) may make you eligible to have all or part of your loans cancelled.

Federal Direct Loans (also known as Stafford Loans) also have fixed interest rates and come in two forms, subsidized and unsubsidized.

  • Direct Subsidized Loans are based on financial need and have a low fixed interest rate, and generally fluctuate between 3.5% and 5% for undergraduate study. You are not responsible for interest payments while in school.
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans are not based on financial need and have an interest rate comparable to subsidized loans, at least for undergraduate education, but can run between 5% and 6.5% for graduate programs. You’re responsible for paying all interest during the life of the loan, and interest starts accruing as soon as you receive the money.

Parent PLUS Loans are federal loans that allow parents to borrow money for their child’s college education. These loans have interest rates between 6% and 7.5% and are contingent upon the borrower’s credit history. The U.S. Department of Education makes Parent PLUS Loans to eligible borrowers through schools participating in Direct Loan program. The loan amount cannot exceed the cost of attendance less any other financial aid.

State Financial Aid

Thirty-eight individual states also administer student loan programs, many with terms similar to the Federal Direct Loans. Most offer interest rates below those charged by private lenders. Programs vary in size and scope, so check with your state’s department of education for specifics. State loans are generally unsubsidized, so count on paying interest while you’re still in school.

Private Student Loans

Private lenders, such as banks, private foundations, credit unions, and schools or organizations offer student loans. They are credit – based loans, may have higher interest rates (both fixed and variable) than federal or state loans, may charge fees, and are not subsidized. Private loans also don’t offer many options to reduce or postpone payments. Consider a private loan only after you’ve maxed out your federal and state loan options.

In October 2012, The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reported that $150 billion of the more than $1 trillion dollars Americans owe in student loan debt is for private loans. After tracking student loan complaints, it found that 87% came from just seven big lenders, with Sallie Mae generating 46% of the complaints. Clearly, it’s important to shop around. You may want to consider smaller lenders, like community banks and credit unions

When comparing private loans, look at the Annual Percentage Rate (APR). Unlike the interest rate, the APR takes into account all loan costs, such as finance charges and fees. It also considers deferment periods and repayment terms, all of which can significantly impact the loan’s cost. Review the lender’s reputation for customer service, as well as any borrower benefits, such as discounts for automated debit payments.

College- and University-Sponsored Aid

Many colleges award merit scholarships based on a student’s academic promise, independent of financial need. These are not scholarships you generally apply for, but are rather awarded by the schools as an incentive for students to attend that institution. The more your academic profile exceeds the school’s average profile, the more likelihood of obtaining a merit scholarship at that school. On the flip side, the more selective the school, the less merit dollars available, with zero merit dollars awarded at Ivy League institutions.

However, every Ivy League school and many top-tier institutions (including highly-rated online colleges), do generously award grants and scholarships to students with demonstrated need. At Yale, for example, accepted students whose family income is less than $65,000 are not expected to contribute anything to the cost of the student’s education. Princeton has a no-loan policy where it commits to meeting the student’s financial needs through grants, scholarships and work-study funds. This means students with financial need graduate without debt.

Some colleges also offer loans to students in addition to what’s available through the federal loan programs. If your college offers this option, make sure you compare the terms and interest rates with those of other third-party lenders (banks, credit unions) to ensure you’re getting the best deal.

Institutional Aid from Online Colleges

Some online colleges offer their own forms of financial assistance to students. The University of Phoenix, for example, has a variety of scholarships available for prospective students. DeVry University also offers various scholarships and grants to its students who meet certain requirements.

Online schools may also offer payment options to help alleviate the stress of college costs. The University of Phoenix has a cash plan program, in which students have the option to pay for their education one course at a time. There is also a Tuition Deferral Plan available for students taking advantage of their employer tuition reimbursement benefits. Under this plan, University of Phoenix students have a 60-day “grace period” to wait for employer reimbursement before making a payment.


Also referred to as “gift aid”, this type of federal aid does not need to be repaid. Grants are typically need-based, which means that the student’s family does not have sufficient financial resources to cover the cost of college. This is determined by a formula established by the federal government that analyzes a family’s income and assets to determine Expected Family Contribution (EFC), or the amount that a family is expected to put towards the cost of college. The most common types of federal grants are:

Awarded only to undergraduate students, though in some cases it may be awarded to students enrolled in a post-baccalaureate teacher certification program. The maximum award for the 2016-17 year was $5,815 and amounts change every year. Based on a family’s financial need, cost of attendance and enrollment status.
Also referred to as “campus-based” aid, this grant is available at participating institutions and is administered through the school’s financial aid office.
Targeted to students who are pursuing a career in teaching in a high-need field; an elementary school, secondary school or educational service agency that serves low-income students; and teach for at least four years within eight years after graduating. Grant money becomes a Direct Unsubsidized Loan if conditions are not met.
Grant specifically for students whose parent or guardian was a member of the U.S. armed forces and died as a result of military service in Iraq or Afghanistan after 9/11. Other eligibility criteria apply.

Private Scholarships

Companies, non-profit organizations, clubs, and religious entities award $7.4 billion in college scholarships. They vary widely in criteria and requirements. For example:

  • A scholarship established in someone’s memory for a student going into a nursing career from your high school.
  • The Gates Millennium Scholars (GMS), funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for African American, American Indian/Alaska Natives, Asian Pacific Islander Americans, and Hispanic American students.
  • Ford Motor Company’s “Ford Blue Oval” scholarship, which is awarded to up to 16 Southeastern Michigan high school students.

It takes a bit of research to find appropriate scholarship matches for your interests and talents. A good place to start is at https://www.fastweb.com.

The break down of undergraduate students financial aid sources

The break down of graduate students financial aid sources

Source: The College Board

The Importance of Accreditation

Accreditation means that a college or university meets certain quality standards determined and vetted by an independent educational agency. Criteria for accreditation includes a clear mission statement, rigorous academics, qualified professors, sufficient technological and student resources, and much more. Agencies with the authority to vet colleges and confer accreditation must be endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education and listed on the federal register. This includes six primary regional agencies, a number of national agencies and dozens of programmatic agencies focused on a specific industry or subject area such as engineering or business. For an in-depth breakdown of the entire process, the criteria and who is involved, please read through our complete guide to college accreditation.

When it comes to online colleges, accreditation is key. Whether a not-for-profit state university offering a few online programs, or a for-profit school with a full collection of distance learning programs and courses, full accreditation means students can receive federal financial aid. It also means that credits earned from the institution will likely transfer to another accredited institution should you need to switch schools. Bottom line, when considering enrollment at an online college, first make sure it holds the proper accreditation. For a list of institutions that fit the bill, review our ranking of the top online colleges in the U.S.

Financial Aid Dictionary

As you navigate the world of financial aid to make college more affordable, you may find yourself having to learn a whole new language. We’ve compiled this glossary of terms to help you along the way.

Academic Year: The time during which school is in session, typically from September through May.

Accreditation: Accreditation ensures a college or school meets certain minimum quality academic standards, as defined by an accrediting body recognized by the US Department of Education. Only accredited schools can participate in federal student aid programs.

Assets: Assets, when referenced in the FAFSA®, refer to income, checking and savings accounts, stocks, bonds, trusts, material goods, and investment or vacation real estate. Do not include your primary residence or retirement accounts, such as IRAs and 401Ks, under FAFSA® assets.

Award Letter: An official notice from a school’s financial aid office that details all the aid awarded to the student. If you decide to attend that school, you must return a signed copy of the letter indicating whether you accept or decline each type of aid.

Award Year: The school year for which the financial aid is requested or awarded.

Base Year: The tax year prior to the award year for which you’re requesting financial aid.

Cost of Attendance (COA): The total cost of attending a particular school, including tuition, fees, room and board, books and supplies, transportation, loan fees, childcare, and personal expenses. COA for a specific school may differ depending on whether the student lives on- or off-campus, is married or unmarried, or from in- or out-of-state. The COA allows students to budget college expenses accurately.

CSS Profile: Some private colleges and universities use the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile to determine whether a student is eligible for non-federal loans.

Department of Education (DOE): The federal agency that establishes financial aid programs and processes the FAFSA® form.

Deferment: A temporary period, common in federal loan programs, when a borrower is not required to make loan payments. In the case of deferred student loans, such as Stafford and Perkins loans, the student begins loan payments at a point in time after graduation.

Custodial Parent: When parents are divorced or separated, the parent with whom the student lived the most time in the past year is considered the custodial parent and the parent who fills out the FAFSA®.

Dependent: A student is considered a dependent if he lives with his parents and depends on them for more than half of his living expenses.

Direct Loan: A federal, low-interest loan administered by the college or university.

Disbursement: The time when loan funds are released to the college and/or the student.

Expected Family Contribution (EFC): The contribution the student and/or family are expected to make toward education expenses. It’s a calculation based on the information filed in the FAFSA®. Schools use the EFC to calculate a student’s eligibility for financial aid from that institution.

FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid): A free form you submit to the office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) at the Department of Education. It collects information about student and family finances, which the FSA uses to determine a student’s eligibility for financial aid.

Federal Pell Grant: Federal grants awarded to students with significant financial need, and which do not repayment.

Federal Student Aid Office (FSA): The entity within the Department of Education that processes the FAFSA®.

Financial Aid Offer: The total amount of aid a school offers you. Sometimes called “Financial Aid Package.”

Financial Aid Office: The office at a college or university responsible for making financial aid award decisions and communicating with and assisting students and families.

Financial Aid Package: The total amount of aid a school offers each student. Sometimes called “Financial Aid Award.”

Financial Need: The difference between a school’s cost of attendance and the family’s expected contribution. It’s how much each student needs in financial aid dollars to be able to afford a specific school.

Financial Aid: Money awarded to help a student pay for the cost of higher education. Financial aid comes in many forms, including loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study.

Financial Aid Administrator (FAA): Also called Financial Aid Officers, Financial Aid Advisors, and Financial Aid Counselors, these are the college or university employees who work with families to award and administer financial aid.

Fixed Interest Rate: A loan interest rate that remains the same throughout the life of the loan.

Gift Aid: Financial aid, such as grants and scholarships, which the student does not need to repay.

Grace Period: The time period, usually six to nine months, between a student’s graduation and when he or she must begin repaying student loans.

Grant: A type of financial aid award that does not have to be repaid.

Independent Student: A student who meets any of the following criteria:

  • 24 years or older
  • A graduate or professional student
  • Married
  • Has legal dependents
  • A veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces
  • An orphan or ward of the court

Institutional Methodology (IM): A formula colleges use to determine how to allocate the school’s own financial aid funds (versus federal funds), based on need.

Interest Rate: The cost of borrowing money. Student loan interest rates are generally lower than standard loan rates.

Lender: The bank or lending institution from which you take out a loan.

Loan: A type of financial aid that the student must promise to repay with interest.

Merit-Based Financial Aid: Financial aid, usually scholarships, that is not calculated based on need, but rather on academic, athletic, or artistic merit.

Need Analysis: The process of determining a student’s financial need, which typically begins when the FAFSA® is filed.

Need-Based Financial Aid: Aid, such as most federal aid, that is awarded based on financial need.

Need-Blind Admissions: An admissions process used by most schools that does not consider the student’s ability to pay. The objective is to eliminate admissions decisions based on whether a student needs financial aid or not.

Net Cost: The difference between a school’s cost of attendance and the financial aid package. The net cost includes all financial aid, such as loans, versus the out-of-pocket cost, which includes only need-based aid. Families should evaluate financial aid awards using the out-of-pocket cost, not net cost, of attending that institution.

Parent Contribution (PC): Unless you’re an independent student, the federal government expects your family to contribute to the cost of your education. The PC is an estimate based on parental income, assets, and other criteria.

Out-of-Pocket Cost: The difference between a school’s cost of attendance and the need-based financial aid package. It indicates the amount the family will need to pay out of savings, income, and loans. Out-of-pocket costs can vary greatly between colleges, depending on how much need is met with grants versus loans. Families should evaluate financial aid awards using the out-of-pocket cost of attending each institution

Parent PLUS Loan: A federally guaranteed loan program that lends credit-worthy parents funds to pay for educational expenses. These loans have a fixed, 7.9% interest rate.

Pell Grant: A form of federal financial aid available mostly to undergraduate students, which does not have to be repaid. Grant amounts depend on student need, school costs, and other criteria, up to a maximum of $5,500 per academic year.

Selective Service Registration: Males ages 18 to 25 must register for the military draft in order to qualify for federal financial aid.

Scholarship: A form of financial aid that does not have to be repaid. Scholarships are often restricted to students in specific courses of study or with academic, athletic, or artistic talent. Schools, non-profit organizations and private entities award them.

Stafford Loan: A federal loan available to undergraduate and graduate students attending college at least half-time. These fixed rate loans, are the most common and one of the lowest-cost ways of paying for school.

Student Aid Report (SAR): The official summary of your FAFSA® information, indicating your eligibility for financial aid. The FSA sends the SAR via email a few days after you complete the FAFSA®, or by mail within 10 days of filing.

Student Contribution: The amount of money the federal government expects the student to contribute to the cost of education. This amount is included in the EFC and may include a portion of student savings and student work earnings.

Unmet Need: Schools can’t always provide each student with the difference between their ability to pay and the cost of attending the institution. When schools award less financial aid than the student needs, the gap is called “unmet need.”

Variable Interest Rate: A loan rate that can fluctuate during the life of the loan, but usually only up to a set amount within a certain period of time.

Work Study: A federal program that provides part-time jobs for students, allowing them to earn money to pay education expenses.

Additional Information

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Search Online Colleges with Financial Aid

Students looking to enroll in college courses may have tuition on the mind – and rightly so. Tuition accounts for a majority of the cost associated with a post-secondary education. What students and parents may not know, however, is that some colleges and universities tend to be more generous when it comes to helping their students pay. This could mean more scholarships available, more grants bestowed, and better financial aid packages. Use the following search tool to identify some of today’s most cost-conscious online colleges.

Start your School Search

From tuition and fees to new tech resources, paying for an online education can be challenging. For many students, covering the cost of their program is probably the toughest part of earning a degree. However, students today have numerous options to help defray these costs. The average undergraduate student received $14,400 in financial aid money in 2016, according to The College Board. With the right information and resources, you can find ways to close the gap between the cost of a college degree and what you can actually afford.

The following page explores financial aid options and offers tips, expert advice and resources for future college students and their parents. It explores sources of aid, how to qualify and the importance of accreditation. Although much of the information found in this guide applies to a campus-based education, it focuses on distance learning and how online degree programs and courses fit into the financial aid landscape.