7 Tips for Maximizing Financial Aid for your Online Degree
The employment market across the nation has seen a number of drastic changes over the last several decades, and many adults find that returning to school to learn new skills or earn advanced degrees is their best option to find steady work. Top colleges and universities have met this new demand for accommodating non-traditional adult students by offering online degree programs designed to fit the busy schedules of their student body. In fact, nearly six million students are enrolled in at least one online course, while three million take classes exclusively online!
Online degree programs offer the flexibility needed for students to juggle the demands of career and family while pursuing their degrees – although the increasing price tag of higher education tuition can be a barrier for many students who want to further their education. While online degrees can be less expensive than on-campus options, the average cost of full-time online tuition can still run upwards of $20,000 per year.
Fortunately, there are several options available to secure financial aid that can help offset the cost of tuition for students returning to college. From federal grants and loans to degree acceleration options, exploring all of the ways you can reduce your tuition bill is essential for making a college degree affordable.
To help give you some ideas for maximizing the financial aid available to online students, we’ve put together the following section that covers the tips you need to know for lowering your out-of-pocket tuition expenses.
Options for Financial Aid
The first thing that students think of when it comes to financial aid is Federal grants and student loans. However, there are many other factors to consider when attempting to reduce the bill for your online degree! When enrolling in an online degree program, make sure that you cover all your bases to ensure that you are getting the most out of the financial aid that is available.
Complete your FAFSA early
The FAFSA is the first step towards securing Federal financial aid for going back to college. Whether you are a new student, a working professional returning to school, or planning on taking strictly online courses, the financial aid available through the FAFSA can make a substantial dent in your long-term tuition costs.
Types of aid available through this application include:
- Federal Pell Grants
- Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants (FSEOG)
- Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grants (TEACH)
- Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants
- Federal Work-Study Program
- Federal Loan Programs
- State government aid
Students are able to apply for aid through the FAFSA as early as January 1st of each year, and the earlier you get your application in the more aid you are likely to get! While filing your taxes before filling out the FAFSA form can make the process easier, you can still estimate your income using recent paystubs and the previous year’s tax returns.
Consider local community colleges
There are many different options for pursuing an online degree, and it is important that you do your research before committing to enrollment at a school. The majority of online degrees are offered by accredited brick-and-mortar colleges, and choosing a school with a solid reputation is an essential first step in earning a degree that is respected in the professional workforce.
However, there can be big differences in tuition between accredited schools, and it is worth considering the option of taking classes at your local community college to save money on your overall degree cost.
Many regions have community colleges that offer quality, accredited curriculum at a far lower rate than public or private universities. Typically, students at community college are working towards an associate’s degree, or they are taking two years of general classes in preparation for transfer to a four-year college. Either way, earning course credits through online classes at your community college is an easy way to greatly reduce your overall cost of tuition.
Consider accelerating your degree program
It makes sense that the less time it takes to earn your degree, the lower your overall tuition bill will be. So, how can you accelerate your degree program to graduate in less time? With the advancement of online degree programs, there are now several options available to adult students who want to earn a two or four year degree in less time than traditional on-campus students!
Some options to consider for accelerating your online degree include:
- Testing out of general education courses with accepted examinations such as the DSST, CLEP, or ECE Program.
- Submitting a Prior Learning Assessment to earn credit for life and work experience
- Taking a higher number of credits each semester
- Enrolling in shorter, accelerated courses
- Taking classes through the summer semester
While committing to a higher-course load can be challenging for adults who are also working or have family obligations, the long-term benefits of accelerating your degree program can have a positive impact on lowering your overall higher education debt.
Meet with your college advisors
Whether you are considering accelerating your classes, testing out of courses, or just need some advice on securing financial aid, your academic or financial aid advisor should be one of your first stops in the process of enrolling at a new school. These professionals can help guide you in planning out a course-path for your degree as well as provide you with information on scholarship or grant opportunities that you may not find on your own.
To make it easier for students with a busy schedule, some schools offer virtual advisement services for their online students! If making a trip down to your school isn’t feasible, it is worth giving the admissions office a call to see if you can set up a virtual or phone meeting with an advisor to have your questions answered.
Apply for private grants and scholarships
While the FAFSA is the first step in securing financial aid, you don’t need to stop there! There are many opportunities available through your specific college, state programs, and private foundations that offer scholarship and grant awards for students. If you fall into specific demographic categories, there may also be additional aid available – including minority students, single parents, and those from specific regions of the country.
All scholarships and grants have their own set of requirements for application, and you have to carefully read the fine print of each set of submission guidelines. While some financial aid awards are merit-based, others are based upon demonstration of financial need. As recommended above, meeting with an academic advisor is an excellent step in getting direction for maximizing your awards through private financial aid options.
Check into employer tuition assistance programs
Many adults who have decided to enroll in an online degree program are also working a full-time job. While this can make the balancing act of your schedule more difficult, there may also be financial aid benefits to working while in school! Some employers offer tuition assistance programs as a benefit to their employees that are advancing their skills through higher education.
Various options for tuition assistance that your employer may offer include:
- Up to $5,250 in employer education benefits tax-free each year
- Working condition fringe benefits for payments above the $5,250 limit
- Tuition waivers and reductions for undergraduate education
- Scholarship opportunities sponsored by your employer
There are strict regulations in place that employers must follow to ensure their tuition programs meet tax requirements. There may also be restrictions on the type of degree you are pursuing (undergraduate or graduate) and your degree-seeking status for the various tuition assistance programs. To get a better understanding of what your employer may offer, you can meet with the HR department of your company.
Be smart about student loans
The first route that you should explore for financial aid is grants, scholarships, and employer tuition assistance, as these awards do not require you to pay them back. If the financial aid that you receive from these sources is not adequate, then it is worth looking into the world of student loans. However, you must do your research when exploring this option as the debt incurred could have a negative impact on your finances down the road.
There are several types of student loans available, including:
- Stafford loans
- Perkins loans
- PLUS and Grad PLUS loans
- Private loans
- Health professional loans
Within these loans are additional options – including subsidized and unsubsidized loans. The different loans have varying restrictions and income requirements, and meeting with a professional advisor is the wisest decision before proceeding. In general, Federal student loans are more desirable than private loans. If you take out a private loan for your education, there is no government funding, a higher interest rate, and your eligibility is based upon your credit history.
Pursuing an online degree can be an excellent route to further your career and employable skills, and there is help available to reduce the financial burden of higher education! By exploring all the options and consulting with your advisors, you can work to maximize your financial aid and take the next step in earning your online degree.