For prospective students considering online college programs, cost may be a concern. An old but lingering misconception is that financial aid for online degree programs is limited compared with in-person programs. But in fact, colleges structure the financial aid process for online students identically to that of their in-person peers.
The share of students enrolled in any distance learning course rose significantly from fall 2012 to fall 2018, and 14% of all undergraduates were enrolled exclusively in online classes in 2018, according to the College Board’s Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2020 report. These online learners can take advantage of federal, state and institutional financial aid, which can come in the form of merit- or need-based scholarships.
Aid Eligibility for Students Learning Online
When researching online programs, students must choose one that is accredited by the U.S. Department of Education to take advantage of federal financial aid, experts say.
Students can check an institution’s website to ensure their program and school are eligible for federal aid, says Michelle Campbell, director of financial aid at SUNY Empire State College, which offers various online degree programs and certificates. Or they can search for their college in the Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.
Students enrolled in online courses must be careful to meet all of the eligibility requirements for federal financial aid, which include meeting citizenship criteria and maintaining satisfactory academic progress.
To avoid hiccups in the aid process, “students should apply (for aid) well in advance of the term start date so that they know in advance of any requirements they must satisfy and so that they can plan accordingly,” Campbell wrote in an email.
To receive most financial aid, experts say, students must be degree-seeking or certificate-seeking and meet the institution’s minimum enrollment requirements.
Though many prospective online students hope to continue working professionally while pursuing their degree, minimum enrollment requirements may preclude them from certain kinds of financial aid, according to Donna Kolb, director of the office of student financial aid and scholarships at the University of Florida. She notes that for students working full time, it may be helpful to find an online program that allows for flexibility to learn part time and take breaks as needed, so long as students understand how their course enrollment will affect each type of financial aid awarded.
Adult students pursuing an online degree should also be aware that in addition to these factors, financial aid eligibility may also be affected by their income, but Kolb says it is not always prohibitive.
“Adult learners and working professionals who are considering returning back to school assume they make too much to qualify for aid. We encourage all students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) so their eligibility can be determined for the types of aid for which they will qualify,” Kolb wrote in an email.
“They should also reach out to the institution they chose to attend to inquire about their eligibility and the aid available, don’t just assume you are not eligible or there is not aid available,” she says.
A prospective online student’s state of residency will also determine the types of financial aid he or she may receive.
Work-Study for Online Students
In addition to grants, loans and scholarships, Campbell says online students can often also access aid from the federal work-study program by completing the FAFSA.
Work-study is a form of self-help aid that requires a student to work for his or her award amount. Students learning in person tend to seek out on-campus jobs such as work in the college library or dining hall. Online students, however, may have slightly different options for a work-study job, depending on residency and the opportunities available at a given time.
“Many times students are able to work on projects with faculty (pulling data, researching, compiling information, etc),” Campbell says. “Another example is tutoring. Students can do online tutoring as a work study student.”
Financial Aid Help for Online Students
Before writing off any program or institution, Cheryl Storie, associate vice president of financial aid at the University of Maryland Global Campus, encourages prospective online students to take their time completing the FAFSA and rely on resources such as the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which allows students to automatically share tax information with the Department of Education.
“Applying for financial aid is not as difficult for most students as it is often portrayed. Take your time, read the directions carefully and complete the form,” Storie wrote in an email. “Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to ask your school’s Financial Aid Office questions or assistance if you need it,” she adds, “that’s what we’re there for!”
When talking with a financial aid administrator, Kolb says, online students should aim to understand a college’s policies on issues such as maintaining continuous enrollment throughout the academic year, minimum enrollment requirements and what is required of a student to remain eligible for each type of aid that is awarded.
Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.
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