How to Find Financial Aid for Vocational Schools

Vocational education programs are typically designed to prepare students for employment more quickly and affordably than a traditional associate or bachelor’s degree. Even with a lower price tag, financial aid may still be available for students in vocational programs.

“The student’s actual cost of attendance, which is still determined (by the school), is likely going to be lower” at a vocational school, says Elaine Rubin, director of corporate communications at Edvisors, who has more than a decade of experience in higher education finance.

“It might be comparable that they get a certain amount of Pell (Grants) — if they’re eligible — or student loans,” she says. But that financial aid amount will not go above the cost of attendance and may not cover other expenses, depending on the school and a student’s status.

That could mean a smaller budget overall, because even though a vocational student’s cost of attendance may be lower than a traditional two- or four-year program, they may need to pay out of pocket or seek outside funding for other types of expenses like housing or meals. The available financial aid “all adjusts down for that specific program where they are attending,” Rubin says.

[Related:Alternatives to College: What to Know]

Here’s what students should know about financial aid eligibility for vocational programs — which may also be referred to as career and technical education, trade school or technical school.

Does Vocational Education Qualify for Federal Financial Aid?

Whether a student qualifies for aid depends on the length of the program. A student enrolled in a program that is at least 600 clock hours — equivalent to 16 semester or trimester credit hours or 24 quarter credit hours — may be eligible for the same type of funding as those earning an associate or bachelor’s degree, such as Pell Grants, work study, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants and direct loans, says Jill Desjean, senior policy analyst at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

For short-term programs, those between 300 and 600 clock hours, students can only receive direct loans.

Students who enroll or reenroll in a program that’s fewer than 300 clock hours, 8 semester or trimester credit hours or 12 quarter credit hours on or after July 1, 2024 no longer qualify for federal student aid. However, according to a letter from the U.S. Department of Education, the “institution may continue to concurrently offer the program at the original higher clock-hours for students who are enrolled prior to that date, and these students will remain eligible for Title IV aid until those students withdraw, transfer or graduate from the program.”

To determine eligibility, students must first fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

Other Financial Aid Options

Vocational students may also be able to find funding through state grants, scholarships and institutional aid.

State Grants

State grants often target specific student demographics or certain programs, Rubin says. Maryland, for instance, offers a tuition waiver for foster care youth who are enrolled in an associate, bachelor’s or vocational certificate program at a public institution in the state.

[Related:What Is a Certificate Program?]

“With state aid programs, it’s hard to find one place that has all the information on there for all the states,” Rubin says. “So it’s always worth it to do the research and look up the programs within your own state.”


Scholarship availability for vocational students depends on the state, program or third-party organization. However, “there wouldn’t be anything that would prohibit a student in a short-term program from getting a scholarship,” Desjean says.

Some funding may be restricted to students in certain states. For instance, CDM Smith offers two $5,000 vocational-technical scholarships per year for students interested in electrical, automation, instrumentation and controls, and cybersecurity programs. To be eligible, applicants must have at least a 2.5 GPA and reside in California, Colorado, Florida or Texas.

Other scholarships don’t have geographical restrictions, but do require applicants to be in specific industries. The SVC Foundation, for example, offers several scholarship options — ranging from $2,500 to $5,000 — to cover tuition, textbooks and fees, and conference travel for those studying a field related to vacuum coating technology.

Experts advise students to consider local options, such as scholarships available through their high school, community organizations or employer of a parent or guardian.

“I often advise students to be a bit cautious with scholarship search engines since many are focused on getting as much of your data as you are willing to share,” Mike Nylund, president and CEO of Scholarship America, wrote in an email.

Institutional Aid

While outside scholarships are available, institutions and programs may offer funding options of their own. Additionally, some companies partner with local institutions to help cover the cost of their employees’ education.

For students considering a short-term vocational program, a better path “might be to find the job you want first, go through the employer and find out (if they) offer job training for this job that (you) want,” Desjean says. “They may be involved in an industry partnership with local community colleges or something where they can cover the full cost or the difference between the cost and whatever (Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act funding) or other state funding is available.”

[READ: What to Know About Transferring From a Community College]

When to Start Searching for Financial Aid

Vocational programs often have more fluid schedules than two- or four-year schools, with start dates every two weeks, every month or every few months, Rubin says. So as soon as students “are aware they would like to attend a technical vocational program, they should be looking at their financial aid options and looking at the schools where they want to attend.”

She advises potential students to look at programs at their local community college or public state colleges, as they are typically the most affordable options.

For high school students, in particular, the FAFSA should be completed as soon as it becomes available during their senior year, says Alisha Hyslop, chief policy, research and content officer at the Association for Career and Technical Education.

“That opens up the door to a lot of state money as well,” she says. “Many of the state scholarship programs require the FAFSA to be filled out for students and then every other kind of state or local scholarship will have different deadlines throughout students’ senior year.”

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. NewsPaying for Collegecenter.

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