It’s exciting to think about the prospect of going back to school, but there are some parts that can be overwhelming. The cost of a degree is one major thing that many students say keeps them up at night. But you don’t need to let anything, including money, stand in the way of you taking control of your future and furthering your education.
There are many financial aid options that can help you pay for your education. It’s important to understand how each of these financial aid options work, how to apply to them, and how to utilize them to help you pay for your college courses. This guide will go over several of the frequently asked questions surrounding financial aid, and give you the answers you need.
Students should go to the Federal Student Aid website to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. The FAFSA application needs to be filled out every school year, and federal financial aid deadlines are in June of each year. The next financial aid year will begin immediately in June as well. For example, students can apply for 2019-2020 financial aid until June 2020. From June 2020 to June 2021, they will apply for financial aid for the 2020-2021 school year. Additionally each college and state may have deadlines for when your FAFSA needs to be completed to get state or college aid. So it’s important to research those deadlines as well.
Your financial aid opportunity is determined by income. Every student has an “Expected Family Contribution” (EFC) which looks at the income of you, your spouse, and/or your parents and determines what amount could potentially be contributed to your education. It weighs your income with Cost Of Attending (COA) at your school, and determines how much aid you are eligible to receive.
When you sit down to fill out your FAFSA you’ll need to have your personal information (social security number, birth date, ethnicity, etc.) as well as that personal information for your parents. You’ll also need to have your taxes from the previous year, and tax information from your parents. There are many cases where students are considered independent and do not need their parent’s tax information to fill out their FAFSA form, because their parent’s income isn’t part of their Expected Family Contribution. Make sure you know if you are considered an independent student when filling out your FAFSA form.
If you’ve never filed taxes before, you can get your financial situation figured out and still apply for federal aid. If you’re younger and don’t have income, your parents may have filed taxes that do directly impact your FAFSA and the amount of money you can receive. If you’re an older student who is considered independent and you haven’t filed taxes, you’ll likely need to work with a tax accountant to get your financial situation squared away. Even if you make no money, you still file tax paperwork that explains that you haven’t made any money. An accountant from a reputable agency like H&R Block can help you. If you don’t have money to pay for an accountant, visit a Low Income Tax Clinic (LITC) and get free help to get your taxes figured out. The professionals at the LITC will be able to deal with every situation and help you get everything organized so you can file taxes and fill out a FAFSA form.
After you submit your FAFSA application, you’ll have to wait for a while until you find out what aid you’ve received. Your school and the Federal Student Aid website will notify you about the aid that you have received. Students will either get their money posted to their tuition account on their school website, or directly deposited to their personal checking account. The school is responsible for dispersing funds, so you can work with your school’s financial aid office to ensure you get your money.
Students will either be eligible to get Pell Grants or student loans. Pell Grants are free money given to students while they are undergraduates. Students can only qualify for Pell Grants for 12 semesters of schoolwork, but there is no dollar limitation. Student loans are easier to be eligible for, but they do have to be repaid. Students earning both bachelor’s or master’s degrees are eligible for student loans, and students often don’t have to start making payments until they graduate. Students can set up payment plans and are eligible for lower interest rates with federal student loans. Learn more about how Pell Grants and student loans work here.
The amount of money you can get from federal financial aid will vary based on your income and the cost of attending your specific school. Students can get anywhere from a few hundred dollars, to a few thousand dollars each semester in Pell Grant money. Your Pell Grant could be $500 a semester, or $10,000 a semester, completely depending on what you qualify for. Student loans work the same way—you can qualify for any dollar amount just depending on your need. You can apply for a student loan that’s just $500 or go up to $150,000. It just depends on your financial need. It’s important not to take more in student loans than you actually need. Any Pell Grant amount you are offered you should take, because it doesn’t ever have to be repaid.
Students only have to pay back student loans. You can learn more about student loans here. Pell Grants do not have to be paid back, and are completely free money for students to utilize toward their school costs.
Most schools offer scholarship programs that can help you attend college for less, or even free. Scholarships are sometimes contributed by the school, and other times separate organizations or individuals. Many organizations want to help make free college and free tuition a possibility for more students, so they donate the money that students need to attend full-time for less. Many students may opt to give back to their school after they graduate and have a good job, giving free tuition to even more students.
Students usually are required to apply for a scholarship, giving information about themselves and sometimes providing an essay or other assignment. Some scholarships will be need-based, given to students who can demonstrate that they have the greatest financial need. Other scholarships are need-blind and are academic-based, given to students who are getting great grades. And others are given just based on your application—students may be required to submit essays or personal statements to help convince the scholarship committee that they deserve the reward.
At WGU the first step to applying for a scholarship is being enrolled in a degree program. Once you’re enrolled, you can find scholarships that you personally are eligible for. There are scholarships based on location, degree program, employment, and more. Scholarships have unique application requirements—some may require an essay while others simply require filling out a form.
There are also state and national webpages to help you find scholarships available to students at any school. These are often corporate or organizational scholarships. There are scholarships available for students who work in certain industries, are going into certain career fields, are first-time college students, are certain races or genders, and more. You can likely find a scholarship that is made for students in your specific circumstances. Apply to as many as possible to help you get as much money towards your education as possible.
When it comes to financing your higher education, it’s important to understand all the options available to you. Here at WGU, we work hard to make higher education as affordable as possible for as many students as possible. If you have any additional questions about financial aid, you can talk to your Enrollment Counselor or chat with us. We want to answer all your questions so your time at WGU is successful.