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Part of Western Governors University

February 10, 2020

Student Success

Financial planning for students.

A small paper graduation cap sits atop a layer of cash.

Financial planning for students is critical. No matter where you attend college, your education is an investment, and it's important to know as much as possible about your financial options. In the 2018–2019 school year, for example, students in the U.S. received a combined $246 billion in financial grants, loans, and other aid, CollegeBoard reports.

For college students applying to schools with online programs, financial planning means being able to spend more of your time and energy on learning the skills you need to graduate and get ahead. Here's a look at some of your options.

How do I pay for school?

Paying for college can be tough, but students can invest in their college education with the right financial plan and by knowing about the different places to access financial aid, grants, and scholarships.

Further Reading: Time management strategy for online college students.

When it comes to paying for college, there are three main sources: savings, income, and financial aid. Most college students use some combination of all three sources, CollegeBoard says. Only a few are able to rely solely on savings, and income can only count for so much toward tuition, so most students turn to financial aid to supplement their income.

There are two basic types of financial aid: the money you get for free and the money you have to pay back. To set yourself up for post-graduation financial success, you should explore all possible options for grants and scholarships before relying on loan money. Money from grants and scholarships, unlike money from loans, doesn’t have to be repaid.

Like their brick-and-mortar counterparts, students attending online institutions can access an array of federal and state government grants, private scholarships, and scholarships offered by the school itself. And many of these schools have robust financial aid offices and services to decide which financial path is right for you.


Grant aid is the most common way students pay for college. Undergraduate and graduate students received $135.6 billion in grants in the 2018–2019 school year, according to CollegeBoard. That figure includes federal Pell Grants, which are available to students based on their financial need. Other kinds of government grants include work-study programs and scholarships designed to help students representing some historically underserved groups. Other grants focus more on your professional interests and experience, while some provide aid for students who have served in the military.

Grant money doesn't have to be repaid, so it's one of the best ways to go. In addition to visiting your school's financial aid page, check out the U.S. Department of Education's Federal Student Aid page for more information on government-sponsored grants.


Increasingly, students are also tapping into other scholarships and institutional grants. This kind of funding, which also doesn't need to be repaid, is the only type of grant aid that grew rapidly over the past six years, the CollegeBoard reports, totaling $64.7 billion in the 2018–2019 school year. WGU, for example, offers dozens of scholarships for different degree programs and awarded $16 million in scholarships last year. Many of these are designed for specific audiences, including teachers and those who have served in the military. Other scholarships, such as the APND Excellence in Nursing Education Scholarship, are determined based on merit.

Corporate reimbursement, is another form of tuition assistance that functions like a scholarship or grant. Employers may offer an array of benefits for workers who want to go back to school, but may also include specific requirements related to length of employment and other factors.  


Loans are used in concert with institutional aid and Pell Grants to further defray tuition costs, and many of them allow you to wait until after you graduate until you have to start paying them off. Federal loans are almost always a better deal than private loans because they offer significantly lower interest rates. But in either case, it's money you're required to pay back—even if you withdraw from school. Check out the Federal Student Aid website for information on subsidized and unsubsidized loans.

Financial planning for students.

However you pay for school, it's critical that you set a budget for your education. Even with a full array of financial aid options, you're still going to need to make serious decisions every day about how to spend your money. You'd be surprised at what you can save once you take a closer look at your spending habits and set some cost-cutting goals.

Additionally, it's important to take stock of what tuition costs actually entail. Attending school online will save you typical fees associated with traditional brick-and-mortar colleges, such as transportation, room, and board. But you'll still need to take into account books and supplies, application fees, and personal expenses.

But if there's one thing to remember, it's that you can afford to invest in your own education and career by enrolling in college. It's more attainable than you might think.

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