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How Financial Aid Works, Types, and How to Apply

Mar 17, 2023

Figuring out how to pay for college can sometimes feel like a complicated process for parents and students. But don’t let this step in the process discourage you from applying to college. 

Fortunately, there are many financial aid resources available to help families cover the cost of college. Scholarships, grants, loans, and work-study programs all fall under the umbrella of financial aid.  

Financial aid programs are often funded by the government, private organizations, or educational institutions that set aside money to help  students pay for their education. There are a variety of financial aid opportunities that any student can explore at both the local and national level. Students interested in applying for assistance should begin the process by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine federal, state, and institutional need-based eligibility. 

Types of Financial Aid

To benefit from financial aid, students should understand the types of monetary assistance available to them. Financial aid can offset major expenses traditionally associated with higher education, including tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, and transportation.  

Grants

Grants are a form of financial aid that students don’t need to repay, as long as the conditions of the grant program are met. This type of assistance is typically awarded by organizations, colleges, academic institutions, and federal and state governments based on a student’s level of need. Some examples of federal grants available are Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), and Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants. 

Scholarships

Scholarship funding can come from a variety of sources, including government, corporations, universities, nonprofits, or other organizations. Many nonprofit and private organizations endow scholarships to students to help them pay for college or career development, and may base eligibility on academic merit, on talent, or for a particular area of study. A scholarship is free money that does not have to be paid back and can make a significant difference in the lives of students by helping them manage their education expenses. 

Work-Study Jobs

Students can earn money to pay for school by working part-time through the Federal Work Study Program. This allows students to gain valuable work experience as they pursue their degrees, but it’s important to note that not all schools participate in the program. Eligible applicants can earn the current federal minimum wage, or more, depending on the type of work and the student’s skills. The total amount for a work-study award depends on when a student applies, their level of financial need, and the school’s funding level. Often, schools award work-study funds on a first-come, first-served basis, so it’s important for students to complete their FAFSA as early as possible. 

Loans

Students who apply for financial aid are typically also offered loans as part of a school’s financial aid package. A loan is borrowed money that must be paid back with interest. Student loans can come from the federal government, an organization, or from private sources like banks or financial institutions. The U.S. Department of Education offers a federal student loan program known as the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program. With this type of loan, the U.S. Department of Education serves as your lender and offers four types of Direct Loans, including:

  • Direct Subsidized Loans: Available to eligible undergraduate students who demonstrate financial need to help cover the costs of higher education at a college or career school. 
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans:  Available to eligible undergraduate, graduate, and professional students, but eligibility is not based on financial need.
  • Direct PLUS Loans: Available to eligible graduate or professional students and parents of dependent undergraduate students to help pay for education expenses not covered by other financial aid. Eligibility is not based on financial need, but a credit check is required. Borrowers who have a low credit score must meet additional requirements to qualify. 
  • Direct Consolidation Loans: Allows students to combine all eligible federal student loans into a single loan with a single loan servicer.

Applying for Financial Aid

Federal student financial aid programs are available at thousands of schools across the country. Students interested in applying for financial assistance should begin by learning if the college or university they’re interested in offers financial aid, then read about eligibility requirements. 

In most cases, students who qualify for aid are able to do so based on financial need or merit. Need-based aid is determined from the information a student provides on the FAFSA, with the federal government calculating the amount and types of awards a student may receive. Merit-based aid is given by colleges and private organizations in the form of scholarships to students demonstrating academic, athletic, or artistic talent. 

Students who complete the FAFSA receive a financial aid award letter from schools offering acceptance into their programs and may include varied award packages, including federal, state, and institutional aid. 

The first step toward receiving aid begins with filling out the FAFSA and verifying the status of an application through the U.S. Department of Education. When an award letter arrives, students can then choose a college or university to attend that fits their budget.

WGU’s vast degree programs offer student an affordable education from an accredited university with courses designed collaboratively with employers and industry experts in healthcare, business, IT, and education. 

WGU is approved by the U.S. Department of Education to offer federal student aid in all degree programs, and helps students reduce or eliminate the need to take out a loan to pay for their WGU degree. This is done through our Responsible Borrowing Initiative and financial aid opportunities including scholarships. 

With a more affordable tuition model, including  flat-rate tuition per term, many WGU students graduate without student debt. Students who qualify for and accept federal aid can have most, if not all, direct education expenses covered. Learn more about the online degrees available at WGU and explore how financial aid can make your goal of pursuing higher education a reality. 

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