1. Don’t ignore in-state schools just because you plan to study online.
Many students are excited about the concept of e-learning because it allows them to access colleges and universities all around the country – even around the globe. If you have your heart set on a particular school because it offers a great program or otherwise meets your individual needs, you should absolutely pursue that option, regardless of its location.
At the same time, you should be aware that state-based financial aid is often reserved for students who attend in-state colleges. For qualifying students, state-based financial aid may include grants, scholarships, or forgivable loans. If you qualify for a state grant or a state scholarship, you may be required to use those funds at a college or career school that is based in your state of residence. Your state may even provide a list of eligible colleges – sometimes only extending aid to students who attend state-funded, public schools.
If you’re interested in state-based financial aid, you can research potential opportunities by doing two things:
- First, review your state’s financial aid options. You may also wish to explore the website for your state’s department of higher education.
- Second, request information from colleges – particularly state schools and universities – with online degree offerings. You may be surprised to discover how many well-known, public colleges offer fully online programs at the bachelor, master, and certificate levels. Schools like UMASS, the University of North Carolina, the University of Illinois, the University of Florida, and Arizona State University are great examples.
Actually applying for state-based aid requires a little more legwork. You’ll need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and/or additional forms that are specific to your home state. Your college’s financial aid office can help you understand the process.
2. Start your financial aid applications early – even if your program start date doesn’t match the traditional financial aid calendar.
When applying for financial aid, your first step should always be the completion of a FAFSA. “FAFSA” stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Even though its name references federal aid (federal grants, federal loans, federal work-study), your FAFSA results are often used by colleges and state agencies to determine your eligibility for state aid or institutional aid, as well. Learn more about completing your FAFSA.
When it comes to online degrees, “early” is a relative term. Indeed, many online colleges offer year-round start dates. Depending on the college you choose, you could potentially start your degree next month – which is great news from a convenience perspective, but sometimes confusing from a financial aid perspective. Here’s what you need to keep in mind:
January 1 is the earliest you can file a FAFSA for the upcoming school year. FAFSA defines the “School Year” as extending from July 1 of the current year to June 30 of the following year. It’s important to complete the FAFSA as close to January 1 as is possible, because some financial aid is awarded to qualifying students on a first-come, first-serve basis. If you apply late in the traditional financial aid season (which runs from January through June), available pools of aid may be diminished or gone. Qualifying students who decide to start college in the fall, and who haven’t submitted a FAFSA during the previous spring, may not receive the best possible allocations.
Obviously if you’re getting ready to start school next month and you haven’t planned ahead, you’ll be applying for aid at a potential disadvantage. But this is easily corrected by filing your next FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1. Keep in mind, you need to file a new FAFSA for every new school year you will enter as an enrolled student.
Private scholarships are another potential source of financial aid. You can find scholarships based on your desired field of study, your state of residence, or on some of your more unique traits.
It’s important to start researching your scholarship options as soon as possible, too. Scholarship deadlines may occur at any time of year. Additionally, you may need weeks or months to compile your application materials. If a scholarship committee asks you to submit letters of reference, school transcripts, essays, or work samples, you’ll want plenty of time to ensure a neat and thorough application.
3. Consider additional expenses – like technology and textbooks.
In the big picture of college tuition and financial aid, students sometimes forget to add up the smaller numbers. Course materials, application fees, technology fees, transfer credit fees… possibly a newer, faster computer that can handle e-learning programs. Combined, those small numbers can significantly impact your out-of-pocket expenses.
Before you narrow your selection of online degree options, contact enrollment advisors at prospective colleges, and ask if you’ll be charged extra for:
- Your application
It’s common practice among campus schools to require an application fee. This is particularly true at selective schools, where teams of administrators have to review application materials and make time-consuming admission decisions. Luckily, online colleges like the University of Phoenix, Ashford University, and others do not require any application fees.
- Your textbooks
The National Association of College Stores (NACS) reports that students spend about $650 for college textbooks in an average school year.[i] Multiple that figure times the number of years you’re in college, and you could almost buy yourself a bookstore! Luckily, many online universities like Kaplan, Herzing, and Everest include the cost of books, ebooks, and course materials in their regular, undergraduate tuition prices.
- Your computer
If your computer is ancient or your degree plans call for a more sophisticated machine (multimedia art students, for example, may be required to work from Macs), you may be shelling out for a new laptop – in addition to your tuition. One potential workaround: look for colleges that may help you secure the necessary hardware and software. Schools like Full Sail University may offer launch programs, connecting you with prepackaged technology or equipment.