How do I Apply for Online Degree Financial Aid?

If you are thinking about advancing your education by pursuing an online degree, do not let financial concerns stand in your way. Financial aid is available for online degrees, and the more you know about your options, the easier it will be to navigate through the financial aid process.

Most students need to borrow money to pay for their education. Students should speak with a financial aid advisor at the school to which they are applying to discuss their options. Because loans cost money (interest rates add to the cost of your education over time), students should be careful to borrow only the amount of money they need to cover the cost of their tuition and textbooks. Students should then fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form to determine the amount of financial aid they are eligible to receive. You can complete a hardcopy version of the form or fill one out at the website for the U.S. Department of Education (Free Application for Federal Student Aid web site).

Students should make sure to check deadlines for state and school financial aid before applying. Certain types of financial aid are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so it is in your best interest to submit your FAFSA form as early as possible. Make sure that all of your information is accurate and that you fill out the form completely. Students should also find out if they need to include any other paperwork with their application. Any missing information could result in a delay in processing.

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After you submit the FAFSA form, students will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR). Taking into account your income, savings, family size, and other factors, the federal government determines how much of your education it believes you are capable of paying for yourself. A copy of the report is also sent to your school, which uses the information to figure out your financial need. Students will receive a Financial Aid Award Letter from their school that states the total amount of financial aid that you are eligible to receive.

While grants and scholarships do not need to be paid back, loans do. In some cases, you may have a gap between the amount of financial aid you receive and the cost of your education that you are able to pay for yourself. This “unmet need” will have to be covered through alternative means. Private loans or scholarships are potential options to help you cover these costs. If there are several schools to which you are applying, you should compare the financial aid awards you get from each school to determine your best option.

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Before applying for financial aid, students already in the workforce (as most people who pursue an online degree are) should see if they can get a tuition reimbursement from their employer. According to the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, less than 15 percent of eligible employees take advantage of this benefit. Many employers are happy to help you advance your skills and training, especially if it will benefit the company. Ideally, you want a tuition-reimbursement plan that pays for 100 percent of your tuition, covers the cost of each class up front, and includes the cost of books and materials. Speak with your Human Resources department to discuss your options. Students should be aware that a tuition-reimbursement plan may come with a few requirements, such as choosing from a list of specified schools, maintaining a minimum GPA, or making a commitment to stay with the company for a certain number of years. Some plans make students pay for the cost of classes up front and reimburse them at a later time if a minimum class grade is achieved.

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The bottom line is that if you are serious about going back to school, do not let financial worries stop you from continuing your education. Many students need some sort of financial aid to help them with the cost of their education. If you are already in the workforce, an online degree is a great way to advance your career. Knowing your options beforehand will help you find the best financial aid plan to meet your needs.