There are many ways to pay for your degree, but the most desirable are those that come at no cost to you, such as grants, scholarships, and other types of financial aid.
Here are four free avenues that can help take a chunk out of your total cost for education—tuition, room and board, fees, books, supplies, equipment, dependent child care expenses, transportation, and even rental or purchase of a personal computer.
First Things First: FAFSA
Before anything else, fill out your FAFSA, or Free Application for Student Aid. It’s easy. It’s online. It’s quick. One of the things your FAFSA determines is how much federal assistance you’ll receive. Keep in mind, no matter what amount of money you’re eligible for, you can still pursue non-government funds.
Grants are usually distributed based on financial need. Federal grants are the most well-known, given out by the U.S. Department of Education to students attending four-year colleges or universities, community colleges, and career schools. There are a few different types of federal grants.
- Federal Pell Grants are usually awarded to undergraduate students who have not earned a bachelor’s or a professional degree.
- Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) are administered directly by the financial aid office at most schools. You’ll often hear them called “campus-based” grants.
- Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants are different from other federal student grants in that they require you to take specific classes in order to get the grant. You’ll be required to do a certain kind of job to keep the grant from turning into a loan.
School-specific grants are also available and given out by each individual institution.
Just like grants, scholarships don’t have to be paid back. They are often awarded based on merit and typically distributed based on the standard academic year. They’re also usually highly competitive and have a lengthy application process, which means it’s important to get started at least 6 to 9 months before the funds are needed.
Look for scholarships offered by the field you’re hoping to enter. Engineers, teachers, nurses, and a variety of other industries have a number of scholarship opportunities for students. Some, but not all, offer help with your tuition in exchange for working in their particular industry after you graduate.
Finally, search for scholarships that celebrate your particular attributes or hobbies. Do you play golf? Are you left-handed? You might be surprised to learn there are scholarships for both skills. One of the best sites to research scholarships of all kinds is Peterson’s.
School-specific scholarships are usually available and given out by each institution. Capella offers several scholarships to currently enrolled students in a variety of programs.
3. Federal Loan Repayment Options
Under certain circumstances, you may be eligible to have your loans discharged (i.e. either canceled or sizably reduced). For example, if you plan on teaching math, science or special education at elementary or secondary schools deemed low income by the government, you may be forgiven up to $17,500 in Stafford Loans. Also, certain public service professions are eligible for a discharge through the Loan Forgiveness for Public Service Employees program (PSLF).
4. Tuition Reimbursement
Many employers will refund you the cost of your tuition if you’re studying a work-related subject. Tuition reimbursement, also called tuition assistance, can cover as little as one or two courses, or can cover up to the entire cost of your education. Check with your employer’s human resources department to see if they offer a program and if you’re eligible.
Other sources of information for grants and scholarships:
- U.S. Department of Labor’s FREE scholarship search tool
- Federal agencies
- Your state’s grant agency
- Foundations, religious and community organizations, local businesses, and civic groups
- Organizations (including professional associations) related to your field of interest
One Last Word of Caution
If a scholarship sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Never provide your social security number or financial information unless it’s for a federal or state grant.
Want even more ideas about how to save money on your degree program? Consider these 11 Ways to Save.