A degree is an investment in your future. But the cost of attending college can make you hesitate, especially if you have other responsibilities. 

 The good news is that there are options available to help you cover the costs of studying. Scholarships and grants cover an average of 25% of college applicants’ fees, and student loans are also available to help you bridge any funding gaps. 

 Even if you are a mature student, you will usually be eligible for some financial aid. The information you need to provide changes if you are over 24, but there is no age restriction on most forms of student aid.

 Understanding the financial aid process is essential to make sure you get the help you need. With the right package in place, you can feel secure in your decision to pursue further learning.

 What Is Financial Aid?

Financial aid is designed to make college more accessible, by helping you cover the costs of studying. It might come from federal, state, or school funds, depending on the type of financial aid you are eligible for.

 There are several different types of financial aid. Some need to be paid back, others are a gift and don’t need to be repaid.

 Before we look at the different types of aid available, there are a few terms that you need to understand:

 Cost of Attendance (COA): The cost of attendance is the average amount it costs to study a particular program at a specific school. It is calculated based on tuition, fees, accommodation, books and other supplies, transport, and other personal expenses. The amount varies depending on the school and other factors, like whether you live on campus or commute.

 Expected Family Contribution (EFC): When you apply for student financial aid, the federal government calculates how much you or your family can afford to pay towards college. This is then deducted from the cost of attendance to work out your financial need. It determines the maximum amount you are eligible for in need-based aid.

 Financial Need: The financial aid you are eligible for is often determined based on your financial need. This figure is calculated by taking the EFC away from the cost of attendance. It determines how much need-based aid you can apply for.

 As an example, if the COA for the program you are interested in is $38,000 and your EFC is calculated at 10,000, your financial need would be $28,000 and that would be the maximum amount of financial aid you would be eligible for.

 Most schools have calculators you can use to help you research the possible financial assistance you could get and how much you would end up paying for your degree. 

 Dependent Versus Independent Students: The financial aid you can apply for depends on whether you are considered a dependent or independent student. 

 If you are under 24 and don’t have extenuating circumstances (such as being married, a parent, in foster care, emancipated, or homeless), you are considered a dependent student. There is an expectation that your family will be helping you out with the cost of college. This will affect your financial need calculation and the amount you can borrow from federal loans.

 Independent students are those who are over 24, have dependent children, have served with the military, or are otherwise not supported by their parents. You can see a fuller list of the criteria here. Independent students aren’t expected to provide information on their parents’ financial situation.

 Types of Financial Aid

There are two main forms of financial aid: Needs-based and merit-based.

 Needs-based aid is awarded based on your financial situation and includes grants, loans, and work-study programs. Merit-based aid is determined by your talents and abilities and includes a variety of scholarships. Some scholarships also use need as a factor in determining how much aid to award.

 There are some other financial aid programs available for military families or to cover the cost of international study. But the main forms of student aid are as follows:

 1. Grants

Grants are available from the federal and state government. Schools also run grant schemes, and some not-for-profits and private organizations offer grants too.

 If you are awarded grant money, you won’t usually need to worry about repaying it, unless you drop out of school or your eligibility criteria change.

 There are different grant schemes available, each with its own criteria. For most, you will need to demonstrate financial need. 

 It is worth researching to see if you are eligible for other grants. The federal grant schemes available to students include

 Federal Pell Grants: These are usually only awarded to undergraduates who don’t hold a previous degree-level qualification. There are occasional exceptions for some post baccalaureate teacher training programs.

 Pell grants are also reserved for students who demonstrate exceptional financial need. You cannot get one of these grants if you are in prison or have an involuntary civil commitment.

 The maximum amount available under this scheme in 2021-2022 is $6,495 for the year. The actual amount will depend on your exact circumstances, including the schools you apply to, whether you are studying full-time or part-time, and your Expected Family Contribution.

 A Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant: If you have exceptional financial need and are entering school as an undergraduate, you may be eligible for a Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG). 

 Not all schools participate in this grant program. Those that do are given a pot of money each year to allocate to students. Once the money has been allocated to eligible students, no further awards will be made for that year.

 The amount you could get under the FSEOG program varies from $100 to $4,000 per year.

 Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant: This grant scheme is specifically aimed at prospective students who have a parent or guardian who died during military service in Afghanistan or Iraq after the events of 9/11. 

 If your EFC is too high and you aren’t eligible for a Pell Grant, you might be able to get an Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant instead.

 You’ll only be eligible if you were under 24 at the time of their death or were enrolled in college at least part-time.  

 The grant is equivalent to the maximum amount of the Pell Grant, but there are reductions in place because of the 2011 Budget Control Act. For awards paid out before October 1, 2021, the maximum amount is $5,983.34.

 Teacher Education Assistance for College And Higher Education (TEACH) Grant: The aptly named TEACH grant is aimed at students who plan a career in teaching. It requires you to work for four years as a teacher in a high-needs school after you graduate. If you don’t complete those four years, the grant becomes a loan and you will need to pay back the money, plus interest.

 Only certain programs are eligible for TEACH and you’ll need to study at a participating school. Unlike the other grant schemes, there is an academic requirement for the TEACH grant. Check with the financial aid office at your preferred school to find out what their requirements are.

 You’ll also need to have a TEACH counseling session every year that you are given the grant.

 The TEACH grant covers a maximum of $4,000 per year. It has also been reduced by the 2011 Budget Control Act. For grants made between October 1, 2020, and October 1, 2021, the maximum amount is $3,772.

 State Grants: Many states also offer grants for eligible students who are resident in the state. In Illinois, residents with financial need can apply for the Monetary Award Program (MAP).

 Undergraduate students with an EFC of less than $9,000 can apply for MAP, as long as they and their parents are resident in Illinois. The grant will only be awarded if you attend an in-state school. 

 The grant only covers up to 135 credit hours, which is usually around four and a half years of full-time study.

 The amount you can get via MAP is between $178 and $5,340 per year.

 2. Scholarships

Like grants, scholarships are gifts of money, which means you won’t normally need to repay them. Many scholarships are based on both merit and need, while some are only based on merit. You’ll usually need to meet eligibility criteria, such as outstanding academic, athletic, musical, or artistic achievements.

 Scholarships are offered by a wide range of institutions, including schools themselves, nonprofits, employers, religious groups, community groups, and private companies. Both undergraduate and graduate scholarships are available.

 Many scholarships are aimed at a specific group of people. The amounts can vary hugely – it could be a few hundred dollars or your entire tuition. 

 There are also details of external search sites that can help you find other scholarships.

3. Work-Study Jobs

The Federal Work-Study program helps students with financial need find part-time jobs that fit around their studies. 

Jobs will usually relate to your area of study or bring benefits to the local community. You could be employed by your school itself, or off-campus at a nonprofit, community group, or private company.

The Work-Study program is open to any student with financial need, including undergraduates and graduates, and both part- and full-time students. But funds often run out, so it is best to apply as early as possible.

You’ll earn at least the federal minimum wage. However, you can’t earn more than your total Work-Study award amount. Your school will consider your schedule and how well you are keeping up with your studies when assigning work hours.

4. Loans

Unlike grant or scholarship money, loans must be paid back, along with interest. Loans can come from banks or private organizations, but there are also federal student loans available that usually have lower interest rates. 

For 2021, the interest rates on federal loans are 2.75% for undergraduates and 4.30% for graduate or professional students.

There is also a 6-month grace period after you graduate or stop studying before you need to start paying back federal loans.

 Before deciding to take out a loan, consider carefully whether you will be able to repay it. Many students use loans to cover part of the cost of study and it can be an affordable way to invest in your future. But you will need to pay the money back once you finish your studies. Check the terms of the loan carefully to make sure you understand the interest rates and repayment terms.

 There are both subsidized and unsubsidized student loans available from the U.S. Department of Education. 

 Subsidized loans are available to undergraduates with financial need. There are no financial eligibility criteria for unsubsidized loans and undergraduate, graduate, and professional students can all apply.

 Graduate and professional students, as well as parents of dependent undergraduates, can also apply for a Direct PLUS Loan to cover expenses not covered by other forms of financial aid. This type of loan requires a credit check.

 If you are an undergraduate, your maximum loan will be between $5,500 and $12,500 per year, depending on your year of study and whether you are a dependent or independent student. 

 If you are a graduate or professional student, you can borrow up to $20,500 in unsubsidized loans and could also apply for a Direct PLUS Loan to cover further expenses. Additionally, graduate or professional student loans are not income based, so you can qualify for aid regardless of your income.

Conclusion

Financial aid can make a real difference in your ability to afford your education, so don’t hesitate to apply. There are a variety of options to best fit your financial needs, and no matter what your financial situation is, you are likely eligible for at least some form of aid if you need it.