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Online Students’ Guide to Understanding Financial Aid

When you choose to pursue your college education, you’re making the brave choice to invest in yourself and your future.

That investment can pay out big: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, people age 25 and older who have their bachelor’s degree earned a median annual salary of around $62,000 in 2018, compared to just under $38,000 for high school graduates with no college experience. With a master’s degree, the number jumps to about $74,500.

That means your college degree can equate to a difference of $1 million or more throughout your career, depending on factors like location, field of study, and experience level.

Our goal is to help you discover the personal, professional, and financial benefits of your college education — while minimizing the cost to you.

What financial aid resources are available to me?

We know tuition costs can seem intimidating. At Maryville, we believe in breaking down barriers and increasing access to education. That’s why we proudly provide a number of resources like grants, payment plans, and loans to help mitigate your financial investment so you can focus on earning your education — and enjoying the rewards in your life and career.

We’re also here to help connect you with other opportunities to lower your tuition costs and fees through transfer credit options, external scholarships, employer-provided tuition reimbursement programs, military benefits, and other financial aid resources.

Your education is an amazing opportunity, and we want to help you focus on the lifelong benefits it can provide — not the costs. There are plenty of resources available to you, and tapping into them is easier than you might think. Read below to learn how you can get started on researching, identifying, and applying for the financial assistance that’s right for you.

Man holding note that reads "Can I Afford College?"

All roads begin at FAFSA®.

Before you get too far along in your quest for a college degree, put together a snapshot of your financial situation and the available financial aid options.

The federal government-run program Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is designed to assist with the process. Set up an account on the website and answer the questions, which range from simple demographics — name, address, and date of birth, for instance — to your preferred schools, tax status, and financial information.

When you’re done, sign the document electronically and submit your completed FAFSA application package. FAFSA stores the information in its servers so you can use it to apply for grants, loans, and a number of other financial aid options.

The U.S. Department of Education’s blog provides an easy-to-follow, step-by-step tutorial for filling out FAFSA forms online:

  • Create an account/obtain your Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID/ FSA IDs are essentially usernames and passwords that remain with you throughout your entire student career.
  • Start filling out FAFSA. Be sure to choose the correct school year on the first page of the FAFSA form. For example, if you plan to attend college between July 1, 2019 and June 30, 2020, choose the 2019-20 FAFSA form. Also, the beginning of the form includes a “save” button, which lets you return to the form later if necessary.
  • Complete the demographics section. Fill out the sections on personal information. Full legal name, address, Social Security number, and other identifying information goes in this section.
  • List the schools to which you are applying. The form lets you choose up to 10 schools. When the form is completed, your information will be sent to the selected institutions.
  • Determine dependency status. Whether a student is considered a legal dependent of a parent or legal guardian determines the course of the rest of the FAFSA form.
  • Complete parent demographics section (if applicable). Students who are legal dependents of a parent or guardian should fill out this section. Names, addresses, and other identifying data of the parent/guardian go here.
  • Prove your financial information. An IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) lets you or your parents/guardians (if applicable) log in to the IRS website and automatically populate FAFSA fields with verified tax return data. Applicants who are unable to use the DRT need to supply paper copies of tax returns to the school to which they are applying.
  • Electronically sign and submit the FAFSA form. FAFSA lets you and your parents/guardians sign the form digitally with FSA IDs. If you forget your numbers you can use the FSA ID retrieval tool. When everything is signed, the form can be officially submitted.

College financial aid departments use completed FAFSA forms to obtain the necessary financial aid for students who want to enroll in their programs. It’s important to remember that the FAFSA form is not a one-time thing. FAFSA forms must be completed every school year until graduation, even if students are attending full time.

Award letters and federal student aid

When the FAFSA has been filed and processed, each school you’ve applied to will send you an award letter itemizing the aid that’s available to you based on things such as tuition, expected family contribution, how far along you are in your program, and whether you are attending school full time or part time.

The first type of financial aid most students encounter is federal student aid, which is available in the form of grants and loans. The following are various types of federal aid likely to be found on a financial aid award letter, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s “Guide to Federal Student Aid: Funding Your Education.” It’s important to note that federal student aid award limits are subject to change.

Federal Grants

The federal government provides grants for eligible students attending college or career school. Typically, grants do not have to be repaid; however, there are some exceptions such as:

  • You withdrew early from the program for which the grant was provided
  • Your enrollment status changed in a way that reduces your eligibility for your grant; for example, if you switch from full time to part time, your grant amount will be reduced
  • You received outside scholarships or grants that reduced your need for federal student aid

Learn more about some common federal grants below.

  • Federal Pell Grant: Undergraduates without either a bachelor’s or other professional degree and who display financial need may receive a Federal Pell Grant. A student can receive a Pell Grant for no more than 12 semesters or the equivalent (roughly six years). Award amounts can change each year, depending on funding; the maximum Pell Grant award for the 2019-20 award year is $6,195 per year.
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG): Some undergraduates with exceptional financial need may have access to up to $4,000 via a supplemental federal grand, depending on funding availability at a particular school.
  • Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grant (TEACH): Undergraduates and graduate students alike may be eligible for up to $4,000 per semester if they meet eligibility requirements and are willing to sign an agreement that they will teach full time in a high-need field after graduation. If students fail to uphold the agreement, the grant is converted to a direct unsubsidized loan.

Federal Loans

Federal student loans are borrowed funds that must be repaid. Loans made by the federal government typically have more benefits than loans from banks or other private sources.

Federal loans can be either subsidized or unsubsidized. The key difference between subsidized and unsubsidized federal student loans is the federal government pays (or “subsidizes”) interest on subsidized loans during select periods.

Learn more about some common federal loan programs below.

  • Direct Subsidized Loan (sometimes also referred to as a subsidized Stafford loan): When undergraduates qualify for a subsidized loan due to financial need, the U.S. Department of Education will pay the interest on the loan while the student actively pursues their degree and for a period of deferment after graduation. The amount of the loan depends on the undergraduate student’s grade level, but can reach up to $5,500 per year.
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loan (sometimes also referred to as an unsubsidized Stafford loan): Both undergraduate and graduate students qualify for unsubsidized loans regardless of financial need. The borrower is responsible for all of the interest on the loans, which can be approved for amounts up to $20,500 depending on grade level and dependency status.
  • Direct Plus Loans: Graduate students and parents of undergraduate students can qualify for Direct PLUS Loans regardless of the student’s financial need. A Direct PLUS Loan is commonly referred to as a parent PLUS loan when made to a parent, and as a grad PLUS loan when made to a graduate or professional student. Interest rates are slightly higher than the subsidized and unsubsidized loans, but the maximum amount can cover the total cost of attending school, minus the amount of other financial aid contributions.

Just because you qualify for financial aid doesn’t mean you can accept whatever is offered in excess of your need. If scholarships or private grants are already in place, you may accept only the federal loans and grants necessary to cover whichever costs have not been met.

Applicants should explore all available options and work up a personal budget to determine what they can contribute to their education expenses.

Private loans may supplement other avenues of financial assistance.

Federal student aid rarely covers all education expenses. Tuition itself can exceed $30,000 at private colleges and $20,000 at public institutions per school year. Textbooks and supplies also figure into the total expenditure required to get a college degree.

Private student loans essentially work like any other type of bank loan. Unlike federal loans, private loans take the student’s credit score into account. Most require that repayment begin immediately, although some allow repayment of only the accrued interest each month while students are still in school.

For those who do not qualify for private loans by themselves, co-signers are allowed. Co-signers are usually parents or family members with outstanding credit scores. Students are still expected to pay the loan themselves, but if they fail to do so, the bank will expect repayment from the co-signer. Also, the co-signer’s better credit score means better terms on the loan.

Some private loans can have high interest rates or “introductory offers,” which offer rates that are low at first but that increase dramatically after a given period of time. Students should research the terms of private loans before making a decision.

Gifts applied to your education: non-federal education grants

Most grants, either federal or non-federal, do not require repayment and are typically need-based awards. Different types of grants can be used for different purposes, ranging from specific types of students (based on gender, ethnicity, or income level, for example) to educational goals (such as healthcare or education majors).

Grants are available from state governments and non-governmental organizations. The latter includes individual colleges and universities, professional associations, corporations, religious organizations, and community clubs and services. CollegeScholarships.org lists the types of education grants available to students, including:

  • State Grants: For state resident students
  • Non-Traditional Students: Adults with families returning to school later in life
  • Low-Income/Disadvantaged Students: For students from economically or socially disadvantaged backgrounds or students with disabilities
  • Military and Their Families: Active-duty or veteran students and the families of current or former military members
  • Subject-Specific Grants: For students pursuing degrees in a specific, high-need career field
  • Degree Level Grants: Undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral student grants
  • Minority-Specific Grants: For applicants with minority status, such as female students or African American, Hispanic, or Native American ethnicities

Numerous private or public organizations, both for-profit and not-for-profit, offer a range of grants. In fact, a student could conceivably get several grants for the same reason. For instance, a Native American student might qualify for more than one minority grant through different organizations.

Some grants, especially those for specific degree programs, are known as grants-for-service and typically act as a binding contract. A grant-for-service contract means that students receive the grant as long as they agree to work in that field, often for the specific company or organization that paid for the grant.

Scholarships provide financial support without repayment.

While grants are generally need-based financial aid, scholarships typically award money based on student merit. High school football players, for example, may qualify for athletic scholarships at a college or university with a football team.

Every scholarship has its own application process and procedure, so students should be prepared to do a lot of individual research into the various programs. Many scholarships have extensive requirements for essays, letters of recommendation, and transcripts.

Most colleges and universities offer their own scholarships, but students can still find scholarships offered by other organizations or businesses that are not limited to a single institution. Examples include:

  • Academic Scholarships (Merit Scholarships): Based on grade point averages and extracurricular activities
  • Average Academic Performance Scholarships: Based less on academic performance and more on community service, leadership, and the strength of the student essay
  • Scholarships for Minorities: Based on minority status, either as a collective whole or a specific ethnic group
  • Scholarships for Women: Based primarily on gender, but also take into account academics, essays, and other considerations
  • Creative Scholarships: Usually based on an audition or submission of artwork of various sorts
  • Community Service Scholarships: Based on a student’s history of community service activity and support
  • Unusual Scholarships: Often involve criteria of a unique nature not found in any of the other categories

Scholarships are available for students in many walks of life. Scholarship search engines designed to assist students in finding the right scholarships are available on the internet.

Military education benefits serve those who’ve served.

Veterans or military members on active or reserve duty have several financial aid options open specifically to them.

Many military members are eligible for tuition assistance, and each branch determines specific criteria for qualification. Online programs are popular among servicemen and women because of the long, odd hours they work, the travel involved with training and temporary assignments, and their overseas deployments. In fact, in a report issued in 2016, the Veterans Administration found that both undergraduate and graduate military students took all their classes online at higher rates than did their nonmilitary counterparts.

If you’re serving in the military and would like to pursue a college degree, contact your base’s education office for details. The staff will be able to give you information on partnerships with local schools, policies on transferring credits, college credit for military experience programs, and CLEP/DANTES testing, which allows service members to receive college credit by testing out of a subject.

The GI Bill (both the Montgomery and Post-9/11 editions) provides a predefined monthly stipend that can be used by a military veteran (or in some cases, active duty members who meet certain requirements) when attending college either full or part time.

College admission offices can activate your GI Bill benefits, which will be transferred directly to your bank account, not the college. Many veterans receive financial aid through grants and loans and use their GI Bill for living expenses while they attend school. Others use the GI Bill to pay for their college tuition directly, or to pay for textbooks and supplies.

Employer tuition assistance benefits both students and their employers.

Many companies make tuition assistance programs available to their employees. Tuition assistance programs let employers provide up to $5,250 in education assistance benefits for undergraduate or graduate courses tax-free each year. Like the GI Bill, employer tuition assistance money is given directly to the student and may sometimes be used to pay for the incidental expenses associated with attending school, such as supplementing lost income, covering bills, or paying for textbooks/supplies. In addition, companies may also offer scholarships and grants in addition to tuition assistance.

Students considering one of Maryville University’s online degree programs may be eligible for a range of financial aid options. Both need- and merit-based assistance, including grants, loans, and external scholarships, may be available to those who qualify. One of our goals is to make education affordable and accessible to help deserving students fulfill their potential.

Aspiring students are not alone.

Maryville’s financial aid experts and admissions personnel stand ready to help students learn more about their options for paying for college. It’s important to be well informed and create a plan for funding your education. Ask us questions and work with one of our skilled advisors as a resource.

Whether you’re a full-time working parent and/or spouse, a service member on 24-hour shifts, or a recent high school grad looking to pursue an online college education, Maryville University has an online program that can accommodate your needs.

Sources:

College Data, “What’s the Price Tag for a College Education?

CollegeScholarships.org, “Education Grant Benefits and Opportunities

CollegeScholarships.org, “Scholarship Search Engine

Federal Student Aid, “Create a New FAFSA ID

Federal Student Aid, “Funding Your Education

Federal Student Aid, “Types of Financial Aid

FinAid.org, “Employer Tuition Assistance

Go College, “Guide to Private Student Loans

Home Room, “8 Steps to Filling Out the FAFSA® Form

Maryville University, “Financial Aid

Maryville University, “Financial Aid Programs

Maryville University, “Freshman Scholarships | Transfer Scholarships

Sallie Mae

Military.com, “College Credit for Military Experience

Military.com, “Military Education Benefits User’s Guide

National Center for Education Statistics, “After the Post-9/11 Bill

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Unemployment Rates and Earnings by Educational Attainment