Not going to a four-year program doesn’t mean you have to give up on scholarships and financial aid. Community colleges offer many of the same financial aid programs as traditional four-year institutions – but their lower cost structure means your aid package will go farther.
Getting financial aid at a community college requires attention to the fine print and adherence to deadlines. If you can manage the details, you may be able to cover a substantial portion of community college costs. With a bit of research, you may even be able to get great local and private monies to fund your education. Here are a few tips, divided by category, for making the most out of the financial aid opportunities at the community college level.
Government Loans & Grants
Government loans and grants are awarded based on completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). For community college students, completing a FAFSA creates eligibility for Stafford Loan, Perkins Loans, PLUS Loans, and Pell Grants.
Of the four, Perkins Loans are considered the best for community college students, while Pell Grants are considered the hardest to obtain. This is due to the fact that Pell Grants do not need to be repaid and require students to show significant financial need, which can be harder to do given the lower overall costs at community colleges. In contrast, Perkins Loans are considered to be more flexible with repayment options and tend to offer better terms to community college students than Stafford or PLUS Loans.
Complete the FAFSA on time to get the best chance at money, and be sure to double-check all the fine print. Government loans must be paid back, so borrowing a minimal amount is in your best interest.
State money for community college tuition and fees is available in addition to federal funds. Unlike federal dollars, not all state aid monies are dependent on completing a FAFSA, though some states do require it. For most state aid dollars, students will need to be enrolled at least half-time to qualify for grants, scholarships, or loans.
To find out more about state aid programs, look to your own state’s web information and discuss options with the admissions team at your community college. Ask about deadlines, requirements, and application forms that have to be completed. Start early, as some funding is available on a limited basis and may run out later in the year.
Remember to never assume similarity between state programs, and research carefully when looking at out-of-state schools. Some states, such as New Jersey, have their own customized aid eligibility calculators, while other states offer merit-based scholarships to qualifying high school graduates as long as they attend school in-state. For some degree programs such as nursing, energy fieldwork, or farmwork, individual states may also have special education credit or scholarship programs that tie in with policy goals for state development, so if you’re willing to relocate for a few years, you can save big on school. Compare apples to apples where you can and don’t be afraid to ask for more information!
Don’t overlook local scholarship programs when applying to community colleges. Business groups, alumni clubs, and volunteer organizations in your hometown may all have scholarship money for you regardless of where you choose to go to school. Memorial scholarships may also offer funds for specific educational goals, such as study abroad or vocational certifications. Check with your high school guidance counselor for a place to start in your research.
Often, these scholarships will not be sizable in and of themselves – typical community scholarships range from $25 to $1000. However, $50 here and $200 there can add up quickly. Since these scholarships are available only to a restricted population – your local community – you stand a very good chance of getting the money if you take the time to apply.
Private Scholarships & Loans
Last but not least, don’t overlook private scholarship and loan programs. These are often available through national charitable organizations and development groups. Examples include the United Negro College Fund, P.E.O. scholarships and loans for women, and monies from the community outreach arms of groups like the Miss America Pageant. This author, for one, received a $1,000 scholarship from the Miss America Pageant despite never being a contestant or, frankly, even a fan of their beauty pageants.
How does it work? Many of these loan and scholarship programs link back to community service or extra-curricular involvement. With a good essay and solid resume, you can lock down useful funds for your community college experience. You can find the details on application deadlines through your high school guidance counselor or by searching online databases of national scholarships.