Financial aid: The working student’s guide in 2021
By Krystal Christopher
April 15, 2021 • 4 minute read
You’ve decided to get your degree, but how will you pay for it? That’s a question facing many prospective students. Let’s explore the financial aid options available to you, and the ways you can make paying for college a reality.
Understanding financial aid
Tools to help you
Before discussing the financial aid options available to you, we recommend setting up a budget. Stephenie Gloden, vice president of Fidelity Consulting Agile Practice at Fidelity Investments, knows firsthand about juggling work, life and college. She was a working mother when she completed her degree, and now she helps other people achieve their dreams.
Gloden recommends using free online tools and calculators to help understand the full cost of college. The goal, Gloden notes, is to minimize debt as much as possible.
University of Phoenix also maintains various tools to help students understand the cost of their program and the options to help fund it. For example, it offers a free net price calculatorthat estimates financial aid.
How to apply for financial aid
If you’re applying for federal financial aid, including loans and grants, you will need to submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form. This is an application that will be your starting point for seeking federal financial aid.
Make sure you fill it out completely with tax information, your employer and the colleges you’re applying to. June 30 is the deadline to submit the FAFSA form for each school year. Some universities, like University of Phoenix, operate year-round, and will work with you to ensure you submit the FAFSA form for the right academic year.
Pro tip:Make sure you select the correct program you need tuition support for. If you’re applying for a bachelor’s degree, for example, don’t select a graduate program. That would automatically eliminate you from receiving a grant.
You don’t have to commit to anything right away, but you can see what you may qualify for in terms of grants, a federally subsidized loan or an unsubsidized loan. You can use that information to better budget for college and see your out-of-pocket expenses.
Grants, college scholarships and tuition reimbursement
You should receive an email listing what you’re eligible for, in terms of grant money and federal loans, just a few days after filling out a FAFSA form. The maximum federal grantaward is $6,345 for the 2020-2021 award year.
While you typically don’t have to pay back your grant, there are eligibility requirements that you must meet to keep receiving your grant.
Tuition reimbursement and employer benefits
The next step after receiving your federal grant estimate should be a discussion with your employer’s HR office. Many employers offer a tuition reimbursement plan that could pay for some or all of your tuition. This is another way to reduce your out-of-pocket costs.
Gloden recommends asking your employer about any opportunities they might have to help you pay down your student loans. Employers need qualified talent, and these plans are a great way to find and retain valuable employees. Your employer might also have options that can help prospective and current college students reduce education costs. Even if your employer doesn’t currently offer a tuition reimbursement plan, Gloden recommends asking them to consider one.
After exploring federal grants and tuition reimbursement plans, you should apply to scholarships offered by the colleges you’ve identified. Talk to their financial aid advisors to identify any scholarships offered by the universities or external scholarships that could help pay for college.
After exploring scholarships, you should also see if you’re eligible for other benefits. For example, there are military benefits, Native American benefits and tribal grants.
Pro tip:Explore all opportunities to cover college tuition before looking at loan options. Beyond grants, scholarships and tuition reimbursement, identify savings that could be used to help pay for college. You could also set up a payment plan. Instead of having to pay back a student loan with interest, you could pay a small monthly amount toward your tuition.
If you still need funding to cover college, you may want to consider a federal loan. This could be used to help cover college tuition and expenses, like purchasing a laptop. You will have to start paying back the loan, with interest, six months after you stop attending school.
Remember the FAFSA? That same form will also include eligible federal loan amounts. There are three types of federal loans: subsidized, unsubsidized and PLUS loans.
Subsidized Stafford Loans are income-based and feature the same interest rate as the unsubsidized loans for undergraduate programs. Both are at 2.75 percent as of February 2021. Repayment terms are the same for both subsidized and unsubsidized.
PLUS loans are available for graduate students at a higher interest rate than an unsubsidized loan. There are Graduate Plus and Parent Plus loans(for dependent students). The FAFSA processed email will provide you information on whether you will receive a grant and the eligibility of that.
Pro Tip:Choose a loan option that works for you, and become a responsible borrower. By limiting the amount of loan you accept to what is necessary, you will reduce your repayment burden down the road.
Gloden notes that interest will accrue on unsubsidized loans while the student is in school. If you can, Gloden suggests, make monthly interest payments on unsubsidized student loans while attending college. You can factor this into your monthly budget using a free college planning tool. Consider it an expense like a cable bill or groceries.
Paying your interest rate during college means paying less after college. It also helps you get into the habit of paying your student loans.
How will you pay for college? Learn more about federal financial aid here.