Scholarships & Financial Aid for Online College Students

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Students often wonder, does financial aid cover online classes? The short answer is yes. In recent years, as the popularity of online higher education has exploded across the country, financial aid has evolved to meet the demand of a now mainstream learning option. There has been a 263% increase in students enrolled in online courses since 2004, and in 2012, approximately 5.5 million college students took at least one online class. According to the Babson Survey Research Group’s 2015 Survey of Online Learning, the percentage of students taking classes online is still growing. The study found that more than one in four students now takes at least one online course. Even more striking, distance education enrollments account for nearly all recent enrollment growth at two-year institutions.

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Eighty-five percent of students enrolled in online higher education courses are non-traditional students, who face unique challenges in paying for school. In 2014-15, two-thirds of full-time students paid for school with the help of grants and scholarships. Online students qualify for many of the same types of state and federal aid and scholarships as on-campus learners, and also have access to a variety of awards intended solely for distance learners.

When online education was in its infancy, students seeking financial aid from the federal government had to take at least 50% of their classes on campus in order to qualify for assistance. The government created this “50% rule” based on research from 1992 that raised doubts about the quality of some online schools. In 2006 the government updated its policy, and schools were no longer required to follow the 50% rule, expanding the financial aid opportunities available to distance learners. Suddenly, students could take all of their courses online and still qualify for financial aid.

Today, as online education has become increasingly prevalent, the federal government no longer differentiates between online and on-campus courses when determining financial aid eligibility. Online education has expanded significantly in the past decade and is widely considered to be as effective as residential courses, particularly for non-traditional students. No longer the domain of just a handful of for-profit colleges, online courses and degrees are now commonly offered by elite brick-and-mortar institutions.

The Hidden Costs of Online Degrees

Although distance learners can save money on living expenses, online degrees sometimes come laden with surprising hidden costs. Students typically pay more in tuition when they take one course here and another there, as many online learners do. Depending on the college, out-of-state students sometimes have to pay more than in-state students (though many online colleges charge in-state tuition for out-of-staters). Travel costs can also come into play: some online programs require students to travel to campus occasionally, which can be expensive if you don’t live close to the school. Other hidden costs of online degrees include miscellaneous fees (for technology, graduation, assessment, etc.) and the cost of acquiring and maintaining the technology needed to study online (such as internet or a computer).

Non-traditional Students: Balancing Work and School

Non-traditional students face unique challenges that makes a return to school stressful. The time commitment required to succeed can be particularly burdensome for distance learners, particularly those who work full-time. Time spent in class, doing homework, and studying is time that cannot be spent working, taking care of family, and managing a household. The cost of school is another barrier. College is expensive for everyone, but non-traditional students often don’t have the family support or financial resources that some younger students enjoy. Non-traditional students also often have expenses, such as daycare and mortgage payments, that make finding the money to pay for school even more difficult. These challenges underline the need online students have for scholarships.

Distance learners should make sure they attend an accredited online school. Accreditation is an official review process in which colleges and academic programs are evaluated to determine if they meet certain standards. The process is voluntary, but most schools, both online and offline, choose to participate. Accreditation ensures that colleges are offering a robust curriculum, that faculty members are qualified, and that the college is operating with sound business practices. Another benefit of accreditation is that enrolled students are eligible for federal and financial aid. The government only gives financial assistance to accredited schools, to make sure that federal money isn’t supporting “diploma mills” that can’t provide a good education. Additionally, many scholarships are only available to students at accredited schools.

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Make sure that your school is recognized by either the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). It’s important to make sure that the accrediting agency is reputable, as some accreditation bodies don’t effectively evaluate schools.

Online students are eligible for the same types of financial assistance commonly available to on campus students. Four primary sources of college funding include federal financial aid, state-sponsored aid, college-sponsored aid, and private aid.

Federal Financial Aid

Made available through the U.S. Department of Education, Federal Student Aid must be applied for by individual students. The final financial aid package awarded can include a combination of the following:

  • Grants: Usually awarded based on established financial need and do not have to be repaid; Pell Grants and TEACH Grants are two examples.
  • Work Study: Programs at the undergraduate and graduate level that provide part-time employment for students while they are enrolled in school; opportunities are available on and off campus.
  • Loans: Borrowed money that must be paid back; interest rates and repayment options vary.

Learn more about eligibility requirement for federal financial aid through our Overview of Financial Aid and our guide to Understanding the FAFSA.

State-sponsored Aid

Scholarships and grants are available through each state’s education agency. Other funding programs may also be affiliated with these offices. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators provides an online tool for locating current financial aid programs in your state.

College-sponsored Aid

Many schools provide scholarships, grants and other types of tuition breaks to students. Athletic scholarships, for example, fall into this category, as do grants based on academic merit. Loans made directly from the college are also sometimes possible. The amounts and types of funding available vary widely from school to school, but it is worth contacting the financial aid office for more information.

Private Aid

Financial assistance can come from a wide range of organizations in addition to the government and college sources listed above. Financial institutions offer loans to students who qualify under varying interest rates and repayment options. Community groups, religious organizations and professional associations often sponsor college scholarships, which don’t have to be repaid.

What kinds of college-sponsored aid can you expect from online colleges? Here are just a few examples of the money some of the larger online programs make available:

  • Penn State World Campus provides multiple scholarship opportunities specifically to online students. World Campus students can also compete for the same funding resources available to Penn State campus-based students.
  • Arizona State University Online’s scholarship programs include options for Arizona high school graduates, as well as for students interested in the history, philosophy and religious studies programs.
  • Kaplan University’s tuition reduction initiatives include scholarships up to $12,750 and grants from corporate partners. Other discount programs provide assistance to returning Kaplan alumni and international students, as well as current and former military servicemembers and their spouses.
  • The University of Phoenix offers multiple scholarships to prospective and current students, and the school often works with nonprofit partners to provide additional funding options. Institutional scholarships of up to $10,000 and grants of up to $1,500 are also available to eligible students.
  • Walden University advertises over $1 million in total scholarships based on academic program and level of study. The “Commitment to Higher Education Leadership” scholarships are just one example, providing three $25,000 awards.

If you are interested in applying for school-sponsored funding, contact a financial aid advisor to find out more about eligibility requirements and application deadlines.

Scholarships differ from loans, in that they do not require students to repay them. They are usually awarded on merit, though some need-based scholarships are available as well. Some scholarships are also awarded to particular demographics, such as women, ethnic minorities, single parents, military veterans, and children of police officers. Scholarship stipulations vary, but often require applicants to submit an essay, academic transcripts, test scores, and letters of recommendation. You can search for scholarships through your university, non-profit foundations, and local businesses and community organizations.

TIPS AND TRICKS

Do Your Research: Thoroughly research all available scholarships before you start applying. You don’t want to miss out on a scholarship tailored to your background or experience, and you also shouldn’t waste time applying for scholarships that you won’t realistically win.

Stay Organized: Make a plan for staying organized so that you don’t forget deadlines or apply for the same scholarship twice.

Read (and Follow) the Directions: Before you start filling out an application, read through the entire set of directions. This way you can avoid making mistakes that could disqualify you (i.e., not attaching transcripts).

Start Early: The earlier that you start finding and applying for online scholarships, the better. Many scholarships have deadlines well in advance of when you’ll actually need the money.

Spend Time on Your Essay: If your scholarship requires an essay, make sure to spend enough time crafting a thoughtful and carefully written piece. Be sure to address the prompt and proofread your essay thoroughly.

    • Scholarship Application Strategies: Learn about the scholarship application process, including how to prepare the best application possible at Scholarships.com. The site has articles about writing winning scholarship essays, creating a successful search strategy, getting organized, and more.
    • How to Apply for a Scholarship: The College Board provides useful tips about the scholarship application process, along with resources for locating scholarships for online students.
    • Basic Tips for Filling Out Good Scholarship Applications: Michigan State University’s short guide to filling out scholarship applications offers several helpful tips.
    • 5 Ways to Make Your Scholarship Application Stand Out: The EducationQuest Foundation provides a number of suggestions for making your application stand out from the pack.
    • Federal Student Aid: The government’s Federal Student Aid website has a variety of resources about finding and applying for scholarships for online students, including information about the types of scholarships available, how to find them, and when and how to apply.

Places to Look for Scholarships

Your University

Check with your school’s financial aid office, advisors, and teachers for information on scholarships offered directly through school. Most schools have online scholarship databases that make it easy to find relevant awards.

Foundations

Foundations and private companies all over the country give away thousands of scholarships for distance learners each year. Examples of scholarship-granting foundations include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Family Foundation, and the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation.

Local Community Organizations

Many community organizations offer scholarships to their members and children of their members. Examples include 4-H Clubs, the Girl and Boy Scouts, and the Elks National Foundation.

Scholarship Database

The comprehensive Scholarship Database at BestColleges.com provides an extensive listing of online scholarships available throughout the country. Students can search for scholarships available to them by demographics and major. The site also provides a section devoted to financial aid for online colleges.

Study.com Undergraduate Distance Learning Degrees Academic Scholarship
      • Applicants must be online students, U.S. citizens or permanent residents, enrolled in an accredited school, and have a minimum of 30 semester or 45 quarter hours still to be completed.
      • Award amount: $500 (not renewable)
      • Deadline: Offered once a year: April 1, 2017

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Christian College $2500 Scholarship
      • Applicants must have plans to enroll for the first time as a full-time student at a Christ-centered Christian or Bible college within 16 months of winning; online students are encouraged to apply.
      • Award amount: $2,500 (not renewable)
      • Deadline: Offered once a year: May 31st

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Education Matters Scholarship
      • Applicants must be 13 or older, legal residents of the U.S., and enrolled or enrolling no later than fall 2022 in an accredited post-secondary college.
      • Award amount: $5,000 (non-renewable)
      • Deadline: November 30th

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GetEducated.com Distance Learning Scholarship
      • Applicants must be U.S. citizens enrolled in an accredited online degree program and have a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0 or better.
      • Award amount: $1,000
      • Deadline: Offered twice a year: October 15th and March 15th (not renewable)

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Penn State World Campus Scholarships
      • Applicants must be currently enrolled in a World Campus undergraduate degree program, have a GPA of 2.5 or higher, and submit the FAFSA.
      • Award amount: Varies
      • Deadline: To be announced

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Zombie Apocalypse Scholarship
      • Applicants must be 13 or older, legal residents of the U.S., and enrolled or enrolling no later than fall 2022 in an accredited post-secondary college.
      • Award amount: $2,000 (non-renewable)
      • Deadline: October 31st

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Columbia College eScholarship
      • Applicants must be undergraduates who have completed at least three online courses, have 21 hours of coursework with Columbia College, and have earned a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.5. Applicant must also demonstrate a history of academic excellence and personal growth as a result of taking online courses with Columbia College.
      • Award amount: $2,000 (not renewable)
      • Deadline: August 5th

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Hungry To Lead Scholarship
      • Applicants must be U.S. citizens attending a postsecondary institution in the United States. They must study full-time and should be pursuing a degree in foodservice or hospitality while demonstrating leadership characteristics. Minimum 2.5 GPA, 1300 SAT, or 18 ACT score.
      • Award amount: $2,500 (one time)
      • Deadline: June 1st

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USAttorneys.com National Scholarship Essay Contest
      • Applicants must be U.S. citizens planning to attend or currently enrolled in an accredited American college or university. Applicants must also submit an essay about divorce law, child custody, or divorce mediation in their state.
      • Award amount: $2,500 (non-renewable)
      • Deadline: January 25th

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Unigo $10K Scholarship
      • Applicants must be legal residents of the U.S., 13 or older, and be currently enrolled or enrolling no later than fall of 2022 at an accredited higher education institution.
      • Award amount: $10,000 (non-renewable)
      • Deadline: December 31st

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HotelsCheap.org General Scholarship
      • Applicants must demonstrate financial need, be legal residents of the U.S., be 16 or older, and be enrolled in an accredited post-secondary institution.
      • Award amount: $1,500 (non-renewable)
      • Deadline: October 15th

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GIA (Gemological Institute of America) Scholarships
      • GIA offers several scholarships for distance learners studying gemology, jewelry, and design programs.
      • Award amount: $500-$4,000
      • Deadline: Scholarships offered twice annually: April 30th and September 30th

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University of Wisconsin Platteville Online Distance Education Alumni Board Scholarship
      • Applicants must be a degree-seeking students enrolled in any UW-Platteville distance education program with a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0. Applicants must also have completed at least one course in the UW-Platteville distance education program.
      • Award amount: $300 (not renewable)
      • Deadline: Two scholarships offered annually: March 1

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Southern Illinois University Off-Campus Scholarships
      • Applicants must currently be full-time students at an SIU off-campus location.
      • Award amount: $250 (not renewable)
      • Deadline: Two scholarships offered each semester

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UNICAF MBA Scholarships
      • Applicants must be permanent residents of an African country (including Mauritius), earn less than $20,000 a year, be available to begin school within six months of receiving admission to one of the programs offered, and meet the entry requirements for the respective program of study.
      • Award amount: $8,000-$10,000 (not renewable)
      • Deadline: Ongoing

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Western Governors University Scholarships
      • Applicants must be WGU students. Specific eligibility requirements vary by scholarship.
      • Award amount: up to $3,000 (not renewable)
      • Deadline: Students may apply for scholarships during enrollment and up to 60 days after starting school.

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Unigo's Top Ten List Scholarship
      • Applicants must be 13 or older, legal residents of the U.S., and enrolled or enrolling no later than fall 2022 in an accredited post-secondary institution.
      • Award amount: $1,500 (non-renewable)
      • Deadline: December 31st

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ZipRecruiter Scholarship
      • Applicant must be a college student in the 2015-16 school year, have a GPA of 2.5 or higher, and be authorized to work in the U.S.
      • Award amount: $1,000 (non-renewable)
      • Deadline: June 25th

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Scholarship Owl's 'You Deserve It' Scholarship
      • Applicant must be U.S. residents, 16 or older, and either enrolled or planning to enroll at an accredited school within three months of winning.
      • Award amount: $1,000 (non-renewable)
      • Deadline: June 29th

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ChameleonJohn.com Scholarship
      • Applicants must be be enrolled in an eligible university (see list) and submit answers to all questions on the form.
      • Award amount: $3,000 (non-renewable)
      • Deadline: December 1st

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Courage to Grow Scholarship
      • Applicants must be U.S. citizens and current students with a 2.5 GPA or better.
      • Award amount: $500 (non-renewable)
      • Deadline: Last day of every month (scholarship is given once a month)

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Foreclosure.com Scholarship
      • Applicants must be legal residents of the U.S. currently enrolled in an accredited post-secondary institution.
      • Award amount: $1,000-$5,000 (five awards)
      • Deadline: December 16th

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HeadsetPlus.com Scholarship
      • Applicants must be current college student or high school seniors, have a minimum 3.0 GPA, and be a legal resident or citizen of the U.S.
      • Award amount: $1,000 (non-renewable)
      • Deadline: December 31st

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Nuts.com Healthy Eating Scholarship
      • Applicants must be high school seniors or be enrolled in an accredited college.
      • Award amount: $500-$1,500 (three one-time awards)
      • Deadline: May 15th

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University of Alabama College of Continuing Studies Distance Learning Scholarships
      • Applicants must be currently enrolled, or have been accepted to, the University of Alabama. Other criteria apply depends on the scholarship applied for.
      • Award amount: Scholarships are awarded three times a year and the amount varies
      • Deadline: Fall, spring, and summer

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Imagine America Adult Skills Education Program
      • Applicants must be nontraditional students who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents, enrolled in a participating college. They must complete an educational assessment.
      • Award amount: $1,000 (non-renewable)
      • Deadline: December 31st

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Association for Nontraditional Students in Higher Education (ANTSHE) Scholarships
      • Applicants must be considered a nontraditional student as characterized by the National Center for Education Statistics, be a member of ANTSHE, and be a full-time student at an accredited four-year university.
      • Award amount: Varies (four scholarships available)
      • Deadline: unknown

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Return2College Scholarship
      • Applicants must be U.S. citizens or legal residents who are full- or part-time students or starting a program of higher education in the next 12 months. They must be 17 or older and be nontraditional students.
      • Award amount: $1,000 (non-renewable)
      • Deadline: September 30th

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TechChecks Business Leadership Scholarship
      • Applicants must be U.S. citizens, working toward their MBA or another degree that emphasizes business or marketing, and have a GPA of 3.5 or above. Preference given to applicants who are female, have a disability, or belong to an ethnic minority group.
      • Award amount: $1,000 (non-renewable)
      • Deadline: June 15th

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National University Presidential Tuition Scholarship
      • Applicants must belong to one of the following demographics: educationally and economically disadvantaged and historically underrepresented at higher educational institutions (African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans), single parents with a demonstrable financial need, or persons with a disability and financial need. Applicants must also have an annual income below $18,000 for single applicants or $25,000 for a family of two or more, have a cumulative GPA of at least 2.30, have at least 56 semester hours from an accredited college, be a U.S. citizen or eligible non-citizen, and be an undergraduate student working toward a first bachelor’s degree.
      • Award amount: up to $2,500 (not renewable)
      • Deadline: Unknown

View Scholarship

Grants are a type of financial aid that, unlike loans, do not have to be repaid. Like scholarships, they are essentially free money to help you pay for your education. Some grants do require that you agree to fulfill certain obligations, usually to work in a certain field for a set period of time. Most scholarships are merit-based, while grants are usually need-based awards. Most grants come from the federal or state governments, and you’ll need to fill out the FAFSA to be eligible.

Different types of Grants

Federal Pell Grants
Federal Pell Grants are usually given to undergraduate students who do not have a bachelor’s or professional degree. The amount of aid you receive depends on your financial need, the cost of attendance at your school, your status as a full-time or part-time student, and whether you plan to attend school for a full academic year or less. The maximum Pell Grant award for the 2016-17 year is $5,815.

Grants from State Governments
Almost every state government offers student grants, most of which are restricted to state residents attending a college in-state. Most programs have annual deadlines, and award amounts vary by state.

Private Grants
There grants are given out by trade and professional organizations. The award amounts from private grants vary considerably.

Grants for Online Students

Federal Pell Grant
      • Applicants must demonstrate financial need; recipients are generally undergraduates.
      • Award amount: amounts change yearly; 2016-17 maximum is $5,815
      • Deadline: June 30th (apply as early as possible)

View Grant
Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant
      • Applicants must demonstrate extreme financial need and be an undergraduate student at one of about 4,000 participating colleges.
      • Award amount: $100-$4,000 a year (renewable)
      • Deadline: June 30th (apply as early as possible)

View Grant
P.E.O. Program for Continuing Education Grant
      • Applicants must be a female citizen or permanent resident of the U.S. or Canada, enrolled in a certification or degree program, living in the U.S. or Canada for the entire course of study, have had at least 24 consecutive months as a non-student sometime in her adult life, be within 24 months of completing her educational program, and receive a recommendation from a P.E.O. chapter.
      • Award amount: $3,000 (one-time award)
      • Deadline: Ten weeks prior to the beginning of the term for which the grant is requested.

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Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants
      • Applicants must have been under 24 or enrolled in college at the time a parent or guardian died as a result of military service performed in Iraq or Afghanistan after 9/11. Applicants cannot qualify for a Federal Pell Grant based on expected family contribution but must meet all other Pell Grant eligibility requirements.
      • Award amount: Equal to the maximum amount of a Federal Pell Grant for the award year ($5,775 for 2015-16)
      • Deadline: June 30th

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Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants
      • Applicants must be enrolled at a school that participates in the TEACH Grant Program, complete a FAFSA, be eligible for federal student aid programs, be enrolled in a TEACH-Grant eligible program, maintain a cumulative GPA of 3.25, and sign a TEACH Grant Agreement in which they agree to teach in a high need field serving low income families for at least four years after receiving the grant.
      • Award amount: Up to $4,000 a year (renewable)
      • Deadline: June 30th

View Grant

Only Borrow What You Need: If you’re taking out student loans, only take out the amount that you need. You probably qualify for more money than you need, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that you should accept it. Avoid over-borrowing and pushing yourself into excessive debt.

Buy or Rent Used Textbooks: Textbooks are expensive, and you can save by buying or renting used textbooks. In some cases, you might be able to find a required textbook available free online or through your library.

Shop Around for the Most Affordable Online College: Make sure that you do your research when figuring out which online colleges to apply to. Compare different colleges and programs to see how much each one will cost. You might be surprised at how much the cost of an education can vary depending on where you attend.

Take Advantage of Student Discounts: Many companies offer student discounts on a variety of items, including technology. Apple, Dell, and Hewlett Packard all offer student discounts, so you can find good deals on computers, software, printers, and more.

Choose Federal Loans Over Private: If you must take out student loans, apply for federal loans before turning to private lenders. Federal loans usually have a lower interest rate and better benefits for borrowers, including the potential to qualify for student loan forgiveness programs.

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