Scholarships and Financial Aid for Online College Students

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By Megan Whitenton

Published on July 30, 2021

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Colleges across the U.S. increasingly offer online programs to meet the demands of distance learners. With benefits like flexible schedules, online programs are a convenient learning option for students with existing work and family obligations. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), more than 35% of students enrolled in distance learning courses in 2018.

Most college students need financial aid to earn their degree, whether they enroll on campus or online. Distance learners may qualify for the same need-based financial aid as on-campus students, plus additional online-specific scholarships and grants. The following comprehensive guide explores a variety of financial aid options for online students.

Unique Challenges Facing Online Students

The Hidden Costs of Online Degrees

Although distance learners can save money on living expenses, online degrees sometimes come laden with surprising hidden costs. 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 to out-of-state learners).

Travel costs can also come into play. Some online programs require students to travel to campus occasionally, which can be expensive if a student doesn't live close to the school. Other hidden costs of online degrees include miscellaneous fees (for things like graduation and assessment) and technology costs like Wi-Fi and a laptop.

Nontraditional Students: Balancing Work and School

Nontraditional students face unique challenges that can make returning 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 increasingly expensive for everyone, but nontraditional students often don't have the family support or financial resources that some younger students enjoy.

Nontraditional students also often have expenses like daycare and mortgage payments that make finding the money to pay for school even more difficult. These challenges emphasize the need online students have for scholarships.

The Importance of Accreditation

Accreditation through an agency under the U.S. Department of Education (ED) or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is essential in searching for the right school. A school must go through the accreditation process to demonstrate that it meets the highest performance standards. Schools may receive national or regional accreditation, though the latter is generally more reputable.

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Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

A school's accreditation status affects both the quality and funding of its college programs. All federal and most private sources of financial aid only recognize accredited programs. Most employers only hire graduates of accredited college programs for entry-level positions.

Financial Assistance for Online Students

Loans

Loans are often considered the final resort of college financial aid for online students. Unlike scholarships and grants, college loans must be paid back. The ED offers direct subsidized or unsubsidized loans and also distributes loans indirectly (through colleges) as Federal Perkins Loans. There are also Direct PLUS Loans (for parents) and private loans.

Scholarships

Scholarships are perhaps the most diverse of all financial aid options. Scholarships do not require repayment and may be awarded on merit or other non-need-based criteria. Students must do their own research to find and apply for scholarships. Many scholarships require students to maintain eligibility, such as through a minimum GPA, over each renewal period.

Grants

Grants are primarily need-based awards, though some grants are awarded based on merit. Like scholarships, grants do not need to be repaid once the student completes their program. The ED is the largest provider of student grants through programs like the Federal Pell Grant. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) automatically considers students with financial need for federal grant funds.

Fellowships

Fellowships are often awards for graduate students. Students typically receive this merit-based award for graduate or specialized postgraduate study in their area of expertise. Fellowship candidates must often demonstrate their potential to contribute to their profession after graduation to earn the award.

Work-Study

The Federal Work-Study Program enables participating schools to pay students for part-time work. While job availability varies, schools make every attempt to place students in jobs related to their field of study. Work-study may provide on-campus or off-campus jobs and pay an hourly or salaried wage. Undergraduate and graduate students with financial need are eligible.

How to Complete the FAFSA

Applicants sometimes believe the misconception that financial aid options are more limited for online students than on-campus learners. In fact, distance learners typically qualify for the same aid as their peers who study on campus. Completing the FAFSA to determine eligibility is the first step online students should take in seeking financial aid.

Prospective students can submit the FAFSA online. Learners must submit their federal tax information, which gets sent automatically in many cases, and must verify their identity through information like their driver's license and Social Security numbers.

Related Programs That Might Interest You

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Where to Find Scholarships

Students can access a wealth of scholarship databases through a simple internet search. While large, aggregated scholarship websites can be helpful, a more targeted approach can help funnel down to more fruitful results. Students may find the process of searching for scholarships less overwhelming if they begin with their school and local community. Below are some suggestions of where to start.

: While many schools distribute financial aid from the federal government, some also offer their own institutional scholarships. Prospective students should check their school's website for scholarship options, or go directly to a student advisor or the financial aid office to ask for assistance. : Online databases typically offer searchable scholarships for students who meet the criteria for a particular demographic, career field, or course of study. : Community groups like Boys & Girls Club of America, 4-H, and the National FFA Organization often provide scholarships for members and, in some cases, members' immediate families. Students should inquire with their local community organizations about available scholarships. : Many global corporations maintain foundations dedicated to higher education sponsorship and advocacy. Coca-Cola, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Ford Motor Company award some of the nation's largest scholarships. Students can often apply directly through a foundation's website. : Local businesses and organizations often sponsor students who enroll in educational or vocational programs in a particular field. For example, many private law firms offer scholarships to law students and aspiring paralegals in their area. Churches also provide scholarships to local seminary or ministry students.

Scholarship Applications

Applying for scholarships can seem daunting; however, implementing a system can help streamline the process. Following an organized method of starting early, conducting research, and following application instructions makes applying for scholarships less stressful and more productive. Here are a few tips and tricks to help the process go smoothly:

Plan Ahead: It's never too early to start looking for scholarships. Assume each application will take longer than expected. Consider making a mock deadline ahead of the application's actual due date for extra leeway. Organization Is Key: Whether you plan to apply for two or 20 scholarships, staying organized enables you to maximize your time and cut down on the chaos of the overall college application process. Make a checklist of deadlines and materials to avoid duplicate work. Research Thoroughly: Take the time to read up on all potentially viable scholarships as you find them, then immediately place them in either the "yes" or "no" category. Make sure you understand the terms of each award to avoid missing out on a scholarship that's a great fit for you or wasting your time on something you don't qualify for. Follow Directions Precisely: Like college applications, scholarships require a specific set of materials and information to determine eligibility. You could be disqualified simply for not following directions or deemed ineligible because of missing materials. Perfect Your Essay: Scholarships that require essays allow students to accentuate their strengths and differentiate themselves from other candidates. Take your time in crafting a thoughtful response tailored to each opportunity. Always proofread multiple times for typos and grammatical errors.

Scholarships for Online Students

GetEducated.com Distance Learning Scholarship
  • Eligibility: Applicants must be enrolled in an accredited online degree or certificate program, possess a minimum 3.0 GPA, and demonstrate financial need.
  • Award Amount: $1,000
  • Deadline: March and October
View Scholarship
Study.com Undergraduate Distance Learning Degrees Academic Scholarship
  • Eligibility: Applicants must be enrolled in an accredited distance learning program, with plans to continue enrollment through the following year and at least 30 semester or 45 quarter credits yet to be completed.
  • Award Amount: $500
  • Deadline: April
View Scholarship
Unigo Education Matters Scholarship
  • Eligibility: Applicants must be 14 years or older, be a legal U.S. resident, and reside in one of the 50 U.S. states or the District of Columbia.
  • Award Amount: $5,000
  • Deadline: November
View Scholarship
Courage to Grow Scholarship
  • Eligibility: Applicants must be U.S. citizens who are juniors or seniors in high school or college students with a minimum 2.5 GPA.
  • Award Amount: $500
  • Deadline: April
View Scholarship
Unigo $10K Scholarship
  • Eligibility: Applicants must be 14 or older, hold U.S. citizenship, and reside in the 50 U.S. states or the District of Columbia.
  • Award Amount: $10,000
  • Deadline: December
View Scholarship
Foreclosure.com Scholarship
  • Eligibility: Applicants must be currently enrolled in an undergraduate college program.
  • Award Amount: $2,500 (top prize) or $500 (one award each for 2nd and 3rd place)
  • Deadline: December
View Scholarship
Gemological Institute of America (GIA) Scholarships
  • Eligibility: GIA offers multiple scholarships for students enrolled in e-learning courses through the GIA Distance Education Program. Applicants must be U.S. residents.
  • Award Amount: Varies
  • Deadline: Varies
View Scholarship
HeadsetPlus.com College Scholarship
  • Eligibility: Applicants must be at least 16-year-old legal residents of the U.S. entering or enrolled in college with a minimum 3.0 GPA. Undergraduate and graduate students are eligible.
  • Award Amount: $1,000
  • Deadline: December
View Scholarship
Unigo's Top Ten List Scholarship
  • Eligibility: Applicants must be legal U.S. citizens at least 14 years old, residing in the 50 U.S. states or the District of Columbia.
  • Award Amount: $1,500
  • Deadline: December
View Scholarship
ScholarshipOwl.com You Deserve It Scholarship
  • Eligibility: Applicants must be at least 16 years old, legal residents of the 50 U.S. states or the District of Columbia, and enrolled or planning to enroll in a college program within three months of receiving the award.
  • Award Amount: $2,222
  • Deadline: May
View Scholarship
The Christian Connector Christian College Scholarship
  • Eligibility: Applicants must be enrolling for the first time in a full-time Christian college or Bible college program.
  • Award Amount: $2,500
  • Deadline: May
View Scholarship
Columbia College eScholarship
  • Eligibility: Applicants must hold a GPA of at least 3.0 and be seeking an undergraduate degree through Columbia College. Students must have completed at least 21 credits at Columbia College, including at least nine credits online within the past academic year.
  • Award Amount: $2,000
  • Deadline: Varies
View Scholarship
The University of Alabama College of Continuing Studies Scholarships
  • Eligibility: Eligible applicants must be enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate distance education program at the University of Alabama. Individual scholarship criteria vary.
  • Award Amount: Varies
  • Deadline: June
View Scholarship
Western Governors University Scholarships
  • Eligibility: Applicants must be enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate program at Western Governors University. Individual scholarship criteria vary.
  • Award Amount: Varies
  • Deadline: Students can apply up to 90 days after starting an academic program
View Scholarship
Penn State World Campus Scholarships
  • Eligibility: Applicants must be enrolled in an undergraduate program at Penn State with a minimum 2.5 GPA and demonstrated financial need.
  • Award Amount: Varies
  • Deadline: Varies
View Scholarship
University of Wisconsin-Platteville Scholarships
  • Eligibility: Full-time first-year applicants are automatically considered for a merit scholarship. Students who submit a FAFSA and are Pell Grant-eligible may also qualify for the non-resident scholarship.
  • Award Amount: Varies
  • Deadline: Varies
View Scholarship
Southern Illinois University Scholarships
  • Eligibility: Students must submit a general scholarship application, due in December, to be considered for undergraduate scholarships, which are the same for on-campus and online students. Individual scholarship criteria and deadlines vary.
  • Award Amount: Varies
  • Deadline: Varies
View Scholarship
Bemidji State University Distance Learning Scholarships
  • Eligibility: Applicants must be enrolled full time in a degree-seeking program at Bemidji State University, taking a minimum of six credits per semester.
  • Award Amount: $1,000
  • Deadline: February
View Scholarship
College Raptor Scholarship
  • Eligibility: Applicants must be U.S. residents, at least 16 years old, and currently enrolled in an accredited postsecondary institution or planning to enroll no later than the fall of 2022.
  • Award Amount: $2,500
  • Deadline: June
View Scholarship
Kansas State Global Campus Scholarships
  • Eligibility: Applicants must meet the eligibility requirements of the general K-State Global Campus Scholarship and enroll in a minimum of three credits per term.
  • Award Amount: $500-$2,000
  • Deadline: June (fall), November (spring), April (summer)
View Scholarship
Oregon State University Ecampus Grant
  • Eligibility: Ecampus students must submit the FAFSA and be enrolled at least half time (six credits for undergraduate programs or five credits for graduate programs) per term.
  • Award Amount: Varies
  • Deadline: February
View Scholarship
University of Michigan Flint Ralph M. and Emmalynn E. Freeman Distance Learning Scholarship
  • Eligibility: Applicants must have a minimum 3.5 GPA and have completed at least 25 credits. The award can be applied only to undergraduate online coursework.
  • Award Amount: Varies
  • Deadline: Varies
View Scholarship
SUNY Empire State College Foundation Morton Bahr Distance Learning Scholarship
  • Eligibility: Applicants must be current or prospective students in an Empire State College undergraduate program. The award can be applied to 1-2 courses, or eight credits maximum, per term.
  • Award Amount: Varies
  • Deadline: Varies
View Scholarship
SUNY Potsdam Thomas L. and Jane D. Russell Distance Education Scholarship
  • Eligibility: Applicants must have completed at least one credit-bearing, distance-based course and be registered for a second at Potsdam or another institution.
  • Award Amount: $1,000
  • Deadline: Varies
View Scholarship

Scholarships for Nontraditional Online Students

Return2College Scholarship
  • Eligibility: Applicants must be at least 17 years old, U.S. citizens, and current or prospective full-time or part-time students in a college program within 12 months of receiving the award. Adult and nontraditional students are encouraged to apply.
  • Award Amount: $1,000
  • Deadline: January
View Scholarship
Association for Nontraditional Students in Higher Education (ANTSHE) Scholarship
  • Eligibility: Applicants must be at least 23 years old and meet at least one of ANTSHE's eligibility criteria, including single-parent, low-income, or minority status.
  • Award Amount: Varies
  • Deadline: August
View Scholarship
Imagine America Foundation Adult Skills Education Program
  • Eligibility: Applicants must be U.S. citizens at least 19 years old with plans to enroll in a college that participates in the Imagine America scholarship program. Winners may not have received a previous award from Imagine America.
  • Award Amount: $1,000
  • Deadline: Rolling
View Scholarship
TheDream.US National Scholarship
  • Eligibility: Applicants must have come to the U.S. before the age of 16, be recent or imminent U.S. high school graduates with a GPA of at least 2.5, and plan to enroll in a full-time associate of bachelor's degree program. Previous bachelor's program enrollees and students with more than 21 completed college credits are ineligible.
  • Award Amount: Up to $16,500 for an associate program or up to $33,000 for a bachelor's program
  • Deadline: TBA
View Scholarship
Colwell Law Group Single Parent Scholarship
  • Eligibility: Applicants must be single parents enrolled in or planning to enroll in an undergraduate, graduate, or law program in the U.S. Candidates must have a GPA of at least 3.0.
  • Award Amount: $1,000
  • Deadline: May
View Scholarship
Executive Women International (EWI) Adult Students in Scholastic Transition Scholarship
  • Eligibility: EWI considers nontraditional applicants who are at least 18 years of age and entering for the first time or re-entering a university or trade school program.
  • Award Amount: $2,000-$10,000
  • Deadline: TBA
View Scholarship
Patsy Takemoto Mink Foundation Education Support Awards
  • Eligibility: Applicants must be women at least 17 years old who are mothers with minor children. Candidates must be pursuing their first undergraduate certificate, undergraduate degree, or graduate degree and qualify as low-income students.
  • Award Amount: Up to $5,000
  • Deadline: TBA
View Scholarship
TechChecks Business Leadership Scholarship
  • Eligibility: Applicants must be U.S. citizens pursuing an MBA or other business-related or marketing-related program who meet minimum GPA and ACT/SAT score requirements. The award gives preference to female and underrepresented minority candidates and people with disabilities.
  • Award Amount: $500-$1,000
  • Deadline: June
View Scholarship

Grants

Grants are a type of financial aid that, unlike loans, does 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 must fill out the FAFSA to be eligible.

Pell Grants

Pell Grants are usually awarded to undergraduate students who do not hold 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.

State Government Grants

Almost every state government offers student grants, most of which are restricted to state residents attending an in-state college. Most programs maintain annual deadlines, and award amounts vary by state.

Private Grants

These grants are dispersed by trade and professional organizations. Award amounts from private grants vary considerably.

Grants for Online Students

Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant
  • Eligibility: Applicants must complete the FAFSA and demonstrate financial need. This award is applied directly to undergraduate study at a participating college or university.
  • Award Amount: $100-$4,000
  • Deadline: June
View Grant
Federal Pell Grant
  • Eligibility: Applicants must complete the FAFSA and demonstrate financial need. Most recipients are undergraduates.
  • Award Amount: Varies each year; 2021-2022 maximum is $6,495
  • Deadline: June
View Grant
Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant
  • Eligibility: Applicants must have lost their parent or guardian as a result of military service in Iraq or Afghanistan after 9/11. At the time of their relative's death, the applicant must have been younger than 24 or enrolled part time in college. Candidates cannot qualify for a Pell Grant based on expected family contribution but must meet all other Pell Grant requirements.
  • Award Amount: Equal to the Pell Grant maximum each year
  • Deadline: June
View Grant
PEO Program for Continuing Education
  • Eligibility: Applicants must be female U.S. or Canadian citizens residing in the U.S. or Canada for their entire certificate or degree program. Applicants must have spent at least 24 months as a non-student as an adult. They must be recommended by a PEO chapter and be within 18 months of completing their education.
  • Award Amount: $3,000 maximum
  • Deadline: At least eight weeks prior to the term for which the grant would be used
View Grant
Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant
  • Eligibility: Applicants must submit the FAFSA and qualify for basic federal financial aid. They must be enrolled in a TEACH Grant-eligible bachelor's, post-baccalaureate, or graduate program. Applicants must undergo TEACH Grant counseling for each year they receive the award and sign a TEACH Grant Agreement to Serve.
  • Award Amount: Up to $4,000
  • Deadline: October
View Grant

Additional Resources for Online College Students

StudentAid.gov

The website for the Office of Federal Student Aid (under the ED) offers a variety of resources, including webinars on completing the FAFSA and tools for estimating aid eligibility.

CareerOneStop.org

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, CareerOneStop.org features a searchable database of scholarships for degrees, vocational training, and professional development programs.

FirstGenFellows.org

The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights offers career and advocacy enrichment opportunities for first-generation college students pursuing social justice initiatives.

CollegeScholarships.org

This searchable database contains more than 23,000 scholarships and grant opportunities for college students. Users do not need an account to access the database.

FirstintheFamily.org

This website helps prepare high school seniors to be the first in their family to attend college. Resources include planning checklists and links to funding opportunities.

ScholarshipAmerica.org

This organization boasts one of the nation's longest-running and most lucrative scholarship-matching programs. Students can browse scholarships, grants, and tuition assistance programs.

SavingforCollege.com

SavingforCollege.com explores popular 529 college savings plans, including how they can benefit students and how they might impact overall financial aid eligibility.

ImFirst.org

This website provides an online forum for first-generation college students to share ideas about applying for, enrolling in, and funding their college experience.

Frequently Asked Questions About Financial Aid for Online College Students

Can you get financial aid for online classes?

Yes. Many online students are eligible for the same financial aid as their peers enrolled in on-campus programs. They may even qualify for additional online-specific financial aid.

Is online college cheaper?

It can be. While costs vary by program, many online degrees offer benefits like accelerated paths to graduation and set or in-state tuition rates, often saving students money compared to a traditional degree.

Can online students get scholarships?

Yes. Many scholarships are merit-based and available to students in a wide variety of majors, locations, and delivery methods. Some scholarships specifically fund online college programs.

How can I get a grant for online college?

Simply completing the FAFSA automatically enters students into consideration for a Pell Grant and other federal grant opportunities. Some grants may be awarded based on merit or need.

Does FAFSA cover online certificate programs?

Yes, provide that the online undergraduate certificate meets eligibility criteria for select professional programs in fields like paralegal, business management, and counseling. Graduate certificates are not eligible.

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BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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