Financial Aid and Scholarships for Online Students

Learn how you can pay for an online degree. Explore financial aid and scholarship options for college students.

portrait of Christina Payne
by Christina Payne

Published on September 1, 2021 · Updated on March 8, 2022

Edited by Taylor Gadsden
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Financial Aid and Scholarships for Online Students


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, more than 37% of students enrolled in at least one distance learning-based course in fall 2019.

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 various financial aid options to attend a top online school.

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 (although 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. This 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 they can't spend working, taking care of family, and managing a household.

The cost of school is another barrier. College is increasingly expensive for everyone. And nontraditional students often don't have the family support or financial resources that other 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.

Why Is Accreditation Important?

College accreditation demonstrates that a school meets a certain level of academic standards related to its classes, student support services, and student outcomes. Accrediting agencies periodically review college programs and departments to ensure that students receive a quality education.

In most circles, accredited colleges are viewed as more prestigious than unaccredited institutions. For example, employers may be more likely to trust — and hire — graduates of accredited college programs. And students in many professions need to graduate from an accredited school or program to qualify for licensure. Like brick-and-mortar institutions, online schools can also receive accreditation from accrediting organizations.

Both institutional and programmatic accreditation are available, although some fields of study do not have a relevant accrediting body. However, students should make sure the college of their choice holds institutional accreditation from a reputable accrediting agency. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) maintains a database of recognized organizations.

Most schools post their accreditation status on their official websites. Students can also contact the school's admissions office for more information.

Financial Aid 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 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 — by, for example, maintaining 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 often believe financial aid options are more limited for online students than for on-campus learners. In fact, distance learners typically qualify for the same aid as their peers who study on campus. Completing the FAFSA is the first step online students should take to determine their eligibility for financial aid.

Prospective students can submit the FAFSA online. Learners must submit their federal tax information and verify their identity through information like their driver's license and Social Security number.

Where to Find Scholarships

You can find a wealth of scholarship information through a simple internet search. Large, aggregated scholarship websites can be helpful. But a more targeted approach may produce better, more useful results.

The process of searching for scholarships can be less overwhelming if you begin with your school and community. Below are some suggestions on where to start.

Your School

Many schools distribute financial aid from the federal government, and some also offer 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

Online databases typically offer searchable scholarships for students who meet the criteria for a particular demographic, career field, or course of study.

Community Groups

Community groups like the Boys & Girls Club of America, 4-H, and the National FFA Organization often provide scholarships for members (or members' immediate families). Students should check with their local community organizations about available scholarships.

Foundations

Many global corporations maintain foundations dedicated to higher education sponsorship and advocacy. Coca-Cola, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Ford Motor Co. award some of the nation's largest scholarships. Students can often apply directly through a foundation's website.

Local Sponsors

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.

How to Apply for Scholarships

Applying for scholarships can seem daunting. However, creating a system can help streamline the process. Follow an organized method of starting early, conducting research, and following application instructions. It can make 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 can help you 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

true 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: October or March

Apply for Scholarship

true 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: May

Apply for Scholarship

true 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

Apply for Scholarship

Unigo $10K Scholarship

Eligibility: Applicants must be 14 or older, hold U.S. citizenship, and reside in one of the 50 U.S. states or the District of Columbia.

Award Amount: $10,000

Deadline: December

Apply for Scholarship

Foreclosure.com Scholarship

Eligibility: Applicants must be enrolled in an undergraduate college program.

Award Amount: $4,000 (top prize) or $1,000 (one award each for second and third place)

Deadline: December

Apply for 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

Apply for Scholarship

Unigo's Top 10 List Scholarship

Eligibility: Applicants must be legal U.S. citizens at least 14 years old, residing in one of the 50 U.S. states or the District of Columbia.

Award Amount: $1,500

Deadline: December

Apply for 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

Apply for 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 online credits within the past academic year.

Award Amount: $2,000

Deadline: Varies

Apply for 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

Apply for 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

Apply for Scholarship

Penn State World Campus Scholarships

Eligibility: Applicants must be enrolled in a Penn State undergraduate program with a minimum 2.0 GPA. They must also demonstrate financial need.

Award Amount: Varies

Deadline: Varies

Apply for 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 nonresident scholarship.

Award Amount: Varies

Deadline: Varies

Apply for 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)

Apply for 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

Apply for 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

Apply for Scholarship

SUNY Potsdam — Thomas L. and Jane D. Russell Distance Education 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

Apply for Scholarship

Scholarships for Nontraditional Online Students

true COVID-19 Impact Scholarship

Eligibility: The National Center for Learning Disabilities will award 12 scholarships for students who experienced educational disruptions due to COVID-19. Eligible applicants include those who suffered a change in enrollment, a change in financial aid, a change in credit load that impacted financial aid or expected graduation date, and a loss of internship or career opportunity.

Award Amount: $1,500

Deadline: June

Apply for Scholarship

true Fully Bloomed Scholarship

Eligibility: Applicants must be mothers pursuing postsecondary education. Eligible students need a high school diploma and must be from a household earning a combined income below $45,000 per year.

Award Amount: $500

Deadline: May

Apply for Scholarship

true 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. Nontraditional students are encouraged to apply.

Award Amount: $1,000

Deadline: April

Apply for Scholarship

Association for Nontraditional Students in Higher Education Scholarship

Eligibility: Applicants must be at least 23 years old and meet at least one of ANTSHE's eligibility criteria (e.g., having single-parent, low-income, or minority student status).

Award Amount: Varies

Deadline: Varies

Apply for Scholarship

Imagine America Foundation Adult Skills Education Program

Eligibility: Applicants must be U.S. citizens who are 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: December

Apply for 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

Apply for 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, such as working in a certain field for a set amount of time.

Most scholarships are merit-based, while grants are usually need-based awards. Most grants come from the federal or state governments. 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. 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

true 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: Varies

Apply for Grant

true Federal Pell Grant

Eligibility: Applicants must complete the FAFSA and demonstrate financial need. Most recipients are undergraduates.

Award Amount: Varies each year; 2022-2023 maximum is $6,495

Deadline: June

Apply for Grant

true 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 their expected family contribution but must meet all other Pell Grant requirements.

Award Amount: Equal to the Pell Grant maximum each year

Deadline: June

Apply for 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: Up to $3,000

Deadline: At least eight weeks before the term for which the grant would be used

Apply for 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

Apply for 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 families 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 I get a student loan for online courses? true

Yes, students can get a loan for online courses. Students enrolled in online college degree programs are eligible for financial aid. Students can apply for federal student loans or research alternative sources of student loans.

Weigh your options before agreeing to take on a student loan. This type of financial aid often comes with a long commitment. Research financial aid alternatives or speak with a financial advisor about student loan options.

How can I get money for college without student loans? true

Students have many options for financial aid besides student loans — scholarships, grants, or tuition assistance from the university. Many financial aid options require students to fill out an application and meet certain academic standards.

Begin by submitting the FAFSA application to determine how much financial aid you can receive from the federal government and the university. Look into scholarship opportunities provided by the university and independent organizations.

Does the FAFSA cover online colleges? true

Most accredited online programs are eligible for federal aid, meaning their students can receive federal support. Students should research their school's accreditation status. Also, they can speak with an advisor to determine if their online program is eligible for aid.

Submit your FAFSA by the end of June. The FAFSA application requires detailed financial information, so allow ample time to complete the form.

Will online classes be cheaper?

Many online degree programs do offer cheaper tuition than in-person programs. Some online programs even offer in-state tuition to out-of-state students. Students who attend online programs also do not need to cover other on-campus expenses such as dorm-related housing costs and meal plans.

Students should research the relative cost of programs before choosing where to apply. In-state tuition for an in-person program may end up costing less than an out-of-state online program. The cost of tuition may also differ depending on the degree program itself.

What is the cheapest online college?

Some of the most affordable online colleges include the University of Florida-Online, Golden Gate University-San Francisco, and Purdue University. These schools offer online programs to students across the country. Tuition prices may vary depending on the degree program and in-state vs. out-of-state residency.

Students can always mitigate the cost of tuition with financial aid and scholarship opportunities. Reach out to your prospective school's admissions department to find out what financial aid opportunities are available.

Feature Image: Courtney Hale / E+ / Getty Images

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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