Chances are, you aren’t going to have to pay for school out of pocket. Most students qualify for some type of financial aid based on their family’s finances, grades or a special talent. Even if you can’t make the cut-off for these, you can still likely qualify for a private student loan. But make sure you explore all of your free options first before you decide to borrow.
Who is eligible for financial aid?
Almost all students are eligible for some type of financial aid. If your family can’t afford your school’s cost out of pocket, you can probably qualify for need-based aid. And if you have good grades or a special talent — say you’re a star athlete or play the violin — you might qualify for merit-based aid. Almost all students can qualify for a private student loan — if you have a cosigner.
What are the requirements for federal aid?
Federal student aid comes with a few requirements based on factors like your legal status and academics. You can qualify if you meet the following criteria:
If you’re not a US citizen, you can still qualify if you fall into one of the following categories:
US national, including natives of American Samoa and Swains Island
Cuban-Haitian entrant, with at least a pending status
Parolee in the US for more than a year with the ability to demonstrate you intend to become a US citizen or permanent resident
Conditional entrant (only for visas issued before April 1, 1980)
Battered immigrant-qualified alien
Valid Social Security number
You must have a Social Security number unless you’re from one of the following US territories:
The Republic of the Marshall Islands
Federated States of Micronesia
The Republic of Palau
Registered with Selective Service
Male citizens and permanent residents must register with Selective Service if they’re between the ages of 18 and 25. This means your name will be included in the draft lottery if the US has a military draft again. You’re legally required to register with Selective Service within 30 days of your 18th birthday, though it’s still possible to register up until you turn 26.
Enrolled or accepted as a regular student for an eligible degree or certificate program
A regular student means you’re on track to receive a degree or certificate at the end of the program. Federal aid is available at Title IV schools and programs only — in other words, an institution that processes federal loans.
To be eligible for a Direct Loan, you must be enrolled at least half time — as defined by your school. Federal student loans aren’t available at some community colleges and for-profit institutions.
If you already have a federal student loan, you can’t be behind on your payments to qualify for more funds. You also can’t owe money on federal student grants.
Proof of qualification
You must prove you’re qualified to go to college or a career school with either:
A high school diploma
A GED or other equivalent of a high school diploma
Certificate that you completed high school in a homeschool setting
Enrollment in an eligible career pathway program
Federal grants often have additional requirements
While meeting the basic federal requirements can get you a federal loan, federal grants are often only available to specific groups of students. Here are the requirements for popular federal grant programs in addition to the general federal aid requirements:
Pell Grant. You must be an undergraduate or enrolled in a post-baccalaureate teacher certificate program and meet the cost of attendance and expected family contribution requirements to qualify for this low-income federal grant program.
Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG). You must be an undergraduate student with no previous bachelor’s degree and meet income requirements.
Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant. You must be enrolled in an eligible teaching program, meet higher academic achievement requirements and agree to work in either a high-needs field or low-income school for at least four years.
Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant. You must have either been under 24 years old or enrolled in college when a parent or guardian who was a member of the US armed forces died in Iraq or Afghanistan during their service after the 9/11 attacks. You also must be unable to meet the expected family contribution requirements for the Pell Grant to qualify.
Can I qualify for need-based aid?
You typically need to demonstrate financial need to qualify for need-based aid. Schools usually calculate this by subtracting the amount they expect your family to contribute — called your expected family contribution (EFC) — from your school’s total cost of attendance (COA) for that academic year.
The result is the amount of need-based aid you can qualify for. Schools often rely on the FAFSA or CSS Profile to come up with the EFC, which is why it’s important to fill out both.
Merit-based aid generally varies depending on the program. Programs based on academic merit typically have a minimum SAT, ACT or GPA cutoff. Athletic programs usually require a recommendation from a high school coach. And talent-based programs might require an audition. You also might have to participate in community service, school events or take specific classes to qualify.
If a program’s requirements aren’t clear, reach out to a program administrator and ask.
Are scholarships and grants considered need- or merit-based aid?
It depends on the scholarship or grant program. While most grants are based on need, you might find some that come with merit requirements as well. Scholarships often have both need- and merit-based criteria you need to meet, though it varies by program.
If you’ve run out of federal, need-based and merit-based aid — or you can’t qualify — you still might be able to get a private student loan. You generally need to meet the following types of requirements or apply with a cosigner who does:
Good credit. Most private student loan providers have minimum credit score cutoffs, though the higher your score — the better deal you’ll get.
Steady income. You or your cosigner typically need to make at least $25,000 a year to qualify for a private loan at a minimum.
Eligible program. Private student loan providers often only work with Title IV schools that accept federal aid.
Enrollment. Generally, you need to be enrolled at least half time to be eligible with most lenders.
Can international students qualify for financial aid?
Yes, though your options are limited. International students aren’t eligible for federal aid, and many private scholarships, grants and loans also come with citizenship requirements. Your best bet is to look for scholarship programs that specialize in international student aid and private student loans specifically designed for nonresidents.
Here are a few pointers to get your hands on the most aid — and reduce the amount of student debt you graduate with:
Consider all free options first.Look into all grants, scholarships and other free opportunities available to you before applying for student loans. You might have to do a bit of legwork, but you’ll graduate with less debt.
Apply for aid ASAP. Many programs offer aid on a first-come, first-served basis. The sooner you submit your application — the more funds you might get.
Submit the FAFSA and CSS Profile. You might not be considered for all of the types of aid that you qualify for if you don’t complete both applications.
Stay on top of your grades. Having good grades can open you up to merit-based scholarship programs — and keep you eligible for federal aid.
Look locally. Your state, city and even neighborhood might offer scholarships that you can qualify for with less demand.
Even if you can’t qualify for federal student aid, there are likely other options out there with requirements you can meet. Ask your school’s financial aid office if you aren’t sure where to get started. Or check out our guide to student loans to learn more about how to pay for school.
Frequently asked questions
That depends on your school and program, though usually you must be enrolled in around six to eight credit hours.
There is no maximum income to receive financial aid. However, you might have trouble qualifying for programs that consider need if your family brings in over $250,000 a year.
That depends on factors like your family’s income and your school’s costs. You can get an estimate of how much you might receive through all the federal programs you qualify for by using the FAFSA4caster tool on StudentLoans.gov.
Anna Serio is a trusted lending expert and certified Commercial Loan Officer who's published more than 1,000 articles on Finder to help Americans strengthen their financial literacy. A former editor of a newspaper in Beirut, Anna writes about personal, student, business and car loans. Today, digital publications like Business Insider, CNBC and the Simple Dollar feature her professional commentary, and she earned an Expert Contributor in Finance badge from review site Best Company in 2020.
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