By Larry Buhl, special to CareerBuilder
By now you’ve heard or experienced the ugly truth: Colleges and universities are becoming increasingly less affordable. Trade schools and associate programs, while cheaper, are also raising tuition and fees.
But there are ways of attaining the education you need without creating a mountain of debt. Every year, billions of dollars in free money are available in the form of grants and scholarships — assistance you don’t have to pay back — although most students who might qualify never apply.
No matter whom you are or what you plan to study, there are many options. With research, planning and thinking outside the loan box, you can find several ways to reduce your investment in education. In most situations you can apply for as many of these funding options as you want.
A grant is a form of financial aid that doesn’t need to be paid back, unlike a loan. But you might be surprised by how many eligible students don’t bother to apply for these grants or even know about them.
There are two main grant sources:
1. Your school. In general, the institutions with the highest tuitions will also be generous in helping out students in need. But even less expensive schools often have grant programs to help out financially strapped students. You should check with your school’s financial aid office as soon as you apply to attend — or even before — to see how to apply for aid.
2. Government. The biggest sources of free money are federal and state grants. Two federal need-based grants are the Pell Grant and Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant. The Robert C. Byrd Honors Scholarship program awards grants to exceptional high-school students. The Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnership is a state-administered needs-based grant.
The first step to receiving any federal financial aid is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid at www.Fafsa.ed.gov. Deadlines are firm; it’s best to file as soon as you can for the coming school year.
Unlike grants, which are allocated based on financial need, scholarships are given based on skills and merit, generally, regardless of your money situation. Corporations, unions, associations and religious, civic and fraternal organizations award scholarships to students for many reasons. Generally, there are three types of scholarships:
1. Merit-based. Every scholarship has different requirements, but merit-based scholarships generally expect you to demonstrate outstanding achievements, such as a high grade-point average, significant work or extracurricular accomplishments. Even if you don’t get straight-A’s, but you’re an amazing pianist, creative writer or billiards player, for example, there may be scholarships that fit your achievements.
2. Identity-based. Are you a single mother? Do you have a disability? Are you artistically inclined or even left-handed? These are just some of the many scholarship categories that can be found through schools and private institutions. It may take some digging to find out about them, but the payoff can be worth it.
3. Career-based. If you’ve already chosen your career, you may have even more scholarship options: Professional associations in a wide variety of fields offer scholarships for students registering in certain accredited academic programs. The point is, in any given field there are probably several institutions, foundations, private companies or associations offering free money to study, and you don’t always have to be a straight-A student to get it.
You won’t find a complete list of scholarships online; there are just too many and more are being added all the time. You’ll have to do some digging, but your research can pay off handsomely.
Workforce Investment Act money for retraining
The WIA is a federal law that helps unemployed people who need a new career, new skills or both, to get back into the workforce quickly, by offering grant money to cover tuition for WIA-eligible training programs. This money can be used in addition to any other sources of financial aid. Grants average $4,000 per person, according to the Department of Labor.
WIA grants are only for WIA-eligible training programs in the most in-demand careers, such as nursing, LPN, customer service and Web design. You must be legitimately low income — the WIA uses federal poverty guidelines to determine income eligibility — and you must have been terminated or laid off (or about to be) through no fault of your own, and be unlikely to be rehired. For more detailed eligibility guidelines, contact your local Workforce Development Board.
Ask for help
A good place to start your search is your school’s financial aid office. Use it early and often to discover all of your financial aid options and how to submit a winning application.
Education costs won’t be going down anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find your own ways to piece together a workable financial solution.
Larry Buhl researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues for CareerBuilder.