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College planning

How does financial aid for part-time students work?

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When pursuing higher education, some students decide to go part time for a variety of reasons. They may be juggling multiple responsibilities like working to support themselves or their families, or they may not have the financial means to afford attending school full-time. The good news is that financial aid for part-time students is an option.

Let's take a closer look at how financial aid for part-time students fits into the landscape of higher education and how you can get help to pay for your degree program even if you're not taking classes full time.

Can you get financial aid as a part-time student?

Luckily, many types of student loans, grants and work-study jobs may be offered to part-time students. In order to qualify, you should complete the FAFSA which will enable you to explore those benefits. But remember: To qualify for federal student loans and other programs, you must be enrolled at least half-time. Undergraduate students considered full-time are taking 12 or more credits or around 4 classes per term. Students classified as half-time enrollment must be registered for at least 6 credits generally 2-3 classes per term.

Part-time students applying for financial aid should start with the FAFSA

The most important first step in applying for financial aid for part-time students is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). No matter how much money your family might have saved in a 529 college savings plan, how old you are, how much money you make, or whether or not you have a financial need, everyone should start with the FAFSA.

This application is the most important step to take to learn what federal student aid programs may be available to you. Even if you don't expect to qualify for federal student aid, you should still fill out the FAFSA. Many colleges use it to help decide which students receive grants, loans or scholarships. Start by  checking the FAFSA deadlines —federal, state and any college-specific ones.

Why is the FAFSA so important? Because it helps determine eligibility for federal student aid based on personal and family finances. It also gives college financial aid offices the ability to offer students college-specific financial aid packages of grants and loans based on a shared source of recognized data.

The FAFSA uses family income and assets to help determine your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your college will take their Cost of Attendance (COA) which is comprised of tuition, room and board, books, fees, etc.) and subtracts your EFC from the college's COA to determine the amount of your financial need and in turn, how much financial aid you may qualify for.

You will need to fill out the FAFSA every year, especially if your family's financial circumstances have changed. One hypothetical example is if your parent has lost their job or your family has experienced a loss in income. In that case, your expected family contribution to help pay for the cost of your education might have decreased, which might help you get more federal student aid.

Learn more about the financial aid application process at  StudentAid.gov .

How federal financial assistance works for part-time students

You may be able to receive federal student aid if you are a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen, have a Social Security number, are enrolled at least  half-time  in an eligible degree or certificate program, and meet a few  other requirements .

These are the main types of financial aid offered by the federal government for college students:

Pell Grants 

Federal Pell Grants  are "free" money that is given to students (mostly undergraduates) who have financial need. You may still qualify for a Pell Grant if you are a part-time student, but the amount of your grant might be less than you would receive as a full-time student.

Work-study

The  Federal Work-Study Program  is a way to support college students who are working their way through school, and you can get this financial aid even if you're a part-time student. With work-study, students who have a financial need can get part-time jobs (on- or off-campus and typically related to your major) while enrolled at college. These jobs are available to undergraduate or graduate students.

Direct loans (subsidized and unsubsidized)

The U.S. Department of Education offers the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program, which provides loans to eligible students who are pursuing higher education. Direct subsidized loans are for undergraduate students who have demonstrated a financial need. Direct unsubsidized loans are not based on financial need and can be issued to students in undergraduate, graduate or professional degree programs. There are limits to  how much you can borrow  from the Federal Direct Loan Program. Depending on whether you are a dependent of your parents or an independent student, you may be able to borrow a maximum of $5,500 to $12,500 per year.

Direct PLUS loans 

These loans can be issued to students in graduate or professional programs or to parents of children who are dependents and who are pursuing undergraduate degree programs. A credit check is required to qualify for direct PLUS loans, and eligibility is not based on financial need. Loans must be repaid with interest, and your loan payments typically begin upon graduation or if your class credit course load goes below half-time.

Federal student loans have a few special advantages: They tend to have lower interest rates than private loans, they might have more flexible repayment terms, and—depending on your future career—you might qualify for student loan forgiveness.

What other financial aid options are available to part-time students?

Even if you do not qualify for federal financial aid, there are various other student loans and financial aid options available that might be offered by your college or university, your employer, civic and nonprofit organizations, and private companies.

Grants

Look for grant opportunities at your college or university financial aid office. Some schools have specific grants available for certain fields of study or degree programs. Even a few small grants can add up to a significant amount of money over four years.

Private scholarships

Get involved in your local community and look for scholarships. Some community service organizations like  Rotary  and  Kiwanis  offer scholarships.

Private loans

If you do not qualify for student loans or have already borrowed the maximum amount of federal student loans, you might consider  private student loans  from a bank, credit union, or state agency or from your college. Even if the interest rate is slightly higher than federal loans, these loans can help you bridge the gap to complete your degree and get on track for higher earnings for the rest of your life.

Employer tuition reimbursement

Major companies like Target, Walmart, Amazon, Chipotle, FedEx, UPS and Starbucks offer  tuition reimbursement for employees . If you work for a company that has a tuition reimbursement program, see how you can qualify. You might need to enroll at a certain college or university or choose from select majors.

Free college credit from Modern States

What if you could earn an entire year of college credit for free? Modern States is a nonprofit organization that lets people take free online classes that prepare them to earn college credit by taking nationally recognized College Level Examination Program exams. They call it  Freshman Year for Free .

Just because you're a part-time college student, don't assume that you have to settle for less financial aid. You still have many options to help fund your degree. Start by filling out the FAFSA, talk to your school's financial aid office, and keep working hard to achieve your college dreams.

To learn more about creating a college savings and/or spending plan,  connect with a Thrivent financial advisor.

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