Getting Financial Aid for Your Public Service Degree

It’s no secret that college can be expensive. But that shouldn’t stop you from pursuing your dream public service degree and career. From academic scholarships and need-based grants to tuition assistance through national public service programs, financial aid is available for just about everyone if you know where to look. Keep reading to learn how to get the help you deserve paying for college.

Last Updated: 08/14/2020

Why Everyone Should Apply for Financial Aid

1

More students receive grants and scholarships than you think

About 63% of undergraduates receive a tuition waiver, grant, or scholarship aid – and the average amount they receive is $7,400.

2

You won’t have to start repaying most student loans until after graduation

Many types of federal loans have the added benefit of deferred repayments, sometimes with no accrual of interest while you’re in school.

3

It’s one less barrier to go after the degree and career you want

Financial aid makes college a reality for more people, giving them the opportunity to pursue their dream career in public service.

4

You can get financial aid by giving back

Joining public service programs like AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps can qualify you for substantial financial aid, while future teachers who commit to working in high-need areas are eligible for the TEACH grant.

5

It isn’t as difficult as it might seem

Sometimes, all you need to do is apply to a school. Other times, you just need to write a short essay and complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Financial Aid by the Numbers

Financial aid might sound like something reserved for only the most disadvantaged students. But the truth is that students attending college without the help of financial aid are the significant minority. Almost three-quarters of all students receive at least some form of financial aid. And over half of undergraduates are awarded scholarships, grants or tuition waivers, with graduate students not far behind. Check out the complete statistics in the charts below.

Undergraduate Student Financial Aid

Graduate Student Financial Aid

Source: 2015-16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study

Where to Start Your Financial Aid Journey

1. Visit the official financial aid website for schools you’re applying to

Before you begin applying for financial aid, you’ll want to get a general idea of what kind of aid is available from each school, as well as when and how to apply for it. The best place to get this information is directly from the schools themselves. And because colleges are competing for your business, financial aid offices are more than happy to answer specific questions you have.

2. Review FAFSA® deadlines at the college, state, and federal levels.

The federal deadline to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) is June 30, 2020 for the 2019-20 academic year. However, states and colleges (which also use the FAFSA® to determine financial aid eligibility) often have much earlier deadlines. You can check state FAFSA® deadlines here. Contact the financial aid offices at schools you’re applying for their deadlines.

3. See if you qualify for special-circumstance financial aid

Many forms of financial aid, especially those that don’t need to be paid back, are only available to a select group of students, such as those who have military service (Post 9/11 GI Bill) or plan on going into a public service career, like teaching (TEACH Grant).

4. Fill out the FAFSA®

Learn more about the application process in our detailed FAFSA® walkthrough further down on this page.

5. Apply for scholarships and grants.

Once the FAFSA® process has begun, you should look into scholarship and grant opportunities from schools you’re applying to, the state you live in, and private organizations. State and school scholarships and grants will likely require you to fill out the FAFSA®, but you may need to submit additional information. Private scholarships will have their own set of application rules.

6. Ask your employer if they offer tuition assistance.

If you are currently working and intend to keep the same job while in school, see if your employer has a special program to help pay for your tuition. It may not be enough to pay your entire tuition, but every little bit helps.

7. Review and compare financial aid received so far.

After you’ve applied for all your financial aid, you’ll need to compare your gift- and loan-based awards. If they’re enough, you’ll have the luxury of choosing a preferred school with the most aid. Otherwise, you may want to consider looking into private sources of financial assistance, such as a bank loan. However, this is usually a last resort option as interest rates tend to be the lowest with federal and state-based loans.

Types of Financial Aid You Can Receive

There are two main types of financial aid: gift-based aid and loan-based. The former does not need to be paid back and consists of several different types, such as grants, scholarships, and work study. The latter must be paid back, often with interest. Student loans usually come from the federal government, but can also come from state governments or private lenders such as banks. Learn more about each type of financial aid below.

Scholarships

Scholarships are perhaps the most sought-after type of financial aid because they don’t need to be paid back and the rules governing their use can be less strict. For example, if you get a scholarship from a private organization, it may be up to you how the money spent, while other financial aid may have to go directly towards tuition. Scholarships are also among the most varied, with award amounts, due dates, competitiveness, and eligibility requirements being highly dependent on the grantee.

Who awards it?
Federal, state, and local government; private companies and nonprofits; individual colleges.

Who can apply? 
Scholarships are typically tailored for a specific group of recipients. See individual scholarships for eligibility details.

Do you have to repay it? 
No, scholarships are a form of gift-based aid that does not need to be repaid.

Is it based on financial need, academic merit, or demographics? 
Usually, just merit- or demographic-based awards, although some scholarships will also consider financial need.

How much aid can I get? 
Dependent on the specific scholarship. Amounts can range from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars.

How do I apply? 
Apply through the individual scholarship’s website.

Fellowships

Fellowships are a form of academic scholarship awarded to graduate students who are planning to work on a specialized project tied to their field of study while in school. These awards are often highly competitive and applicants will need to have a specific project in mind that shows universities how their future work will positively impact the program. Students who are awarded fellowships may be required to work a certain number of hours on their project or research every week in order to remain eligible.

Who awards it?
Colleges and universities

Who can apply? 
Graduate students

Do you have to repay it? 
No

Is it based on financial need, academic merit, or demographics? 
Merit-based

How much aid can I get? 
Dependent on the fellowship program. Fellowships may cover part or all of tuition in addition to a standard stipend.

How do I apply? 
Apply through the college’s fellowship website or contact the school’s financial aid office.

Grants

Grants are another type of gift-based aid in that they do not need to be paid back. However, they differ from scholarships and fellowships in that the primary basis for the award is the financial need of the recipient.

Pell Grants

A Pell Grant comes from the federal government and goes to undergraduate students who demonstrate extreme financial need. Even when eligible, recipients may not receive the maximum amount, which is roughly $6,200 per academic year. Students may apply for the Pell Grant by completing the FAFSA®.

Who awards it?
Federal government

Who can apply? 
Undergraduate students who have not earned their bachelor’s degree

Do you have to repay it? 
No

Is it based on financial need, academic merit, or demographics? 
Extreme need-based

How much money can I get?
$6,195 maximum per academic year (as of 2019-20)

How do I apply? 
Fill out the FAFSA®

FSEOG Grants

Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants, or FSEOG, are administered by schools. Apply by completing the FAFSA®; each school will make its own determination as to the student’s financial need. This grant is only available at participating schools.

Who awards it?
Federal government; administered by individual schools

Who can apply? 
Undergraduate students

Do you have to repay it? 
No

Is it based on financial need, academic merit, or demographics? 
Extreme need-based

How much money can I get?
$100 to $4,000 per academic year (as of 2019-20)

How do I apply? 
Fill out the FAFSA®

State Grants

Most states have at least one financial aid program that awards grants to residents of the respective state. Additional requirements may include attendance at an in-state or neighboring state’s school. Even though they’re called grants, these awards may be distributed based on both the student’s financial need and academic achievements.

Who awards it?
State government

Who can apply? 
Undergraduate students

Do you have to repay it? 
No

Is it based on financial need, academic merit, or demographics? 
Need- and Merit-Based

How much money can I get?
Dependent on the state financial aid program

How do I apply? 
Fill out the FAFSA®, then visit state education agency websites.

Loans

Loans are the most common forms of financial aid, but they’re also the least desirable because they must be repaid. However, some loans (particularly some federal loans) have favorable terms, such as deferred interest, deferred repayment, and the option of having part of the loan forgiven. Most student loans will be administered or backed by the federal government, but private loans are a popular supplemental option.

Direct Subsidized Loans

Sometimes known as a Direct Stafford Loan, this type of financial aid is available to undergraduate students who show financial need. The interest rate is around 4.5 percent (as of the 2019-20 academic year), but because this is a subsidized loan, interest does not accrue until six months after graduation.

Who awards it?
Federal government

Who can apply? 
Undergraduate students

Do you have to repay it? 
Yes, but not starting until 6 months after graduation for most students

Is it based on financial need, academic merit, or demographics? 
Need-based

How much money can I get?
Dependent on student financial need. The maximum annual loan limit depends on your year in school and dependency status.

How do I apply? 
Fill out the FAFSA®

Direct Unsubsidized Loans

Direct Unsubsidized Loans are similar to Direct Subsidized Loans, except they’re available to students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Additionally, granting the loan is not based on the student’s financial need. The specific school will determine the amount of the loan. Most importantly, interest will accrue on this loan; there is no deferral or grace period, as is the case with a Direct Subsidized Loan. The interest rate is also about 1.5 percent higher.

Who awards it?
Federal government

Who can apply? 
Undergraduate and graduate students with federal financial aid eligibility

Do you have to repay it? 
Yes, but not until 6 months after graduation (interest accrues at all times loan is taken out)

Is it based on financial need, academic merit, or demographics? 
N/A

How much money can I get?
The maximum award equals the total cost of attendance at a college minus other financial aid received.

How do I apply? 
Fill out the FAFSA®

Direct PLUS Loans

Direct PLUS Loans are for the parents of undergraduate students or for graduate or professional students. With an interest rate of a little more than 7 percent (as of 2019-20), this loan’s purpose is to help pay for education costs that aren’t covered by other forms of financial aid. One of the notable factors for awarding this loan is the applicant’s credit history.

Who awards it?
Federal government

Who can apply? 
Graduate/professional students & parents of dependent undergraduate students

Do you have to repay it? 
Yes, with interest and a loan disbursement fee

Is it based on financial need, academic merit, or demographics? 
N/A

How much money can I get?
Dependent on student financial need. The maximum annual loan limit depends on your year in school and dependency status.

How do I apply? 
Fill out the FAFSA®

Private Loans

If you have to take out a student loan to pay for college, federal loans are preferable as they almost always offer better terms. However, if needed, you can supplement them with loans from banks, credit unions, or private companies like Sallie Mae, SoFi, or CommonBond.

Who awards it?
Banks, credit unions, private organizations

Who can apply? 
Anyone

Do you have to repay it? 
Yes

Is it based on financial need, academic merit, or demographics? 
N/A

How much money can I get?
Dependent on lender

How do I apply? 
Apply through websites of individual lenders.

Federal Work Study Programs

Work study is a special form of financial aid that allows students to work part-time for academic financial assistance. Work-study jobs are typically on campus, but not all. Each school administers its own work study program; many are available to both graduate and undergraduate students who show financial need. Federal work study differs from a regular job in that the money students receive may come from an entity other than the employer and the number of hours they may work may be limited.

Who awards it?
Federal government

Who can apply? 
Anyone eligible to receive federal financial aid

Do you have to repay it? 
No

Is it based on financial need, academic merit, or demographics? 
Need-based

How much aid can I get? 
At least the federal or state minimum wage, whichever is higher.

How do I apply? 
Fill out the FAFSA® to gain eligibility, then apply to individual jobs through school websites.

Graduate Assistantships

Assistantships are part-time college jobs similar to fellowships and work study programs. They are designed specifically for graduate students who plan to teach (Teaching Assistants) or conduct research (Research Assistants) in addition to completing their normal graduate coursework.

Who awards it?
Federal or state government

Who can apply? 
Graduate students in good academic standing (specific requirements vary from school to school)

Do you have to repay it? 
No

Is it based on financial need, academic merit, or demographics? 
Merit-based

How much aid can I get? 
Dependent on college

How do I apply? 
Contact school financial aid offices and program chairs/directors.

Employer Tuition Assistance

As a benefits perk, some employers offer tuition assistance for employees who wish to expand their education. Each company will have a different way of implementing its tuition assistance program, but one of the common traits is that the amount does not need to be repaid as long as the employee commits to a requisite time of service with the employer after schooling is complete.

Public Service Programs That Help Pay for College

What better way to work toward a career in public service than to obtain financial aid through acts of your own public service? That’s how several national public service programs work, such as AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, and the TEACH Grant Program. Participation comes with some major perks, including helping to pay for college. The exact process, amount, and terms of the financial aid will depend on each specific program.

AmeriCorps

Once an AmeriCorps member has completed their service term, they will be eligible for an education award. This money can be used to pay back certain school loans or cover the costs of current education expenses for qualified training and higher education programs. The most common and popular education award obtained through AmeriCorps service is the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award.

Award Amount
Award amounts vary based on service time, with awards for full-time members matching the maximum Pell Grant award. Visit the AmeriCorps website for up-to-date award amounts.

How to Get Started
An AmeriCorps alumnus can sign in to the My AmeriCorps Portal to request a payment be sent to the student’s school, as well as check on the award’s amount.

Peace Corps

Peace Corps volunteers may be eligible for several financial aid benefits once they complete their entire term of service. This includes funds to pay for graduate school (through the Paul D. Coverdell Fellows Program) as well as student loan deferment, partial-cancellation, income-based repayment, and forgiveness.  

Award Amount
Varies, but will usually cover part of the tuition and include a monthly stipend.

How to Get Started
To be eligible, an individual must have completed their Peace Corps term of service or otherwise have a qualified excuse for early termination and plan to enroll in a participating school. Each graduate school has the option of participating in the Paul D. Coverdell Fellows Program, and thus, controls the application process.

TEACH Grant

The TEACH Grant is for those who plan on entering a teaching career but need academic financial assistance to do so. In return for this grant, students will be required to teach in a particular field in a low-income area. Recipients must agree to teach at an elementary school, secondary school, or educational service agency for a period of at least four academic years. This four-year requirement must be completed within eight years of graduation.

Award Amount
Around $3,700 maximum per academic year.

How to Get Started
Eligibility is based on the ability to obtain other forms of federal financial aid. This means you must complete a FAFSA® and enroll in a participating program. Applicants will also need to maintain a satisfactory level of academic performance while in school, receive TEACH Grant counseling, and sign a TEACH Grant Agreement to Serve.

Financial Aid for Veterans and Their Families

In an attempt to recognize members of the armed forces for their services, there are a number of financial aid options available to veterans and members of their families. These benefits will go toward helping pay for the cost of the veteran’s college education or professional training. Here are some of the more popular programs providing the greatest benefits.

  • Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants

    This grant amounts to roughly $6,200. It is intended for the children of soldiers who died during military service in Iraq or Afghanistan. Additional eligibility requirements include being less than 24 years of age at the time of the parent (or guardian’s) death and meeting all Pell Grant eligibility requirements, except the requirement concerning financial need.
  • Post 9/11 GI Bill

    Administered by the US Department of Veterans Affairs, these benefits help pay for both formal schooling and career training. Anyone who has aggregate military service of at least 90 days after September 10, 2001 will be eligible for these benefits. The exact amount of the benefits will depend on the amount of service or reason for military discharge.
  • Yellow Ribbon Program

    Part of the Post 9/11 GI Bill, the Yellow Ribbon Program pays for the tuition and fees for a veteran’s attendance at a public school. Alternatively, it will pay for part of the tuition for a private school (or a public school when the veteran is enrolled as a non-resident).
  • Family Transfer Option

    This option is available for those eligible for Post 9/11 GI Bill education benefits. It allows a veteran who chooses not to use the benefits to transfer remaining benefits to a spouse, dependent children, or both.
  • Montgomery GI Bill

    The Montgomery GI Bill is open to anyone in the U.S. Armed Forces, both active duty and reserve, and helps pay for the costs of vocational, certificate, or college programs. The active-duty benefit requires at least two years of service as well as a payment of $100 per month for the first 12 months. Once service is complete, they may receive education benefits paid out monthly. Reservists must be actively drilling and sign up for a six-year obligation.
  • Tuition Assistance Top-Up

    This program is designed for members of the military who want to earn a degree while on active duty and do not intend to obtain more education after they complete their military service. This benefit pays for the difference between the cost of a class and the actual amount of money received through Tuition Assistance Top-Up.

Everything You Need to Know About the FAFSA®

When it comes to getting college financial aid, the FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is the single most important component. Not only is it necessary to request federal grants and loans, but many schools, states, and private organizations require completion of the FAFSA® as part of their financial aid award process.

When completing the FAFSA®, applicants provide their financial information to help determine how much monetary assistance they can expect.

FAFSA® Pre-Check: What You’ll Need Before Filling It Out

  • Social Security #:  If you are not a U.S. citizen, you will need your Alien Registration number.
  • FSA ID: This is the username and password combination required to complete the FAFSA® online.
  • Federal income tax returns for the prior year: If you are a dependent student, you will also need your parents’ tax returns for the prior year. If you are married and filed separately, you’ll need your spouse’s tax returns as well.
  • Other documentation concerning untaxed income: This includes documents relating to child support, veterans’ benefits, or interest income that isn’t taxed by the IRS.
  • Driver’s license number: You can ignore this if you don’t have a driver’s license.
  • Records of financial assets: This refers to bank accounts, investments, and real estate (other than your home).
  • A list of schools you’re planning to apply to: If you’re still on the fence about a school, go ahead and still list it – you can always remove it later.

Understanding the FAFSA® Submission and Award Process

The entire FAFSA® process can seem a bit daunting at first. Here’s a quick rundown of what you can expect, from filling it out to receiving your financial aid offers.

Step 1

Complete the FAFSA®

The FAFSA® can be completed online, using the myStudentAid mobile app, filling out a PDF (to be printed out and mailed upon completion), or by completing a hard copy of the FAFSA® by hand.

Step 2

Wait for Processing

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid will process the FAFSA®. It will also notify the schools you listed on your FAFSA® and these schools will calculate how much financial aid you will be eligible for should you attend.

Step 3

Receive Your Student Aid Report (SAR)

The SAR should arrive within a few days of submitting the FAFSA®. This represents a summarized version of the information you submitted in your FAFSA®. You should check the SAR for accuracy and submit any changes if necessary.

Step 4

Get Accepted

Once you’re accepted to a school, the school will send out an award letter that lists the financial aid awards you are eligible to receive.

Step 5

Compare Offers

Compare award letters from the various schools to see which ones offer the most aid.

Common Misperceptions About the FAFSA®

You only need to fill it out once.

The FAFSA® must be completed for each year you are enrolled in a school where you receive (or would like to receive) financial aid. This is because you or your family’s financial situation can change from year to year.

The FAFSA® only qualifies you for federal financial aid.

Completing the FAFSA® is required by most state financial aid agencies, as well as schools and even some private organizations that award grants and scholarships. The FAFSA® helps them determine the extent of an applicant’s financial need.

The FAFSA® costs money to submit.

The FAFSA® is always free to complete and submit. Be very aware of potential scams that say otherwise. You can also ask your high school guidance counselor, a college’s financial aid office, or visit the official FAFSA® website for helpful, no-cost resources.

Good grades are required for financial aid.

This is not true. Many forms of financial aid, especially at the federal level, do not consider academic performance in determining eligibility. Some scholarships,however, do look at the grade point average and other merit-based factors.

If I live by myself, my parents’ financial situation won’t matter.

Technically, this is true, but it’s extremely difficult for a dependent student to prove financial independence as far as the FAFSA® is concerned.

As long as I submit my FAFSA® before the federal deadline, I’ll be fine.

Many sources of financial aid, especially from schools, have limited availability and financial aid offered on a first-come-first-served basis. If you wait until the deadline to submit your FAFSA®, you may miss out on a lot of financial aid.

FAQs About Financial Aid Eligibility

How do I know if I’m eligible to receive federal financial aid?

The basic eligibility criteria for receiving federal aid are that you’re a U.S. citizen (or eligible noncitizen), have financial need, are registered with the Selective Service (if you’re a male), and you plan to attend an eligible academic program (typically this means an accredited school or program). Learn more about eligibility requirements on the U.S. Department of Education’s federal student aid website.

Can I still get financial aid if I’m studying abroad?

If you are studying abroad for a short period of time, such as a semester, then your home college in the U.S. will handle the aid and help you with the necessary paperwork. If you are earning a degree from an international school, then you will only be able to get federal student aid if that school participates in federal student aid programs.

My parents make a lot of money. Can I still get financial aid?

While your parents’ income plays a part in your financial aid award amount, there are many other circumstances that can affect how that income factors into your award, such as the size of your family, price of tuition, and how close your parents are to retirement.

My parents are not U.S. citizens. Does this affect my eligibility for financial aid?

No, your parents’ citizenship status plays absolutely no role in whether you’ll get financial aid or how much you qualify for.

Are there ways I can lose my financial aid?

Yes. You must maintain the basic eligibility requirements as well as the specific eligibility requirements of your chosen major, if applicable. One of the most important requirements is to make satisfactory academic progress. Each school will have its own specific guidelines, but generally speaking, you will need to maintain a minimum GPA and proceed through your academic program at a particular pace.

If I’m planning to attend college in a different state than where I live, which state am I eligible to receive financial aid from?

Most states reserve their financial aid for students who currently reside in that state and plan to attend college there. However, there are exceptions, so be sure to contact state education agencies to see if you may still qualify.

Additional Online Financial Aid Resources for Students and Parents

  • CollegeBoard – BigFuture
    A comprehensive online resource for everything related to getting into and paying for college.
  • Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – Paying for College
    The CFPB explains the financial aid process and how to understand and choose among the various financial aid options available.
  • Fastweb
    One of the most well-known online resources when it comes to learning more about financial aid options, especially scholarships, part-time jobs, and loans.
  • U.S. Department of Education – Federal Student Aid
    This is the primary hub of all things relating to federal financial aid, including completing the FAFSA®.
  • Federal Student Aid YouTube Channel
    The YouTube channel of the Federal Student Aid website has plenty of informative videos to help with the financial aid process.
  • FinAid!
    Offers valuable information about all kinds of financial aid, from scholarships to loans to veterans’ benefits.
  • Financial Aid Subreddit
    This is a place where school and financial aid officials can provide helpful advice to parents and students and answer specific questions they have.
  • Sallie Mae – Financial Aid Planning
    This major player in the student loan market has a great website that goes over various ways to pay for school.
  • StudentLoans.gov
    Explains how graduate and undergraduate students can obtain loan-based financial aid and how the repayment process works.