Financial Aid and Scholarships for Online Students

Learn how to pay for a degree online. Learn about financial aid and scholarship opportunities for online students.

  • Online students are entitled to nearly the same financial aid as on-campus students.
  • Students must complete the FAFSA to determine their eligibility.
  • Scholarships and grants include a variety of funding options based on need and performance.

Universities across the United States are increasingly offering online programs to meet the needs of distance learning students.

With benefits like flexible hours, online programs are a convenient learning option for students who already have work and family commitments. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 37% of students were enrolled in at least one distance learning program in the fall of 2019.

Most students need financial assistance to complete their degree, whether they enroll on campus or online. Distance learning students are eligible for the same need-based financial aid as on-campus students, plus additional targeted online scholarships and grants.

The following complete guide explores different financial aid options to attend one of the best online schools.

Unique Challenges for Online Students

The Hidden Costs of Online Degrees

Although distance education students can save money on living expenses, online degrees sometimes come with surprising hidden costs. Depending on the university, international students sometimes have to pay more than domestic students (although many online universities charge international students domestic fees).

Travel costs can also be added. Some online programs require students to visit campus occasionally. This can be expensive if a student does not live near the school.

Other hidden costs of online degrees include various fees, for things like graduation and testing, and technology costs like a laptop and Wi-Fi.

Balancing Work and School as a Non-traditional Students

Non-traditional students face unique challenges that can make going back to school stressful. The time commitment required to be successful can be especially taxing for remote students, especially those who work full-time. The time they spend in class, doing homework, and studying is time they can’t devote to family, work, and household chores.

The cost of school is another obstacle. Education is becoming more expensive for everyone. And non-traditional students often don’t have the family support or financial resources that other students do.

Non-traditional students also often have expenses like child care and mortgage payments that make it even harder to find the money to go to school. These challenges highlight the need for online students’ scholarships.

Why Is Accreditation Important?

Accreditation of a university shows that a school meets a specific level of academic standards related to its courses, student support services, and student outcomes. Accrediting agencies regularly review university programs and departments to ensure that students receive a quality education.

In most circles, accredited universities are considered more prestigious than unaccredited institutions. For instance, employers are more likely to trust and hire graduates of accredited college programs. And students in many professions must have a degree from an accredited school or program to qualify for a license. Just like traditional institutions, online schools can also get accreditation from accrediting bodies.

Institutional and programmatic accreditation is available, although some fields of study do not have a relevant accreditation body. However, students should ensure that the university of their choice has institutional accreditation from an accredited accrediting agency. The United States Department of Education (ED) maintains a database of recognized organizations.

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

Financial Aid for Online Students


Loans are often viewed as the ultimate financial resource for online students. Unlike scholarships and grants, college loans must be repaid. The ED offers subsidized and unsubsidized direct loans and also makes indirect loans (through colleges) in the form of Federal Perkins Loans. There are also direct PLUS loans (for parents) and private loans.


Scholarships are non-refundable and may be awarded on the basis of merit or other criteria not based on need. Students should do their own research to find and apply for scholarships. Many scholarships require students to maintain their eligibility, e.g. maintaining a minimum GPA during each renewal period.


Scholarships are primarily need-based, although some scholarships are merit-based. Like fellowships, fellowships do not have to be repaid upon completion of the program. ED is the largest provider of scholarships to students through programs such as the Federal Pell Scholarship. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) automatically assumes that students need federal financial aid.


Scholarships are often awards for graduate students. Students typically receive this merit-based award for advanced or specialized higher education in their field. Scholarship applicants are often required to demonstrate their potential to contribute to their profession after graduation in order to receive the award.

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Work-Study Program

The federal dual study program allows participating schools to pay students for part-time employment. Although job availability varies, schools do their best to place students in jobs related to their field of study. Work-Study may offer jobs on or off campus paying an hourly or salary wage. Students and doctoral students with financial difficulties are eligible.

How to Complete the FAFSA

Applicants often think that online students have more limited financial aid options than on-campus students. In fact, distance learners are generally entitled to the same support as their on-campus peers. Completing the FAFSA is the first step online students must take to determine their eligibility for financial aid.

Prospective students can submit the FAFSA online. Students must submit their federal tax information and verify their identity through information such as their driver’s license and social security number.

Where Can I Find Scholarships

You can find a lot of scholarship information through a simple internet search. Large aggregate grant websites can be helpful. But a more targeted approach can produce better and more useful results.

The scholarship search process can be less daunting when you start with your school and community. Below are some suggestions to get you started.

Your School

Many schools award financial aid from the federal government and some also offer institutional scholarships. Prospective students should check their school’s website for scholarship options or contact a student advisor or financial aid office directly to apply for assistance.

Online Databases

Online databases typically offer searchable scholarships to students who meet the criteria for a specific demographic, major, or program of study.

Community Groups

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


Many global companies maintain foundations dedicated to promoting and promoting higher education. Ford Motor Co., the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Coca-Cola award some of the largest grants in the country. Students can often apply directly through a foundation’s website.

Local Sponsors

Local businesses and organizations often sponsor students who enroll in educational or career programs in a specific field. For instance, many private law firms offer scholarships to law students and prospective paralegals in their field. Churches also offer scholarships for seminary students or local ministries.

How to Apply for Scholarships

Applying for a scholarship can seem overwhelming. However, creating a system can help streamline the process. Follow an organized method to start early, do research, and follow application instructions. This can make applying for scholarships less stressful and productive.

Here are some tips and tricks to make the process easier:

Plan ahead – it’s never too early to start looking for scholarships. Expect each application to take longer than expected. Consider setting a fictitious deadline ahead of the actual application deadline to give yourself extra wiggle room.

Organization is Key: Whether you are looking to apply for two scholarships or 20, good organization can help you maximize your time and reduce the chaos of the entire college application process. Create a checklist of deadlines and materials to avoid duplication of effort.

Thorough Research – Take the time to read through all potentially viable scholarships as soon as you come across them. Then immediately place them in the “yes” or “no” category. Make sure you fully understand the terms and conditions of each scholarship to avoid missing out on a perfect scholarship or wasting time on something you don’t qualify for.

Follow Instructions Strictly: As with college applications, scholarships require certain materials and information to determine eligibility. You could be disqualified simply for not following instructions or be deemed ineligible for missing materials.

Perfect Your Essay: Scholarships that require an essay allow students to highlight their strengths and differentiate themselves from other applicants. Take the time to craft a thoughtful response to each opportunity. Always double-check for typos and grammatical errors.

Top Scholarships for Online Students Distance Learning Scholarship

Eligibility: Applicants must be enrolled in an accredited online degree or certificate program, have a minimum 3.0 GPA, and demonstrate financial need.

Prize money: $1,000

Deadline: October or March

Apply for Scholarship Undergraduate Distance Learning Degrees Academic Scholarship

Eligibility: Applicants must be enrolled in an accredited distance learning program with intent to continue enrollment for the following year and complete at least 30 semesters or 45 quarter-credits.

Prize money: $500

Deadline: May

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Apply for Scholarship

Unigo Education Matters Scholarship

Eligibility: Applicants must be at least 14 years of age, legal residents of the United States and residents of one of the 50 US states or the District of Columbia.

Prize money: $5,000

Deadline: November

Apply for Scholarship

Unigo $10,000 Scholarship

Eligibility: Applicants must be at least 14 years of age, US citizens and residents of one of the 50 US states or the District of Columbia.

Prize money: $10,000

Deadline: December

Apply for Scholarship Scholarship

Eligibility: Applicants must be enrolled in a university undergraduate program.

Prize money: $4,000 (first prize) or $1,000 (one prize for second and third place)

Deadline: December

Apply for Scholarship College Scholarship

Eligibility: Applicants must be legal residents of the United States and be at least 16 years of age to enter or enroll in college with a minimum GPA of 3.0. Both bachelor and master students are eligible to participate.

Prize money: $1,000

Deadline: December

Apply for Scholarship

Unigo’s Top 10 List Scholarship

Eligibility: Applicants must be legal US citizens at least 14 years of age and reside in one of the 50 US states or the District of Columbia.

Prize money: $1,500

Deadline: December

Apply for Scholarship

The Christian Connector Christian College Scholarship

Eligibility: Applicants must be enrolled for the first time in a full-time Christian college or Bible college program.

Prize money: $2,500

Deadline: May

Apply for Scholarship

Columbia College e-Scholarship

Eligibility: Applicants must have a minimum GPA of 3.0 and be pursuing a bachelor’s degree from Columbia College. Students must have completed at least 21 credits at Columbia College, including at least nine credits online in the past academic year.

Prize money: $2,000

Duration: variable

Apply for Scholarship

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 award criteria vary.

Prize money: 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 award criteria vary.

Prize money: Varies

Deadline: Students can apply up to 90 days after the start of their studies

Apply for Scholarship

Penn State Global Campus Scholarships

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

Prize money: Varies

Duration: variable

Apply for Scholarship

University of Wisconsin-Platteville Scholarships

Eligibility: First-year, full-time applicants will automatically be considered for a merit scholarship. Students who file a FAFSA and are eligible for the Pell Fellowship may also be eligible for the Non-Resident Fellowship.

Prize money: Varies

Duration: variable

Apply for Scholarship

Kansas State Global Campus Scholarships

Eligibility: Applicants must meet the general eligibility requirements for the K-State Global Campus Scholarship and enroll in a minimum of three credits per semester.

Prize amount: $500 to $2,000

Period: June (autumn), 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 average of 3.5 and have completed at least 25 credits. The award can only be applied for online undergraduate courses.

Prize amount: Varies

Duration: variable

Apply for Scholarship

SUNY Empire State College Foundation – Morton Bahr Distance Learning Scholarship

Eligibility: Applicants must be current or prospective students in an undergraduate program at Empire State College. The award may be requested for 1-2 courses or a maximum of eight credits per semester.

Prize amount: Varies

Duration: Variable

Apply for Scholarship

SUNY Empire State College Foundation — Morton Bahr Distance Learning Scholarship

Requirements: Applicants must have completed at least one creditable distance learning course and be enrolled in a second course at Potsdam or another university.

Prize money: $1,000

Duration: variable

Apply for Scholarship

SNHU Scholarships for Online Students

Eligibility: Applicants must have a GPA of 3.0 or better. Be a student in continuing education of the SNHU online or registered with the SNHU. Be the sole bearer of your own university-related expenses.

Another general scholarship offered by SNHU is the Continuing Education Scholarship. This provides valuable tuition to students who are the sole sponsors of their own college expenses. All SNHU Online Continuing Education students registered with SNHU are welcome and encouraged to apply for SNHU Scholarships for Online students.

Apply for Scholarship


Grants are a form of financial assistance that, unlike loans, do not have to be repaid. Like scholarships, these are essentially free money that you can use to pay for your education. Some scholarships require you to accept certain commitments, such as: For example, working in a certain field for a certain period of time.

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Most scholarships are merit-based, while scholarships are generally need-based. Most grants come from the federal or state governments. You must complete the FAFSA to be eligible.

Pell Grants

Pell Scholarships are generally awarded to students who do not have a bachelor’s or professional degree. The amount of help you receive depends on your financial needs, the cost of attending your school, whether you are a full-time or part-time student, and whether you intend to attend school for a full academic year or less.

State Government Grants

Almost all state governments offer student scholarships, most of which are restricted to state residents attending a state university. Most programs have annual deadlines. The premium amounts vary by state.

Private Grants

These grants are awarded by companies and professional associations. The amount of private grants varies considerably.

Additional Resources for Online Students

The Office of Federal Student Aid website (under the ED) offers a variety of resources, including webinars on completing the FAFSA and tools for assessing eligibility.

Sponsored by the US Department of Labor, offers a searchable database of scholarships, job training, and career development programs.

The Civil Rights Advocates Committee provides opportunities for professional enrichment and advocacy for first-generation students seeking social justice initiatives.


This searchable database contains over 23,000 scholarship and grant opportunities for students. Users do not need an account to access the database.

This website helps high school students be the first in their families to attend college. Resources include planning checklists and links to funding options.

This organization has one of the oldest and most lucrative scholarship programs in the country. Students can search for grants, fellowships, and tuition support programs. reviews 529 popular college savings plans, including how they benefit students and how they can affect overall eligibility.

This site provides an online forum for first-generation students to exchange ideas on how to apply, enroll, and fund their college experience.

Online Student Financial Aid FAQs

Can I Get A Student Loan For Online Courses?

Yes, students can earn credit for online courses. Students enrolled in online college programs are eligible for financial aid. Students can apply for federal student loans or look for other sources of student loans.

Consider your options before agreeing to take out a student loan. This type of financial support often comes with a long-term commitment. Research financial aid alternatives or talk to a financial advisor about student loan options.

How Can I Get Money for My Education Without a Student Loan?

In addition to student loans, students have many options for financial support: scholarships, grants, or college scholarships. Many financial aid opportunities require students to complete an application and meet certain academic standards.

Start by submitting the FAFSA to determine how much financial aid you can get from the federal government and college. Find out about scholarship opportunities offered by the university and independent organizations.

Does the FAFSA Cover Online Colleges?

Most accredited online programs are federal grant eligible, which means their students can receive federal grants. Students should research their school’s accreditation status. You can also speak with an advisor to determine if your online program is eligible.

Submit your FAFSA in late June. The FAFSA application requires detailed financial information, so please take enough time to complete the form.

Will Online Courses be Cheaper?

Many online degree programs offer cheaper tuition than face-to-face programs. Some online programs even offer in-state courses for students from other states. Students who participate in online programs also do not have to cover other on-campus expenses, such as dorm fees and meal plans.

Students should research the relative costs of programs before deciding where to apply. In-state tuition for an in-person program may end up costing less than an out-of-state online program. Tuition fees may also differ depending on the course.

What is the Cheapest Online University?

Some of the cheapest online universities are Purdue University, Golden Gate University-San Francisco, and University of Florida-Online. These schools offer online programs to students across the country. Tuition fees may vary depending on the study program and national or foreign residency.

Students can still mitigate tuition costs with financial aid and scholarship opportunities. Contact the admissions department at your prospective school to learn about available financial aid options.

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