By Emma Kerr and Sarah Wood
January 26, 2022
For prospective students considering online college programs, cost may be a concern. An old but lingering misconception is that financial aid for online degree programs is limited compared with aid for in-person programs. But in fact, colleges structure the financial aid process for distance students identically to that of their in-person peers.
The share of students enrolled in any distance learning course rose significantly from fall 2012 to fall 2019, and 15% of all undergraduates were enrolled exclusively in online classes in 2019, according to the College Board’s Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2021 report. And now more than ever, college students are taking classes online as the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to temporarily deliver instruction remotely.
Students in online programs can take advantage of federal, state and institutional financial aid, which can come in the form of merit- or need-based scholarships.
Does Financial Aid Pay for Online Courses?
When researching online programs, students must choose one that is accredited by the U.S. Department of Education to take advantage of federal financial aid, experts say.
Students can check an institution’s website to ensure their program and school are eligible for federal aid, says Michelle Campbell, director of financial aid at SUNY Empire State College, which offers various online degree programs and certificates. Or they can search for their college in the Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.
Eligibility for federal financial aid is determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Some colleges and states also use information from the FAFSA to award their own aid.
Questions revolve around income rather than “modality,” so the form is identical for both online and in-person students, says John R. Watret, chancellor of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Worldwide Campus.