Pay Less for Education: How to Take Charge of Your Financial Aid

Determine your financial need, make a plan, and maximize your aid with the diverse set of financial aid options available

Pay-Less-for-Education

As students go through the process of finding and applying to schools, awaiting news of their acceptance, and celebrating the number of colleges that offered them enrollment, it’s easy to push financial aid to the backburner and forget to maximize funding options. Learners who want to avoid crippling debt as they graduate and start their professional medical support careers can use information herein to find smart, actionable advice about financial aid. Funding sources vary based on a student’s unique needs, where they are in life, what field they study, and what makes the most sense for them. The goal of this guide is to walk degree seekers through options to find which sources best suit their needs.

Be Proactive: Create a Financial Aid Plan

After deciding to pursue a medical support degree, learners need to figure out how they’re going to pay for it. The cost of education can vary significantly by institution and program length, making it imperative for students to consider the financial implications before committing to a school.

With current student loan debt at $1.6 trillion and steadily rising, it’s important for students to figure out funding options and avoid too much debt. By creating a well-researched and comprehensive plan, learners can help mitigate future financial challenges. While no one-size-fits-all approach exists, the following guide is designed to help students gather the information they need to make informed decisions. Keep reading to learn about practical steps for putting your best financial foot forward.

1. Run the numbers

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At the start of this process, students and their families first need to create a budget. By going in with realistic expectations, students can get a fuller sense of actualtuition, fees, required books and technologies, transportation, and housing so they can find a school that meets their financial and academic needs.

2. Complete the FAFSA

Students should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid as soon as possible to learn about federal grants, loans, and work-study funds. Many colleges and universities use information provided on this form to award institutional and departmental scholarships, making it even more important to complete each year. Federal student loans also offer the lowest, non-variable interest rates.

3. Apply for aid you won’t need to pay back

Many students end up taking out loans to cover remaining portions of college tuition, but they should always exhaust funding sources that do not require repayment first. In addition to federal grants, many institutions provide scholarships, grants, fellowships, and assistantships to offset costs. Learners should also check with private foundations, nonprofits, and state governments that may offer awards based on merit, financial need, or subject area. Students who need funding beyond tuition and fees may also find scholarships that help cover things like books, technology, research travel, childcare, and/or housing.

4. Look into government or employer-based programs

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Government-funded service programs such as AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps provide educational awards upon completion of service, while some companies also provide employee tuition assistance of up to $5,250 in tax-free funding earmarked for education per year. If working for a university, students may be able to take a certain number of classes for free or a significant discount each year.

5. Explore student loan options

Nearly 70% of 2019 college graduates took out student loans, averaging debt of $29,800 when they graduated. Student loans can seem scary, but students who think about them logically and borrow reasonably can come out on top. Loans come from federal, state, and private sources, but students should always start with federal loans as these are the most secure and offer fixed interest rates. Students who want to test various loan amounts, interest rates, and terms to see how much they will pay monthly and over time can use FinAid’s loan calculator.

6. Factor personal income and savings

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Not everyone has thousands of dollars in their savings accounts, but paying for as much of your education upfront can save you hefty student loan interest fees in the long run. If using savings isn’t an option, some students decide to work while enrolled, making it easier to pay for both day-to-day living expenses and some costs of college. Depending on the program, some colleges and universities offer interest-free tuition payment plans that charge only a small, one-time fee for paying over the course of the program.

7. Find your bottom line

After adding up all financial aid, loans, personal contributions, and other sources of funding, it’s important for prospective students to find out where they stand. If they still owe $40,000 for the cost of their education, how long will it take to break even based on projected average salaries? Considering all these factors – as well as continuing to apply for aid while in school – can help avoid financial challenges later on.

After sketching out a plan, check out the next section for advice on making the most of your financial aid.

Maximize Your Financial Aid Potential

According to College Board, approximately 66% of students received financial aid via scholarships and grants during the 2014-2015 academic year. In terms of breakdown, 57% of undergraduate funding came through grants, while an additional 34% existed as federal loans. It can take some commitment and tenacity to receive enough financial aid awards to fund a pricey education, but students will thank themselves when they don’t have a ton of debt at graduation. Check out our tips for maximizing your financial aid award below.

  • Continue applying for aid, even if you’ve started your program.
    Many students apply for lots of scholarships, grants, and federal funds as they enter college, but fail to continue looking for appropriate funds after starting school. Many funding sources exist specifically for upperclassmen, so keep researching.
  • Talk to financial aid offices directly.
    If you receive an acceptance letter without any details on funding, contact the financial aid office directly to learn about your options.
  • Negotiate your offer.
    If you wish your funding amount from the school was larger, consider reaching out to ask about other possibilities. At worst, they will say they have no additional funding for you, but your tenacity may pay off.
  • File your FAFSA early. 
    FAFSA funds are disbursed on a rolling basis, meaning those who apply late may receive less (or no) funding.
  • Pay close attention to assets.
    When reporting income/assets on the FAFSA, remember that you can exclude some items that will help lower your Expected Family Contribution.

Filling Out the FAFSA

Before reaching out to potential schools about funding or looking up scholarships, students need to fill out the Free Application for Student Aid. As soon as students (or, if applicable, their families) have their tax information available, start the application process. The government releases federal student aid funds on a first-come, first-served basis, meaning those who submit early have a better chance or receiving ample funding. Currently, the federal government provides grants, work-study funds, and loans. Some of these are awarded on the basis of financial need while others focus on merit, intended industry, or critical need jobs.

How Does the FAFSA Work?

To determine available federal funding, the government considers whether you plan to attend full- or part-time, how much the school costs, and when you plan to attend. The COA, or Cost of Attendance, includes tuition, fees, room and board, books, transportation, supplies, loan fees, dependent care, disability costs, and reasonable study abroad fees. It then calculates Expected Financial Contribution (EFC) based on taxed and untaxed income, benefits, and assets. The EFC is subtracted from the COA, determining how much need-based aid should be awarded.

What are the Requirements for Submitting a FAFSA Application?

Aside from meeting deadline requirements, students need to pull together a number of documents before sitting down to submit the application. These include your social security number, alien registration number (for legal non-residents), federal tax returns, earned money records, and W-2s/1099s, records of investments, bank statements, details on any untaxed income, and an electronic FSA ID. If applying as a dependent, all of these documents must also be supplied for your parent(s). Applicants must also include a list of all the schools they are considering attending so the government can send FAFSA data to each for scholarship and grant consideration.

What Is the Deadline for FAFSA?

For the 2019-2020 academic year, students can begin submitting their FAFSAs on October 1, 2018 and must send all documentation in by June 30, 2019.

Should Everyone Fill Out the FAFSA?

Unfortunately, several myths exist that dissuade many students from applying for aid because they believe they won’t qualify. Some may feel their parents make too much money, while others believe that because they support themselves, they cannot use their parents’ information. Students should remember that, even if they do not qualify for federal aid, filling out the FAFSA can still qualify them for state and/or institutional funding. It’s also a mistake to only fill out the FAFSA as an incoming student, as it must be completed each year with updated financial information to remain eligible.

FAFSA Advice to Maximize Returns

Students can maximize their financial aid returns by following a few simple steps and avoiding careless mistakes.

Apply early. Even though the FAFSA application remains open until June of each academic year, the federal government disburses funds on a rolling basis. Learners should complete the form as soon as possible for the best chance of funding.

File your taxes quickly. Because students and their families cannot fill out the FAFSA until they possess the previous year’s tax returns, it’s in their interest to file their taxes as soon as they can. This ensures they do not file the FAFSA late and miss out on funding.

Apply online. By applying online, learners cut out the additional time required to print and mail their forms, and the additional time required for FAFSA administrators to review the paper forms rather than viewing them directly online.

Avoid needless mistakes. Leaving blank fields, providing outdated information, or incorrectly filing taxes can all result in application delays and potentially losing out on federal student aid. Review your application thoroughly and double check all information before submitting it.

Re-apply annually. As previously discussed, financial information required by the FAFSA must be updated annually to continue receiving federal financial aid. This step exists so the government can update the EFC based on current income and assets.

Financial Aid You Don’t Have to Pay Back

While loans often make the difference in whether or not a student can attend a medical support program, the best type of aid is the one that does not need to be repaid. Fortunately, many options exist in this arena.

Scholarships & Grants

Scholarships and grants appeal to all students because they do not require repayment as long as the student lives up to the requirements. They may exist as annual funds or may be renewable for several years. Award amounts vary significantly depending on the funding organization and can be awarded based on factors such as merit, need, gender, ethnicity, or intended major. Medical support students should apply for these as they help offset costs and reduce the amount of loans needed to pay for their education. Most applications require demographic information alongside transcripts, letters of recommendation, proof of community involvement or volunteerism, and, in some cases, a personal statement, and/or an essay. We’ve provided a list of all the different places you can receive scholarships and grants.

Want to explore scholarship and grant options? See our page covering scholarships for medical support students.

Federal Aid

  • Pell Grants. These grants exist for undergraduate learners who demonstrate significant financial need. As of 2019, learners can receive up to $6,195 per year, although this amount may lower based on EFC, COA, and whether they attend on a full- or part-time basis.
  • Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants. FSEOGs are administered via individual financial aid offices at participating schools and given to students demonstrating the most financial need. Learners can receive up to $4,000 per year, depending on their need, application date, other financial aid, and the amount of aid available at the school.
  • Military Service Education Grants. Several federal grants exist for members of the military and their families. Examples include Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) Scholarships, Department of Veterans Affairs Education Benefits, and Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant/Additional Federal Pell Grant Funds.

State Aid

According to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, nearly every state offers scholarships or grants to residents of those places. Check out two examples below to see what might be waiting in your state.

  • Maryland Higher Education Commission. THE MHEC offer the Hal and Jo Cohen Graduate Nursing Scholarship for resident students studying for a master’s in nursing at a public school in the state. The scholarship covers all tuition and fees from matriculation to graduation.
  • The Kansas Board of Regents. Residents of the state can take advantage of the Kansas Nursing Service Scholarshipprovided they plan to work as an LPN or RN upon graduation. This provides partial coverage of educational expenses as well as guaranteed employment after receiving licensure.

Institutional Aid

Many colleges and universities provide institutional scholarships to learners based on merit and/or need. Many schools use information provided on the FAFSA to award funds, underscoring the importance of filling out the application early and annually.

Private Aid

Private companies and organizations act as a major source of scholarships and grants, making it imperative that learners don’t skip on researching these types of funding.

  • Company-sponsored. Many for-profit companies provide scholarships in areas related to their mission to help students get through college more easily. As an example, CVS offers scholarship funds directly to schools for physician assistant students.

  • Non-profits. Students can often find scholarships through nonprofit organizations and foundations that exist to raise awareness and support advocacy efforts within the discipline. The Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography provides a $2,500 award for those accepted to diagnostic medical sonography or cardiovascular technology programs.
  • Professional associations. Member organizations often supply educational funding to help champion future practitioners in the field. The American Society of Radiologic Technologists provides several scholarships of up to $5,000 for members.
Work-Study Programs

Students approved to receive work-study funds based of their FAFSA information can apply to part-time jobs on- or off-campus. These jobs exist for both undergraduate and graduate students. Individuals earn at least the current federal minimum wage up to their full work-study funding amount. This is determined based on when the student applies, their level of financial need, and how much funding the school has for these types of programs. When possible, the school tries to supply jobs related to the learner’s major.

Assistantships, Fellowships, & Residencies

Assistantships, fellowships, and residency programs most frequently exist at the graduate level and help students lower their costs in exchange for working at the school and/or a medical facility. Examples of each include:

  • Assistantship. The University of Tennessee’s Health Science Center provides assistantships for learners working towards an M.S. in speech pathology. In exchange for funding assistance, students work within the department to help administrators, professors, and researchers throughout the academic year.
  • Residency. These take place at health facilities as learners put their knowledge to use in real-world settings. Within the Methodist Health System, the Dallas Internal Medicine Residency provides between $56,000-$60,000 per year alongside an iPad, iPhone, scrubs allowance, meal cards, lab coats, parking, a pager, vacation and personal days, insurance, retirement savings, travel stipends, and access to a fitness center.
Service Programs

Service programs provide popular options for students who do not mind working within a government or military program for a set number of years after graduating. These programs typically require learners to work in a high-need area or serve on a military base to qualify. Examples of these programs include the National Health Service Corps Scholarship, the Health Professions Scholarship (available via the Army, Navy, and Air Force), and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Benefits may include coverage of tuition, books, and living expenses alongside a potential stipend.

Tuition Reimbursement

Depending on the company they work for, some students may be able to take advantage of tuition reimbursement/assistance programs. Under the Internal Revenue Code, employers can provide up to $5,250 in education assistance benefits that the learner does not need to pay taxes on. This amount resets each year, making the funding renewable if the employer is willing to continue providing benefits. Interested degree seekers should speak with their employer about this program to see if it is offered at the company.

Career Ladder Programs

Career ladders exist as formal programs within companies to help employees move into more senior-level roles over time in exchange for their continued commitment to the organization. In addition to better titles and higher salaries, many of these programs allow employees to take part in continuing education and/or training paid for by the organization. In exchange for this perk, the company usually requires the employee to remain working there for a set number of years. Speak to your HR manager to learn if any such programs exist.

Student Loan Breakdown: Explore Your Options

Even though they often get a bad reputation, student loans need not instill fear in the hearts of students. In reality, many students cannot complete higher education without at least some loan assistance. Because of this, it’s best to familiarize yourself with the ins and outs of the process and understand what to look for when selecting a loan. For instance, learners who might need some time to find a suitable job after graduation should look for loan options that provide deferment so their credit score doesn’t get dinged. We break down student loan options available to you in the following section, and provide advice to ensure you borrow responsibly.

Federal Loans

Federal loans are disbursed by the U.S. Department of Education and help learners of all educational levels cover any educational costs that they cannot pay out-of-pocket or with other sources of funding. Because these loans are secured by the federal government, they offer fixed interest rates and favorable repayment plans that aren’t a given with non-governmental lending options. Because several different types of federal student loans exist – for both dependent and independent learners – individuals considering this option should review each to learn about eligibility, interest rates, repayment plans, and award amounts.

  • Subsidized Stafford Loans
    Stafford loans exist for undergraduate learners and range from $5,500 to $8,500 each year, based on how long they have been in school. Because they are subsidized, these loans do not accrue interest while the student is enrolled on at least a part-time basis.
  • Unsubsidized Stafford Loans
    Unsubsidized Stafford loans can be used by undergraduate, graduate, and professional learners and amounts range significantly based on whether the student identifies as a dependent or independent. Because they are unsubsidized, interest accrues the entire time the student is enrolled.
  • Parent PLUS Loans
    These loans exist for parents of dependent undergraduate students. Loan amounts are determined based on cost of attendance after subtracting any other financial assistance. Interest accrues on these loans while students are in school. As of 2019, the rate is 7.6%.
  • Graduate PLUS Loans
    As the name suggests, this loan exists for graduate and professional students and covers any existing expenses once all other financial assistance has been subtracted from the cost of attendance. Interest accrues while the student attends school at a rate of 7.6%.
  • Direct Consolidation Loans
    Rather than making multiple federal student loan payments each month, this type of loan consolidates all of them into a single monthly payment. The government charges no fee to consolidate loans. The new interest rate is based on the average of all the consolidated loans and rounds up to the nearest one-eighth percentage point.

State Loans

While most students first think about student loans provided by the U.S. Department of Education, 38 states currently provide separate loan programs. One such example is the Texas Higher Educational Coordinating Board, which offers low-interest options for residents who plan to attend a public Texas university. If the applicant does not have favorable credit (which typically includes a credit score of 700 or above and no previous loan defaults or bankruptcies), they can use a co-signer. Contact your local department of education to learn about options.

Private Loans

Some students may feel drawn to private loans, but they should fully research this option before signing up, as these often have variable interest rates, require existing credit histories, do not provide deferment or grace periods, and lack income-driven repayment plans.

  • Salle Mae
    Sallie Mae provides private loans for undergraduate and graduate learners once they exhaust federal funding options. Rates vary between 4.37% and 13.96% depending on degree level, who takes out the loan, and whether the loan is offered with a fixed or variable rate.
  • Credit Unions & Banks
    Many learners are attracted to credit unions due to potentially lower interest rates, better customer service, and less rigid rules surrounding existing credit. On the negative side, they tend to lack the benefits of federal loans and may require you to become a member.
  • Private Lenders
    Private lenders may include parents, grandparents, or other family members and friends. Students should carefully navigate this process to ensure the relationship is strong enough to negotiate money contracts while also making sure they get a fair deal.

Borrowing Student Loans Responsibly

After exhausting all sources of funding that does not need to be repaid, students should carefully research the loans they take out to cover the remaining expenses of higher education. Aside from finding the best interest rates and repayment plans, here are a few other things to keep in mind:

  • Only borrow what you need
    The COA estimate includes costs outside tuition and fees, meaning students can borrow thousands of dollars for housing, transportation, and other expenses. If at all possible, try not to borrow additional funds to cover these other costs.
  • Live cheaply
    Students can quickly wrack up debt by living outside their means. Consider finding roommates, cooking at home, taking public transportation, and doing other things that cut your cost of living.
  • Consider repayment realities
    When borrowing, think about starting salaries for your intended career. By considering opportunity cost (e.g. the monthly loan payment versus your salary), you can get a sense of reasonable amounts to borrow.

Additional Financial Assistance for Medical Support Students

As discussed at the start of this guide, many financial assistance programs exist for medical support students who need help paying for school. In addition to all those explored earlier, the following options may work for students who need a little extra help or agree to specific work requirements. Check them out to see if any are relevant to your needs.

  • Tuition payment plans: Many medical support programs provide tuition payment plans for learners to pay the school directly rather than a loan servicer. These often charge a small additional fee but no interest. Ivy Tech Community College provides an example of what to look for when reviewing financial aid options at prospective schools.
  • Loan repayment assistance: Medical support students can sometimes feel overwhelmed by repayment plans when first graduating, especially if they’re still searching for a job or earning an entry-level salary. Those with federal loans can take advantage of several income-driven repayment plans that consider current earnings when setting monthly payment amounts.
  • Loan forgiveness: In exchange for working with underserved communities or pledging service at an approved site for a set number of years, many medical support graduates can take advantage of loan forgiveness programs. The American Academy of Family Physicians provides a comprehensive list of currently available programs.

Supplementary Financial Aid Resources

Students must consider many factors when figuring out how to finance their educations. With so many different types of funding available, it can sometimes feel overwhelming. In addition to details provided throughout this guide, we rounded up several more helpful resources for those who still have questions.

  • Bureau of Health Workforce. Operating as part of the Department of Health & Human Services, the BHW provides several scholarships, loans, and loan repayment programs for health professionals.