Enrollment at community colleges is growing—and for good reason. Many community colleges offer a quality education for a much smaller price tag.
You might think that because community college typically costs less, you can't receive financial aid to attend. But fortunately, that's not the case. You're eligible for the same types of financial aid at a community college that you would be at a four-year institution.
Even better, attending community college can provide an opportunity to save not just on tuition but also on the associated costs of higher education—books, housing, meals, and transportation.
How much federal financial aid do you get for community college?
As far as the federal government is concerned, your eligibility for financial aid at a community college is the same as it would be at a four-year college.
The federal government sets limits—both annual and aggregate (or, for the total time you're in school)—on how much financial aid college students can receive. There's no specific difference drawn between what you can receive for a four-year college and for a community college.
Let's talk about about to apply for financial aid at a community college and then take a look at the different kinds of financial aid that are available.
Your completed form provides all the necessary information for the federal government to determine whether you are eligible for federal financial education assistance. Some forms of assistance are available to any student enrolled at least half-time at an accredited school and some are only available to those who exhibit financial need.
It's important to note that many schools use the FAFSA to award other kinds of financial aid, such as state or institutional assistance, so it's important to fill out the FAFSA even if you think you won't qualify for aid.
Certain states provide their own financial aid programs and may have their own application processes. To find out whether you are eligible for any state programs, check our state-specific resources database and contact your school's financial aid office.
Pell Grants are one of the least expensive types of federal financial aid available to community college students because, unlike loans, they do not have to be paid back.
The maximum amount a student can receive each year is $6,345. Some students receive the full amount, and some students receive a portion of that. Students must show financial need to receive a Pell Grant but, unlike some other need-based aid, these grants consider more than your family income. Need could be based on how many children your family has in college, the cost of attending a specific college, or your family's existing assets.
Pell Grant recipients must also maintain high academic standards. Each school determines what those standards are, but it usually involves keeping a certain grade point average.
To receive a Pell Grant, you must be enrolled at least half-time and fill out the FAFSA. Both part-time and full-time community college students are eligible for Pell Grants, but the award amount will be reduced for part-time students.
When you receive your financial aid award letter from your community college, you'll be notified about any federal student loans that you qualify for. There are
Direct Loans (a.k.a. Stafford Loans)
Stafford loans (or Direct Loans) are the primary loan offering from the federal government. There are two types of Direct Loans—subsidized and unsubsidized. To receive subsidized student loans, you must exhibit financial need. You can receive unsubsidized loans regardless of financial need, but as shown in the table below, both types of loans have annual and aggregate (or total) loan limits.
Subsidized loans are less expensive because the U.S. Department of Education pays the interest on your loans while you're in school, as well as for the grace period (six months) after you leave school. In contrast, the interest on unsubsidized loans accrues while you're in school. Unless you make interest payments during that time, the accrued interest will be added to the principal amount of your loan when you leave school.
To receive Stafford Loans, you must be enrolled at least half-time and fill out the FAFSA.
The amount you are eligible to receive is determined by the cost of your school, your year of education, and whether you are a dependent or not. This table from the Department of Education shows loan limits for the current school year:
Year in school
Annual loan limits for dependent students whose parents are able to obtain PLUS loans
Amounts for independent students and dependent students whose parents are unable to obtain PLUS loans
$5,500, with no more than $3,500 of this in subsidized loans
$9,500, with no more than $3,500 of this in subsidized loans
$6,500, with no more than $4,500 of this in subsidized loans
$10,500, with no more than $4,500 of this in subsidized loans
Third year and beyond
$7,500, with no more than $5,500 of this in subsidized loans
$12,500, with no more than $5,500 of this in subsidized loans
The aggregate loan limit is $31,000 for dependent students, with no more than $23,000 of that in subsidized loans. Independent students can receive $57,500 in undergraduate loans with the same limit on subsidized loans.
PLUS Loans are federal loans specifically for graduate students or parents/guardians who are helping to provide financial assistance to their college students.
Students must complete the FAFSA before parents or guardians can qualify for a PLUS Loan. It's important to note that people with adverse credit histories may not qualify for PLUS Loans.
Many businesses, foundations, and charitable organizations offer scholarships for community college students. You can apply for—and receive—multiple scholarships that together could cover a large portion of your costs. These types of scholarship applications frequently require only submission of an essay and a copy of your transcript.
Katie Taylor is a content writer and editor with expertise in law and policy, finance, and entrepreneurship. She writes for startups and small businesses about everything from bookkeeping to telecom. Her work has been featured in The Washington Post and SheKnows.com. She is continuing to pay off law school loans and lives in Richmond, Vermont with her wife, son, and an unruly dog. Read more by Katie Taylor