The FAFSA process can be a confusing and daunting one for incoming college freshmen, or anyone else hoping to study at a university or college who needs financial assistance. FAFSA stands for "Free Application for Federal Student Aid" and is the process by which students can apply for financial assistance with educational tuition.

For many people, applying for FAFSA or federal student aid, is the difference between accessing a life-changing education and being forced to make do with only a high school diploma. Federal student aid is life-changing for many students, especially students who are looking to earn their degrees online.

Online Colleges That Accept FAFSA

Traditional brick and mortar universities are generally thought to be the kinds of places that offer student financial aid, but as online colleges are gaining popularity and traction in the higher education landscape as legitimate educational degree-granting bodies, financial aid eligibility has swelled to include online colleges as well.

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The online educational landscape is ever changing, and online colleges that accept FAFSA are part of it. Schools are created and dissolved and many institutions who previously only had brick and mortar presences have expanded their offerings to online courses, offering certification and even degree programs to students who are seeking to ascend to a higher level of education.

To find online degrees that accept FAFSA, visit the college's website. Most online colleges offer an explanation of cost and financial aid. Many online programs accept FAFSA for students who are pursuing a degree full-time, but if a student is receiving federal grant assistance, the student must attend an online college that is regionally accredited by the United States Department of Education. Not every online university is accredited, and this is true for many for-profit colleges.

What Does Accredited Online University Mean?

Accreditation is a very important concept in online education. Accreditation means you are an institution that has been evaluated by a governing body as being a legitimate authentic entity. Every industry has its own accreditation body and different standards and requirements. In the case of a college or university, typically this process is taken care of by states and the federal government's educational evaluators.

Often, educational institutions are evaluated via the peer review process, wherein other officials evaluate a school based on the criteria required by the local and federal laws. The accreditation process is critical to universities and colleges because it proves to employers and other universities that a diploma from that institution has value. Since anyone can found a college on a dubious charter, and teach courses however they want, it is not necessarily guaranteed to provide education of a quality that is in line with the state or federal standards.

A university being accredited is a shorthand way of saying that it is an institution that has been deemed legitimate, and provides a level of education that is on par with the standards for accreditation. There are some non-accredited universities and colleges that may be used for prerequisite classes, but in general studying at a non-accredited university is risky both financially and as an expenditure of your time. This is particularly true if you are a student seeking financial aid, as federal financial aid, including FAFSA aid, cannot be applied to educational courses at non-accredited universities.

Can You Get a Pell Grant for an Online Degree?

A Pell Grant is a grant of money provided to a student by the federal government to help the student pay for the expenses associated with higher education. The grants cannot be put toward living expenses or groceries but can be used for tuition, fees and book purchases that are related to a student's program.

Unlike a student loan, Pell Grants do not have to be repaid, but to remain eligible for the Pell funding, the student must be prepared to display evidence that they put the money they were given toward these sanctioned items like tuition fees, books and course costs. Unfortunately, only students who are working toward a bachelor's degree are eligible for a Pell Grant.

Graduate students and student candidates for a Ph.D. are not eligible for Pell Grants. You may be wondering: Can you use Pell Grants for online classes? As with FAFSA funding, Pell Grants are only available to be applied to the costs of education from an accredited school or university.

How Do You Know If A School is Accredited?

It can be very confusing to assess whether or not a university is accredited. As discussed above, many different bodies and organizations offer their evaluation to accredit an institution. This means that for people who are unaware of the legal implications in accreditation, it can be easy to be fooled by a non-genuine accreditation.

There are a number of organizations that bestow phony accreditation on universities which can be a frustrating and challenging thing to be faced with. With this in mind, it is in every student's best interest to ensure that the institution they are interested in attending is accredited by a legitimate evaluation service.

By doing due diligence research on a website like the U.S. Department of Education Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, you can make sure that you are only considering attending accredited institutions. This website is a record of all of the educational institutions who have accreditation by an evaluating body that has been approved by the United States Secretary of Education.

Can You Use Financial Aid to Pay for a Certification Program?

There may be certain kinds of financial aid that you can use to support the funding of a certification program, but federal loans like Pell Grants can only be applied toward a bachelor's degree program. It is worthwhile to visit the FAFSA site to see what options you may have if you are set on exploring a certificate program or something along those lines.

Some certificate programs, however, are approved for financial aid. Students who are enrolled in a United States Department of Education approved Certificate Program would be eligible for federal loans like the Stafford Loan. These approved certificate programs are an exception to the rule that federal aid must go to bachelor's or graduate study programs.

A Stafford Loan is a federal grant of money that is earmarked by the government for student aid and is available to students at every level of post-secondary education, from undergraduate to graduate and professional studies. Federal loans like the Stafford loan are popular because they come with fixed interest rates and can be both subsidized and unsubsidized. Interest on subsidized loans is paid by the government during the period of time when the student is in school or after graduation when the student's loan is in a period of deferment, but in the case of unsubsidized loans students must be prepared to pay all of the interest and to have the interest added to the loan balance at the time of graduation.

Stafford Loans are very popular because the fixed interest rates are quite low, making it a popular choice especially for first-time borrowers who may not be comfortable with the intricacies of the loan system.

There are also repayment plans that are flexible enough to work with a variety of student lifestyles, and these schedules can be amended and changed in the event of unexpected unemployment, financial hardship or some other challenge and difficulty that prevents a borrower from making a timely payment.

Another benefit of Stafford Loans is that eligibility is not dependent on a FICO score. This is great news for student borrowers who have a very limited credit history or a credit score that is less than ideal. A Stafford Loan for someone who is struggling with a bad credit score can give the opportunity to get into program and begin to earn the type of money that could help to turn things around financially speaking, in a critical way.

As with Pell Grants, any Stafford Loan must be applied to education at an accredited university or institution. This is true of undergraduate, graduate and professional programs where a student is hoping to use a grant of federal dollars to pay for education.

Can You Get Financial Aid for Online School?

For many students, online school is the only option they have for getting a post-secondary degree. Some students have started families by the time they are out of high school, others need to go to work right away, and the time commitment involved in a four-year university or even a full-time two-year university simply isn't feasible.

Classes at odd hours of the day and night make it difficult to build a schedule, and for a student who is financially dependent on a job or may have children or a partner to support, being able to take classes when they are not working is a necessity. Online university programs often offer the flexibility and ease of scheduling that allows a student to take classes on his or her own time, and complete coursework when they are able to fit it into their schedule. For many students, being able to design their own schedule and set aside time in their week to do their coursework is the difference between earning their degree and not earning their degree.

It's clear that online schools have significant benefits to the population they serve. However, it is also not unheard of for online universities to be a for-profit scam, offering degree programs at a high cost that ultimately have no value in the outside world. This is something that all students need to be on the watch for. This is part of the reason that all federal loan programs require evidence of accreditation before they will agree to grant any federal funding dollars toward the pursuit of a degree with that institution.

In this way, the government is looking out for both its money and for the student's best interest. If students are investing the time and effort necessary to get a degree, they should be sure that upon completing the program their new credentials will carry a weight both out in the real world, and with other universities, should they choose to continue their education after they finish the program.

If you have any doubt as to the accreditation of an online school where you are hoping to study, be sure to do the necessary research. This is doubly important if you are hoping to get financial aid for an online school. Do research on the school and find out who has accredited it. Once you have that information, research and ensure that the accrediting institution is an organization that has been approved by the United States Secretary of Education.

Beginning with the list of accredited institutions is a good start. If you do not see the school you are hoping to study at on the list, get in contact with the school. Ask if it is an accredited institution, and ask which institutions have evaluated it. Then, check the viability of these institutions against what you see on the government's website.

About the Author

Ashley Friedman is a freelance writer with experience writing about education for a variety of organizations and educational institutions as well as online media sites.