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Don’t balk at community college. It can be a great stepping stone to entering four-year state schools, and even those with a little college education out earn those with only a high school diploma or GED. If you’re considering trying out a two-year degree you may be wondering, Is community college free? Not exactly, but it can be free in some states if you qualify.
The average weekly earnings for a high school grad are $809. If you have some college under your belt but no degree, the average weekly earnings go up by $90, or $1,080 per year. If you have an associates degree, you may expect to earn an average of $963 per week. That’s $8,008 more per year than someone with a GED only.
Of course, the numbers do get even bigger if you’ve got your four-year, jumping up to an average of $1,334 per week. However much college you complete, pursuing more education still leads to higher earnings on average in 2023.
Community college was a part of my education, and when I went, I actually got paid to do it. I didn’t even live in a state that offers free community college tuition. Lemme show you how I did it.
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1. Fill out the FAFSA. (I promise it’s gotten easier.)
The first step to get paid to go to community college is to fill out the FAFSA. This used to be a cumbersome process that involved pulling out your (or your parents’) paper tax returns and gathering information about any personal and/or parental assets. It was a nightmare.
But changes made in 2015 made the process so much easier. The FAFSA application now pulls information directly from the IRS, so most of the information is autopopulated for you. It also uses the prior-prior-year’s tax return. Which sounds complicated but really isn’t.
Let’s say you were applying for funding for the 2023-24 school year. You could apply starting in Oct. 2022, and it would pull your 2021 tax data.
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2. Your EFC will determine how much grant money you get.
After you fill out the FAFSA, you’ll wait a little bit — a few hours or a few days — to receive your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC). Generally speaking, if your EFC is 0, you’ll qualify for at least one full federal grant.
But don’t give up if your EFC is more than 0. Grants can be issued in partial amounts, so just because you don’t get a full grant doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get zero money.
3. You (usually) don’t have to pay back federal student grants.
The FAFSA will consider you for four different federal student grants:
- Pell Grant: Up to $7,395 to pay for school if you qualify based on income. (Income limits are higher than you might think, especially if you’re a nontraditional student with a family of your own!)
- FSEOG Grant: Up to $4,000 to pay for school if you qualify based on income, and the program still has funding left.
- TEACH Grant: Up to $3,772 if you are enrolled in a qualifying teacher education program. There are service requirements for this grant after graduation.
- Iraq & Afghanistan Service Grant: Up to $6,501.99 to pay for school if you lost a parent due to military service in Iraq or Afghanistan post-9/11. You can only get this grant if your EFC is too high for a Pell Grant, and you were either under age 24 at the time of your parent’s death or you were enrolled in school at least part-time at the time of passing.
There are rare few circumstances where you have to repay a federal grant. Usually, the only way that would happen is if you drop out early or reduce your caseload significantly. (Though you will be cut off from future grants if you flunk out often enough, but in this circumstance you still won’t have to repay.)
With TEACH grants, if you don’t fulfill your service obligation after graduation, the grant may be converted into a loan.
But other than those select circumstances, grant money is free money you won’t have to pay back.
4. Grants cover more than the tuition at most community colleges.
The National Center for Education Statistics doesn’t publish community college numbers until the following year. But according to Community College Review, the average community college tuition in the U.S. right now is $4,973 for in-state students.
If you’re awarded a full Pell grant, you’ll get $7,395 in funding, more than covering the cost of tuition. And if you’re awarded additional grants, your excess will be even larger.
TIP: The only states where your in-state tuition is more likely to be greater than the Pell grant are Illinois (average tuition of $7,972) and Pennsylvania (average of $9,730). That said, it really depends on your local community college system. For example, in Allegheny County, PA, you can expect to pay around $4,571 in tuition and fees each year (less than the national average) if you’re taking a 12-credit course load in-person, so your math would still hold up.
5. Some grants are refundable.
Pell grants are fully refundable. That means if the money isn’t used for tuition, you get to keep the rest. Legit. Your community college will cut you a check (or set up an ACH transfer to your bank account) for the difference.
Let’s say you did get that full Pell grant. The difference between your grant money and your tuition (if your school charges the average) is $2,422. This amount will be split over two semesters, so you’ll get two payments of $1,211 per semester.
Congrats! You just got paid to go to college.
TIP: FSEOG grants are also refundable.
6. Other federal grants are not refundable.
Not all federal grants are refundable. For example, the Iraq & Afghanistan Service Grant can only be used to pay up to the cost of attendance. So if you have more money than you need for tuition, the total grant amount will be reduced, and you won’t be able to put any ‘extra’ back in your pocket.
7. Also apply for refundable scholarships.
Don’t stop at the grants! Scholarships are also money that doesn’t have to be repaid — so free cash for college.
Some scholarships are refundable. Generally speaking, institutional aid (or scholarships provided to you by your school directly) is not refundable. But read the fine print, because community colleges offer refundable scholarships far more often than 4-year institutions.
You’re likely to have better luck with scholarships from outside organizations. Be sure to find out if it’s refundable before you go through the rigamarole of applying. If it is, and you’ve already got tuition totally covered by grants, every dollar of scholarship money can be refunded to your bank account.
For example, one year I got a $1,000 refundable scholarship for writing about a medical experience I had in the past. (No, I wasn’t pre-med.) Because my tuition was already fully covered, that was $1,000 extra I got paid to go to school.
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8. Be smart with your textbook strategies to save even more.
Your refund money won’t be issued until at least a few weeks after your semester starts. Usually, they’re looking to make sure you don’t drop out for the semester before they cut you a check.
In the interim, you can charge textbook purchases to your student account. But that will make your refund check significantly smaller, and the point is to get you paid. So you’ll want to be sure to explore other options to get textbook funding.
First, check with your state welfare office to see if they offer something called a special allowance. Special allowances can be issued for a number of different things, and one of those things is textbooks. While not everyone who qualifies for a Pell grant will qualify for a special allowance, a lot of people will in states that offer them.
When I was in school, I made great use of my library reserve. This section of your school’s library is required to carry at least one copy of every textbook assigned by a professor that semester. You can’t check these books out.
But you can find your homework pages, and then either take photos of them with your phone for free or make copies of them for about $0.10 – $0.25 per page. Even if you go the paper route, the costs end up being minimal compared to the cost of buying a whole textbook.
9. You can also use these strategies at some state schools.
Depending on the cost of your state school, you may be able to use this same strategy at 4-year institutions. The Pell grant and other grants will likely cover a smaller percentage of your tuition, but in some states it may still be enough.
Can’t totally cover tuition (and get a refund) with federal grants alone? Be sure to implement the refundable scholarship strategy. The more scholarships you get, the more money you’ll get paid just for being a student.