5 ways to pay for community college

For one Massachusetts teen choosing between a two-year or four-year college, cost was the deciding factor.

"I didn't want to be in debt my whole life, so I started to look at community college," says 19-year-old Kiana Estime, who enrolled at Holyoke Community College, which was priced at $3,574 for tuition and fees in state during the 2013-2014 academic year.

Estime had hoped to attend Smith College, but says the school costs too much, at more than $45,000 a year for tuition and fees.

The liberal arts major enrolled in Holyoke Community College last fall and plans to transfer to nearby Smith or the University of Massachusetts–Amherst for her junior year, depending on the financial aid award.

Estime, in the meantime, has managed to keep her debt under $2,000, paying for college with private scholarships, Pell grants and a small loan.

But those are just three ways to pay for community college. Here are some ways to pay for community college other than working part or full time.

1. Pell grants: Pell grants function like vouchers for students to pay for higher education-related expenses, covering items such as books, transportation or tuition. Awards are based on financial need to students who have not earned a bachelor's degree.

More than two-thirds of Pell grants go to families making less than $50,000, according to Columbia University's Community College Research Center at Teachers College. These awards are also contingent on the student's household size.

"Pell grants will cover a lot of the cost of tuition in most states for community colleges, and that works well if you happen to be in a state that has a large community sector or community college near you," says Joni Finney, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education.

A typical community college student eligible for Pell grants receives around $3,200, according to the Association of Community College Trustees, based on the 2012-2013 school year. The current maximum Pell grant is $5,815 for the 2016-2017 academic year.

The average annual tuition and fees at a community college for across the nation was around $3,435 in district in 2015-2016, according to the College Board.

Vermont is one of the few states where community college tuition and fees cost more than $6,000 annually, which exceeds the annual maximum Pell grant.

2. State aid: Some states, such as Minnesota, Washington and California, offer additional state-based grants to low- and moderate-income community college students.

Minnesota, for example, offers its residents an additional award to full-time students attending two-year or four-year colleges in state. The program's maximum award is around for $6,927 for a student enrolled at an in state community college during the 2015-2016 school year.

Minnesota State Grant and California's Cal Grant are tied to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA. This application is used by many schools to determine financial aid awards.

3. Tuition-free programs: These are often referred to as a promise programs geared toward high school students and either based upon state or local initiatives.

"Most of these programs are direct pipelines from high school to community college," says Jee Hang Lee, vice president for public policy at ACCT. He says there are several promise programs across 37 states.

The Community College of Philadelphia – one of the schools given money by the Obama administration to fund its promise program – awards free tuition to graduating high school students who are as Pell-eligible on the FAFSA. In-district tuition and fees at the college in 2013-2014 cost students $4,920 – so that amount will be waived for incoming students who qualify on the basis of need.

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4. Scholarships: Most community college students don't realize that private scholarships, many of which apply to a four-year school, also can apply to students enrolling at a community college.

Estime, for example, pays for more than $1,500 of her tuition through several private scholarships.
"I got the Nicholas Boraski scholarship," says Estime, who decided against taking out a student loan this spring because of the award. "Because it's annual, I can rely on that helping me each spring to substitute the amount that would have been a subsidized student loan."

5. Federal direct loans: Around 39 percent of community college students didn't complete the FAFSA, and many of those students would qualify for some form of aid which includes federal student loans, according to the White House.

Federal direct loans have better repayment options and broader financial protections for student borrowers than private loans, experts say.

"We want more students filling out the FAFSA because they might be eligible for an award or aid," says Lee."

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Community Collegecenter.

Copyright 2016 U.S. News & World Report

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