Scholarships & Financial Aid for Career College Students

Making Vocational & Trade Schools Affordable

An associate degree, diploma or certificate from a vocational or trade school will often provide the necessary training and education for in-demand jobs in the skilled trades and health care support. While these programs take two years or less to complete, some students may still need help figuring out how to afford tuition. This guide explains how to make attending a vocational program as affordable as possible by applying for financial aid and enrolling in special programs.

The Cost of Vocational School & Career Colleges

One of the biggest advantages of getting a degree from a trade or vocational school is cost. According to the College Board, the average cost for in-state tuition from a four year public college or university was $9,970. Compare this to the average cost of tuition from an in-district two-year public college, which is $3,570.

That’s almost a $6,500 difference in tuition for an entire school year. The difference is even more dramatic when comparing community college to an out-of-state ($25,620 per year) or private ($34,740) tuition rate at a four-year college.

Speed is another advantage to attending vocational or trade school. The typical two-year degree will require about 60 to 65 credits to complete, while most bachelor’s degree programs can range anywhere from 120 to 130 credits to complete. Most associate degrees, diplomas and certificates are designed to allow a student to move into the workforce immediately upon graduation, a benefit not always afforded by the bachelor’s degree.

How to Make Vocational Programs Affordable

From the start, a vocational program can be at least half as much as a bachelor’s degree program. But for students with financial need and demonstrated academic excellence in high school, there are ways to make the cost of attending a vocational program even cheaper.

  • Attend a community college

    Community colleges are public postsecondary institutions that provide affordable vocational training. Students who attend their local community college will be eligible for the cheapest tuition, which is sometimes referred to as in-district or in-county tuition. Students who choose to attend a different community college within their state should still be eligible for in-state tuition.

    Most community colleges provide not just associate degree programs, but shorter certificate or diploma programs that provide the necessary training for a particular vocation. Examples include pharmacy tech and medical assisting. For students who want an associate degree but want to spend less than two years getting it, they may have the option of carrying a heavier course load, going to summer school or taking Advanced Placement courses.

  • Take advantage of state-based financial support

    Several states have programs that will pay for all or most college expenses of those who meet the eligibility criteria. Eligibility focuses on financial need, high academic performance in high school and attending a qualified in-state public institution.

    Depending on the state, most programs provide financial assistance to pay for the first two years of postsecondary education at any public in-state institution. Another element to these programs is that they’re often a “last dollar” grant; only after the student has exhausted other sources of financial aid will the program pay for the remaining cost of attendance. A few states with these programs include:

    • Oregon
    • Rhode Island
    • Tennessee
    • New Jersey
    • Nevada

  • Obtain gift-based financial aid

    The best financial aid is the type that students don’t have to pay back. The three most common include grants, scholarships and work study.

    Grants and scholarships are very similar in that students receive financial help to pay the cost of tuition and the student never has to pay any of the money back. Grants tend to be awarded to students based primarily on financial need, while those who receive scholarships will often demonstrate personal merit, such as academic performance, talent, chosen field of study or ethnicity.

    Always keep in mind how scholarships and grants work. Elisia Howard, a Certified Financial Aid Advisor, points out one important trait of both. “Never pay to get a scholarship or any ‘enter to win’ offers. Scholarships should always be free to apply to,” Howard says.

    Work study is a federal financial aid program where students get paid to work while in school. However, their compensation is subsidized by the federal government. Because of work study, students receive higher wages than they would with a regular job or are given a job the employer wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.

    The vast majority of financial aid, including gift-based aid, requires that the student enroll in an approved postsecondary institution. This means, at a minimum, that the school is accredited by a federally recognized body.

  • Ask about employer tuition reimbursement

    Some employers will support their employees to gain additional training. These programs can exist in the form of unofficial agreements among employers and employees or might be established programs with set requirements, such as maintaining academic performance and working for the employer a set period of time after graduation.

  • Look for tuition payment plans

    A number of schools allow students to spread out the cost of their tuition over the course of a school year without having to pay any interest. Instead of paying the entire semester’s tuition up front, a student can make monthly payments over the course of the school year. The only additional cost to the student is the payment of a small administrative fee, typically $50 or less.

  • Ask about state training programs

    Some states have programs for unemployed or underemployed workers who could benefit from additional vocational training. The state’s unemployment office or applicable labor department will have information as to the exact process to receive this free or low-cost skills training.

Financial Aid Must-Dos

Applying for financial aid is as important as applying for admission into your school of choice. Follow the steps below to ensure you’re doing everything you can to get the money you need to pay for school.

Step 1: Determine Eligibility for Financial Aid

The first step for applying for financial aid is completing the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Only U.S. citizens or eligible noncitizens may complete the FAFSA. Other requirements for students include:

  • A social security number
  • On track to graduate with a high school diploma or obtain a GED
  • Enrolled in an accredited academic program
  • Not be in default on any prior federal student loans or owe a refund for a federal grant
  • Meet the Selective Service registration requirements (males only)
  • No prior drug convictions

Step 2: Gather Necessary Information

Completing the FAFSA will require detailed financial information from your (or your parents) most recent annual tax return. Identification information will also be needed, such as your driver’s license number, social security number and alien registration number (if applicable).

Step 3: Complete and Submit the FAFSA

With the necessary information available, you can complete the FAFSA, either online or with a paper application. Completing and submitting it online is recommended because it allows the importation of tax information into the FAFSA and can help catch mistakes or incomplete necessary information.

The FAFSA can be completed approximately one year before the academic year for which you intend to enroll. For example, if you plan to start college in the Fall of 2018, you can submit your FAFSA starting October 1, 2017. If you need help completing the FAFSA, your school’s financial aid office should be able to help. Your state or local community may also offer FAFSA workshops to assist in completing the application.

Step 4: Complete Any Other Financial Aid Applications

Some states have specific applications for students to apply for state-based financial aid. There are also special forms similar to the FAFSA, but designed for students who aren’t eligible to complete the FAFSA due to immigration status.

Step 5: Know What Happens Next

After you submit your FAFSA, you should receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) within one week. The SAR is like a receipt, confirming the information you put on your FAFSA. It will also give basic information concerning your eligibility for federal student aid.

Students may be asked to provide additional information from your accepted schools. Eventually, you will receive a financial award letter. The exact details and process will depend on when you submit the FAFSA and your colleges of acceptance.

A Final Note on the FAFSA

When it comes to financial aid, students must educate themselves on FAFSA rules to get the most benefit possible. “One of the biggest mistakes I see is that students don’t understand how Financial Aid and the FAFSA rules work, and often miss out on money,” expert Elisia Howard points out. “For instance, some students will take a few years off of school before going back to vocational school. If someone waits until they are 24 years old, they no longer need to use their parent’s income information and can usually qualify for substantially more money.”

How Student Loans Can Fit into a Vocational College Program

Student loans are another source of financial aid. They are not gift-based, which means they must be paid back, usually with interest. However, they make a postsecondary education possible for tens of thousands of students each year.

Before taking on student loans, consider if future earning potential will be enough to pay it back. If a student has a good chance of earning a wage that will easily cover the cost of the loan payments after program completion, then taking on the student loan might be a good decision. Additionally, if there is a loan forgiveness option, such as with the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness or Teacher Loan Forgiveness Programs, then taking on the student loan may not be a bad idea.

Students interested in student loans should try to stick with state or federal programs. They generally have more advantageous loan terms (such as loan forgiveness and lower interest rates) and more options for repayment plans if a graduate gets into a financial bind.

Scholarships and Grants

Scholarship and grants are by far the preferred financial option to pay for college. The following list includes numerous scholarship opportunities specifically for vocational students, broken down by popular vocational categories.

When applying for scholarships, keep quality in mind. “Scholarships are becoming more competitive,” Howard says. “I have had many students that were frustrated with the scholarship process and, when I looked at what they were turning in, was not surprised to see why they weren’t winning anything. I have read so many essays that read like they were written in five minutes.”

Putting in the work gives you a distinct advantage over other applicants. “Ask yourself, ‘If I were on the scholarship committee and I read that essay, would I want to give that person money?’ Everyone is busy, but if you turn in crappy work, you are going to get crappy results,” Howard advises. “Take the extra hour to do good work and you will see the rewards.”


    • Allied Healthcare Scholarship Program
      Sponsored by the Health Professions Education Foundation, this scholarship provides $4,000 to California students enrolled in an accredited allied health education program.
    • Association of Schools of Allied Health Professions Scholarship
      The Association of Schools of Allied Health Professions (ASAHP), in partnership with CastleBranch, offers $1,000 to students who enrolled in a school that is an institutional member of the ASAHP.
    • TYLENOL Future Care Scholarship
      Students pursuing a career in health care and enrolled in a two or four-year college, university of vocational school are eligible to apply for this scholarship amounting to either $5,000 to $10,000.


    • The Andrew Piech Memorial ScholarshipThis scholarship provides up to $2,200 to New Mexico students studying in an automotive tech program or other technical vocational field.
    • Automotive Hall of FameThe Automotive Hall of Fame provides postsecondary education scholarships to students who have a genuine interest in an automotive profession.
    • Women in Auto CareThis professional organization provides several scholarships each year to women in high school and postsecondary schools who intend to have a career in the automotive industry.


    • American Association of Cosmetology SchoolsThrough the Beauty Changes Lives Foundation, the AACS offers up to nine scholarships and grants for future careers in the beauty and wellness fields.
    • Karmin Professional$500 scholarships are available to all students for use at any hair dressing school of the student’s choice.
    • Minerva BeautyIn partnership with the Professional Beauty Association, Minerva Beauty offers ten $1,000 scholarships to students wishing to have a career in cosmetology.


    • American Culinary FederationThis organization offers a variety of scholarships to high school and college students who seek formal education to advance their culinary careers.
    • Culinary Institute of America ScholarshipsOffers numerous scholarships to enrolled students at its New York, California and Texas campuses.
    • Hungry to Lead ScholarshipThis consists of four individual scholarships awarded to four students who are seeking an education to work in the foodservice or hospitality industry.


    • CIRI FoundationThe CIRI Foundation promotes and preserves culture and heritage of Alaska Natives from the Cook Inlet region. It offers multiple vocational training grants of up to $4,500 per year to a CIRI original enrollee or direct lineal descendant.
    • Pell GrantA federal grant available to undergraduate students, including those attending vocational schools, awarded primarily on financial need.
    • Union PlusCurrent or retired members of unions, as well as their immediate family members are eligible for scholarships ranging from $500 to $4,000 for their postsecondary studies, including community college, trade and vocational schools.

Though online scholarship opportunities are easier and faster to find, that is also where everyone else is looking, and many of the scholarship opportunities that are less competitive are advertised via word of mouth. Students should absolutely apply to scholarships they find online, but also call local community organizations, local unions, and any organizations their parents are members of or otherwise involved in. Ask family members if their employers or organizations offer any scholarships. I often have students who get scholarships because Uncle Bob is a member of ABC group and they were offering a scholarship.

Elisia Howard, M.E

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