by Michelle Clifton, former financial aid officer at Babson College

One common misconception when it comes to community college is that students are on the hook to cover the entire expense out of their own resources. The cost of community college may be significantly less than a four-year institution, but financial aid options are still widely available! Many community college financial aid offices assist their students in completing the financial aid application—the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and counsel them on the implications of borrowing loans.


Need-based grants, such as Federal Pell, Federal Supplemental Opportunity Grant (SEOG), and state grants may be awarded based on financial need as determined by the FAFSA. If eligible, these grants may end up covering a significant portion of the tuition and fees. If the total financial aid exceeds the tuition and fees, the financial aid office may provide a book voucher to purchase/rent textbooks and course-related supplies at the campus bookstore. It is important to note that although community colleges traditionally have a rolling admission process and can enroll students up to the start of classes, Federal SEOG and state grants may have limited funding and/or priority deadlines, so students are encouraged to complete their FAFSA early and include their local community college even if applying to four-year programs.


Probably even more surprising to families is that many community colleges offer scholarships. They often have foundation scholarships with specific criteria, like major/field, academic performance, community involvement, nontraditional student, city/town/state of residence, or specific interest. Some scholarships may have a financial need component, but others may not. Either way, it is important to apply for these scholarships with the financial aid office early! The longer you wait, the less scholarship funding will be available.

Student Loans

Federal Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized loans are available for U.S. citizens and eligible noncitizens at community college by filing the FAFSA and enrolling at least half-time (six credits). Borrowers may not have defaulted on a prior student loan or have previously reached the aggregate loan limits. While federal loans typically cover a good chunk, if not all, of the cost at community college, private student loans may be borrowed in lieu of or in addition.

Satisfactory Academic Progress

Just like at four-year institutions, students enrolled in community college need to meet Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) in order to maintain their financial aid. The student handbook and/or financial aid website will define each school’s SAP policy, which will identify the minimum GPA students must maintain and the percentage of credits required to complete. Students who do not meet those standards will be notified that they will be on financial aid warning for one term. If they continue to not meet SAP, they will be placed on financial aid suspension where financial aid funds (including federal, state, and institutional funds) will not be awarded.

Many students do not realize that you can appeal a financial aid suspension. It is vital to respond promptly and, if the appeal is approved, your student will be allowed to keep their financial aid for one probationary term. If they still do not meet SAP, then they may need to successfully complete a specific number of credits until financial aid is restored for future terms. Students who find themselves in over their head academically are urged to talk to their professors and reach out to the tutoring center on campus to potentially avoid any SAP issues.

Payment Plan

Many community colleges offer payment plans for students who have an amount to pay out of pocket that is not covered by financial aid, but would prefer to spread out that cost. They are often offered on a per term basis in two, three, or four-month options. Connect with the billing office (often referred to as Student Accounts, Bursar, or Student Financial Services) to learn how to sign up. Some colleges use a third party payment plan provider to administer and collect payments.

Tips for Success

  • Meet deadlines:
    • File the FAFSA early and include your local community college as a listed school.
    • Apply for scholarships by their deadlines.
  • Communication:
    • Check email and respond to financial aid correspondence timely—if they are reaching out to you, they likely need something from you. Not responding will hold up the processing of your financial aid. Financial aid officers at community colleges review a large number of applications each week, so please be patient and give them time to process.

The bottom line here: there may be funding available; plan for all enrollment possibilities even if community college is not the initial plan; and apply early for financial aid and scholarships.

Determine the Best Way to Pay for College

Written by Michelle Clifton
Michelle Clifton is a college finance expert at College Coach. Before joining College Coach, she was a Senior Financial Aid Officer at Babson College and a Student Loan Officer at Rhode Island School of Design. Visit our website to learn more about Michelle Clifton.