As college costs rise, many students are looking for ways to get a higher education without going broke. One approach is to attend school part time.
With half-time enrollment, you’ll have more flexibility to work, look after your family or attend to other responsibilities. You may also save money, since tuition is based on course credits.
And yes, the government offers financial aid for part-time students, as long as you take at least six credits per semester.
Let’s take a closer look at how federal loans and other financial aid for part-time students can help reduce your overall college debt.
Federal financial aid for part-time students
The Department of Education stipulates that you must be enrolled half-time to qualify for federal financial aid. Not sure how many credits is part time? For government-funded assistance, half-time enrollment is defined as a minimum of six credit hours each semester.
This is good news for part-time college students. Federal grants and work-study programs offer cash for college, and federal loans tend to have lower interest rates and more flexible repayment terms than private student loans.
But before you resort to borrowing federal loans, scan your school’s financial aid award letter for funds that don’t need to be repaid, such as grants and scholarships.
Pell Grants, for instance, offer up to $6,895 for the 2022-23 school year and are reserved for lower-income students who attend classes at least half time. Your final award amount will be adjusted based on your enrollment status.
Likewise, federal work-study jobs, which provide part-time employment to help with tuition costs, are also available to part-time students with proven financial need.
When these programs aren’t enough, consider the following three federal student loans available to part-time undergraduate students:
1. Direct subsidized loan
2. Direct unsubsidized loan
3. Direct PLUS loan
● Plus: How much can you borrow?
● Plus: What about the FAFSA for part-time students?
1. Direct subsidized loan
To qualify for Direct subsidized loans, you have to be an undergraduate student with proven financial need and at least half-time enrollment. The Department of Education sets federal student loan limits, but it’s ultimately up to the school to determine how much you can borrow.
The real benefit to this type of federal loan is that the government covers interest charges while you’re in school and during your grace period. In the end, this can help reduce your overall cost of borrowing.
2. Direct unsubsidized loan
As with Direct subsidized loans, the school will decide how much you can borrow in Direct unsubsidized loans — but you won’t need to demonstrate financial need to qualify.
With an unsubsidized loan, you’re responsible for all interest charges. You can defer payments until after you graduate, but keep in mind that interest will accrue while you’re enrolled.
3. Direct PLUS loan
Parent PLUS Loans are another option for part-time students. Your parents can take out a PLUS loan to help cover your educational costs, borrowing up to your cost of attendance minus other financial aid you’ve received.
To qualify, your parents cannot have an adverse credit history. They can defer payments until after your graduation, though they’ll be responsible for the total amount of the loan — including all accrued interest.
Note that PLUS loans are also offered to graduate students — though if this is you, you might want to exhaust your Direct unsubsidized loans first, as they have lower interest rates.
How much can you borrow?
Just as with full-time students, financial aid for part time students comes with the following annual limits if you’re an undergraduate:
|Undergraduate student loan borrowing limits|
|First year (0-29 credits)||● Dependent student: $5,500 (with a $3,500 cap on subsidized loans)
● Independent student: $9,500 (with a $3,500 cap on subsidized loans)
|Second year (29.1-59 credits)||● Dependent student: $6,500 (with a $4,500 cap on subsidized loans)
● Independent student: $10,500 (with a $4,500 cap on subsidized loans)
|Third year and beyond (59.1 credits or more)||● Dependent student: $7,500 (with a $5,500 cap on subsidized loans)
● Independent student: $12,500 (with a $5,500 cap on subsidized loans)
The situation is different, however, if your parent was denied a PLUS loan or if you’re a graduate student. You should also note that there are separate aggregate limits that cap how much you can borrow in total as an undergrad, or as a graduate or professional student. For all the details, see our guide to student loan borrowing limits.
What about the FAFSA for part-time students?
Fortunately, the FAFSA process for part-time versus full-time students is the same: Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and submit it by June 30 at the latest. Make sure you double-check the deadlines with your school, though, as it might require an earlier deadline — and since some aid is first-come-first-served, apply as soon as you can.
For more information about federal student loans in general, check out our full guide.
More sources of financial aid for part-time students
If federal financial aid for part-time students, including grants and work-study, don’t cover your college costs, other sources of aid could lessen your federal loan borrowing.
You could also consider:
And if borrowing is still necessary, federal student loans could be supplemented by private student loans. Specifically, you’ll want to consider part-time student loans from private lenders.
Unlike federal loans, which are issued by the government, private loans are offered by independent financial institutions, like a bank or credit union. Because of this, your eligibility, interest rates and repayment terms can vary — that’s why it’s important to shop around to find the best private student loans.
To qualify, lenders might review your credit score and debt-to-income ratio. If you have poor or unestablished credit, you could get a cosigner. The better your (or your cosigner’s) credit score, the more likely you’ll secure a lower interest rate.
Keep in mind that many lenders have loan minimums, sometimes as low as $1,000 to $1,500. If you’re attending college half time, you might not need to borrow enough money to meet this requirement. Speak with your potential lender to determine whether you qualify for a loan.
In addition, try using one of our student loan calculators to get an idea of what your private student loan payments will look like.
Access financial aid for part-time students
If you’re not attending school full time, you should feel confident knowing there are many available options for financial aid for part-time students.
It’s always best to secure as much money as possible through scholarships and grants before considering your loan options. If you need loans, prioritize federal ones before looking into private lenders since they offer extra benefits, such as income-driven repayment plans and student loan forgiveness programs. But remember: If you drop below half-time status, you won’t qualify for federal aid.
And since you won’t have a full course load, you might want to consider getting a part-time job. Earning extra cash can help you cover college costs, thus eliminating the need for more student loans.
In the end, the less money you borrow means the less interest you’ll pay.