FAFSA Decoded: Federal Aid at Community College

There is no doubt that a degree from a community college can be a major gateway to economic opportunity, whether the graduate transfers to a four-year school or gains the credentials needed to earn more money and advance in a career.

However, no matter the benefits of earning an associate degree, the typical price tag of $2,500 per year (according to the College Board) is beyond the means of many low-income families who could stand to gain the most.

Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

For many individuals, filling out the FAFSA form can make graduating from a community college a real financial possibility. And yet, half of students at two-year schools with families earning less than $20,000 annually did not fill out a FAFSA form. Many of these students miss the deadline or assume they won’t qualify for aid when they likely will. By getting started on this admittedly complex paperwork as soon as possible, you’ll get a better sense of the federal financial resources available to support your educational goals at a community college.

Because of how the tax and academic years are structured, it makes the most sense to begin filling out the FAFSA as soon as you receive your tax documentation from employers around the New Year. Most community colleges will have filing and application deadlines that give you enough time to fill out the paperwork in the first few months of the year, but it is important to check with the schools to which you apply about the exact schedule.

Note that you can complete the FAFSA before filing your taxes by using estimated figures. Once you’ve completed your federal and state tax returns, you can update the FAFSA with the official numbers.

If you do receive a financial aid offer from a community college or are planning to attend regardless, take into account how much financial aid will save you, the balance on the tuition and other expenses that you will be responsible for, and the investment of time that earning a degree will require since these demands may limit the number hours you can devote to your current job.

Eyes on the Prize

With all of these challenges in mind, don’t lose sight of the growing wage premium for degree earners. People with associate degrees earn around $500,000 more over the course of a lifetime than do high school graduates. The wage premium for those with bachelor’s degrees is double that.

Financial aid may be a critical ingredient for your community college success. To make sure you’re not missing out on the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree, be sure to get started on your FAFSA application as soon as you can and to inquire with college financial aid offices about more opportunities for funding. You might be surprised by the opportunities that exist!


Carnevale, A. P. (2011, January 14). College Is Still Worth It. College Is Still Worth It @insidehighered. Retrieved July 14, 2014, from Inside Higher Ed

Long, B. T. (2010) “Financial Aid: A Key to Community College Student Success.” Issue Brief prepared for the White House Summit on Community Colleges, October 5th. FAFSA - Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA on the Web)