Can You Get Paid to Go to College?

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Editor's Note: This story originally appeared on The Penny Hoarder.

College is only getting more expensive, but that doesn’t mean it has to be out of reach. There are multiple ways to pay for school with grants and scholarships if you can’t pay for it on your own dime.

In fact, depending on your family setup and financial situation, you may be able to get paid to go to college.

Let’s explore how a combination of federal grants, state grants and scholarships can help you get your degree and put cash back in your pocket.

Apply for FAFSA Grants

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The U.S. Department of Education recently rolled out a new process for FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, but it resulted in delays. Applications for the 2024-25 FAFSA won’t begin processing to schools until the middle of March, leaving American college students and universities in limbo.

There may also be changes in amounts for Pell Grants, which are designed to help low-income students, depending on congressional action over the next few months.

But let’s put all that aside for a moment. For the time being, the FAFSA application itself is open and the maximum Pell Grant amount for the 2024-25 school year is $7,395.

Qualifying for the maximum Pell Grant is easier than you may think – especially if you’re a nontraditional student.

Income limits can go as high as six figures depending on your family size.

If you are lower income, you may qualify for a Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) grant in addition to the Pell Grant, which has traditionally offered up to an additional $4,000 to students’ federal aid packages.

Look Up the Cost of Community College

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In most parts of the country, community college tuition costs less than the full Pell grant. If your federal grant funding is more than tuition, the college will refund you the difference back via a check.

You can then use that money to pay for things like books, rent and food while you’re studying. At the end of the day, you’re getting paid to go to college!

Sound too good to be true? While your skepticism is understandable, it’s 100% true. Let’s take a look at a few examples from schools across the country, assuming that you’re paying in-state tuition.

If you have an FSEOG grant, too, you can expect your refund numbers to be even higher.

Examples of Getting Paid to Go to College

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Community College of Philadelphia:

  • Approximate tuition and fees for one year of study: $5,368
  • Max Pell grant: $7,395
  • Difference refunded to student: $2,027

Oklahoma City Community College:

  • Approximate tuition and fees for one year of study: $3,517.54
  • Max Pell grant: $7,395
  • Difference refunded to student: $3,877.46

San Diego Community College System:

  • Approximate tuition and fees for one year of study: $1,242
  • Max Pell grant: $7,395
  • Difference refunded to student: $6,153

What if I Get Scholarships?

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If you’re using this method to pay for college, be mindful about which scholarships you apply for. Some scholarships can only be used to get your tuition down to $0, so they wouldn’t always help in this situation where you’re getting money back.

But other scholarships allow for this refundable setup. That means the extra dollars they bring in would put even more money back in your pocket each semester.

Just be sure to read the fine print before you bank on any particular scholarship playing nice with your federal grants.

What if I Want a 4-Year Degree?

Graduate with cash
Lisa F. Young /

Depending on where you live, you may be able to use this strategy to finish your bachelor’s — it’s not just for associate degrees.

For example, Florida State University’s tuition and fees for off-campus, in-state students is $5,666. If you received a full Pell grant, you’d have $1,729 refunded to you throughout the school year. If you have FSEOG grants or refundable scholarships, all the better.

If you don’t live in a state with low tuition rates for state universities, you can still use the Pell grant to make things affordable. For example, Oregon State University charges $13,791 for tuition and fees for in-state students.

Even if you get the max Pell grant amount, you’ll still have $6,396 left on your tuition bill. Well, when you fill out the FAFSA, you should be prompted to apply for state grants, too. Oregon offers a number of state grants, but of particular interest is the Oregon Opportunity Grant.

It’s needs based, and in years past has gone to residents with an Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) of $8,000 or less on the FAFSA. That’s higher than the max EFC for a Pell Grant was. So if you had a Pell Grant, you should have also qualified for the Oregon Opportunity Grant.

The grant pays anywhere from $3,000 to $7,524, and as a Pell grant recipient you’d be more likely to be on the higher end. That makes it completely possible that the state grant could cover the remaining $6,396.

Use Grants and Scholarships to Reduce Student Loans

College students studying together.
Jacob Lund /

Don’t leave that FAFSA or state grant money on the table. If you strategize your education, you can use this money to study for free — or even get paid to go to college.

It’s easier to get FAFSA funding if you’re an independent student, and the calculations above don’t account for room and board. They assume you’re living off campus and likely working at least a part-time job to cover your remaining living expenses.

Sometimes, that’s not going to be possible, and you’ll find yourself in a situation where you need to take out student loans so you can pay for tuition and other needs.

There’s no shame in that, but ensure you’ve minimized that potential debt burden by filling out the FAFSA and any state grant applications, and applying for as many scholarships as you possibly can.

There’s free money out there, and if you plan ahead, you could get paid to go to college.

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