3 Important Things to Understand About Transfer Financial Aid

If you're transferring colleges and worried about costs, don't be—it can be more affordable than you think! Here's what to know about transfer financial aid.

So you've decided to transfer and are considering school options. Great! While there are many factors to think about when selecting a school, don't rule out the possibility of attending a college or university because the cost of attendance. Transferring can be more affordable than you think, and it's an important investment in your future. Reflect on the things that matter to you and your family as you identify schools for your transfer. Look at the costs, including out-of-pocket spending and total borrowing, and determine how much it will be worth when you earn that degree. But keep in mind, though costs should be included in your transfer decision-making process, they don’t necessarily have to be the sole reason to exclude a particular school that fits other aspects you want. There are many ways to make your transfer affordable.

Go ahead and apply; the cost might be lower than you expect once you factor in scholarships and other need-based aid. For example, one myth many students believe is that they won't be able to afford a private college or university in comparison to a state school. The reality is when a student compares financial aid packages (both need and merit based) and the benefits of a private college or university education to their alternatives, it might be the best overall value. Ultimately, it’s best to find schools you think are a good fit for you, apply, and make an informed decision considering all of the factors. Here are three important things you need to understand when it comes to getting aid as a transfer student.

1. How to apply for financial aid

Every school that offers federal aid (and that’s the vast majority of them, though there are a handful of outliers) will require you to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). However, many colleges and universities, particularly private schools, ask for additional types of documentation to finish applying for financial aid. That’s because private schools may offer institutional aid and may have different methodology for determining how institutional funds are awarded. One common form that many private schools ask for is the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile through the College Board. Keep in mind the CSS Profile does cost money: $25, with an additional cost of $16 per school that you add.

Some colleges and universities also participate in the Institutional Documentation Service (IDOC), another service through the College Board. This one is free, though! The College Board will notify you by email if your school wants you to complete the IDOC process. IDOC is a service that allows students to upload electronic copies of their family’s taxes, W-2s, and more and then provides them to the school via a secure portal. Don’t let these various application elements daunt you! As long as you plan ahead and stay on top of your deadlines, it should be a relatively straightforward process. And a prospective school will always communicate with you if they need any other documents as part of your application.

Related: Important Questions About Transfer Financial Aid, Answered

2. How to apply for scholarships

As you’re considering particular colleges, see if there are merit scholarship opportunities available for transfer students. It varies by school, but many do have additional money to award to fantastic transfer applicants like you! For example, private colleges and universities may be more likely to have scholarships that are awarded specifically to transfer applicants, since they may have heftier endowments with funds especially allotted for that purpose. Institutional scholarships can range from a few thousand dollars up to full tuition. Some schools even offer additional endowed awards—scholarships that come from a donor and are granted to students who meet particular criteria set by the donor—that cover books, room and board, or other expenses. It’s important to confirm whether your transfer colleges have a separate scholarship application process and, if so, when the deadlines are and who awards scholarships. Depending on the institution, the admission office, financial aid office, and/or individual academic departments may be awarding scholarships. Understanding the breakdown at your potential colleges can help you direct any questions you may have about scholarships to the appropriate department.

Types of transfer scholarships

For those who are transferring from a community college, many institutions have scholarships reserved specifically for Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society members. If you’re attending a community college, becoming a Phi Theta Kappa member can help you develop leadership skills, give back to your community, and engage with fellow scholar students. It’s a wonderful organization that encourages outstanding two-year college students to strive for more and can help you earn scholarship money at four-year schools. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation also awards thousands of dollars in scholarships to help top community college students transfer each year. 

Students are considered for scholarships based upon a variety of factors. Many things included in your application information—such as academic performance, involvement on campus, leadership, areas of interest, personal qualities, and life experiences—will come into play. Merit scholarships are awarded to students to acknowledge their accomplishments and potential future contributions, regardless of their financial need. Other scholarships will be incorporated into a student’s overall need-based financial aid package.

Scholarship opportunities for transfer students

You’ll find transfer scholarships offered by individual colleges and universities as well as your home state, so be sure to ask your transfer counselor about the opportunities that might be available to you! In the meantime, take a look at these national awards:

  • Undergraduate Transfer ScholarshipOffered by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, this scholarship of up to $55,000 per year is awarded based on academic achievement, financial need, persistence, leadership, and compassion. Applicants must be a current student or recent graduate from an accredited US community college or two-year institution with sophomore status planning to enroll in a full-time, accredited baccalaureate program.
  • Phi Theta Kappa Transfer Student ScholarshipsMembers of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society may be eligible for a number of different transfer scholarships. The organization partners with 800 four-year colleges that offer nearly $250 million in scholarships just for PTK members, with average awards totaling $2,500 a year.
  • Scholarships for Military ChildrenStudents at community and junior colleges designed for direct transfer to four-year programs are eligible for these awards from the Fisher House Foundation. Applicants must be children of active-duty, reserve/guard, deceased, or retired members of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, or Space Force. Hundreds of $2,000 scholarships are awarded through this program each year.

Related: How Can I Afford to Transfer to My Dream School?

3. How to understand your financial aid package

Before you start applying to transfer colleges and universities, it’s usually a good idea to check out their Net Price Calculator. According to federal regulations, all schools are required to have one. Some schools offer a calculator that is specific to transfer students, while others just have a general estimator. Either way, it’s a good way to input some basic financial information and get a rough idea of what your financial aid package may look like. This will help you figure out if the school may be affordable for you or not.

Gift aid vs. loans

When you’re evaluating your financial aid package, you’ll want to carefully consider the amount of gift aid versus the other aid you’re receiving. Gift aid is the money that does not need to be repaid, like grants and scholarships. If it’s not gift aid, it’s likely financial aid that will either need to be repaid (like loans) or that you’ll have to work to earn (like federal work-study). Be thoughtful when deciding how much loan funding you are comfortable borrowing. There are a variety of different loan repayment estimators available from organizations like the US Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid office and Big Future by the College Board that can help you assess what your monthly payments might look like after graduation. If you receive any outside scholarships, always be sure to check with your transfer school to see how it will impact your financial aid package too. Some colleges will count it against what your family can contribute, where it will replace funding like loans and work-study, while other schools will swap it directly for grants.

If you are still worried about paying for school after receiving your financial aid package, talk to the financial aid office! The counselors want to help you figure out how to make your education affordable and are there to help answer your questions. If there are special circumstances they may not have previously known about, you can always inform them and request a re-evaluation of your aid package. Some colleges will have other resources available, like payment plans, which can make paying for school a little bit easier. So don’t be scared of your friendly financial aid counselor!

Related: Student Financial Aid Guide: All About Scholarships, Grants, and Loans
While transferring might be an intimidating process, remember that it’s an investment in your future. Recognizing how much you’re spending and borrowing for college is important, but it’s even more important to consider how much you could earn and accomplish in the decades beyond. Make sure you do your due diligence to learn about the school, apply for funds that are available, ask questions, and then make an informed decision. Transferring—even to a seemingly expensive private college or university—can absolutely be a financially feasible option when you’ve taken the time to understand the full scope of your investment, opportunities, and financial aid package.  

Pay off your transfer in no time—use our Scholarship Search tool to find awards that fit you, your interests, and your transfer college.

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