Financial Aid Overview and Scholarships

You will likely have to combine different types of aid over the course of your college career.

Paying for school can end up being a lifelong commitment, so it’s important to understand your financial aid options before you start your social work program. In this guide, we’ll go over some of the most common types of aid and the challenges associated with them, ending with a selection of scholarships for social work that can help reduce your costs and the time spent paying for school.

Getting money to pay for college can be difficult, but between all the available social work scholarships, loans, and grants, there are plenty of options out there. The main challenge is finding sources that will leave you with as little debt as possible once you graduate. Scholarships are your best option, but you will likely have to combine different types of aid over the course of your college career. This guide will give you a brief overview of those types of aid, where to find them, and how to repay them.

Paying for Your Social Work Degree and Licensure With Financial Aid


The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is your first step toward paying for college, and you should fill one out regardless of how you plan to pay for school. The FAFSA will help you find grants, loans, and work-study programs. As long as you have a social security number, are registered for selective service (if male), have financial need, and go to an accredited school, you qualify for aid from the government.

To apply, you will need your tax information (and your parents’ if you’re a dependent), as well as proof of identity like a driver’s license, state ID, or Alien Registration Number. The FAFSA is free, and if you encounter a site that asks you to pay to apply, that isn’t the official FAFSA website. The form becomes available Oct. 1 of each year (allowing you to apply for the following year), and can be submitted through June of the year for which you’re seeking aid.

Money you receive through the FAFSA can come in several forms, but just applying for this aid doesn’t mean that you are accepting it. You will have to do that separately each semester, allowing you to refuse money that you don’t need if you don’t want to accrue more loans. Since the FAFSA is free, it’s always worth your time to submit because you may qualify for grants — which don’t have to be repaid — even if you otherwise have costs covered through scholarships or other funds.

Determining Your Financial Need

There are a few terms that come up during the FAFSA process that help determine how much money you need and how much you can get. Cost of attendance (COA) is the total of your tuition, books, housing, and other associated costs. Estimated family contribution (EFC) is how much you and your family are expected to be able to contribute. Neither is an exact number, but they do help determine the need-based and non-need-based aid you may qualify for.

By subtracting your EFC from your COA, the government figures out how much money you need to cover college costs, which is known as need-based aid.

Need-based programs include Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), direct subsidized loans, Perkins loans, and work-study.

Any additional money is non-need-based, which is determined by subtracting your awarded money from your COA without taking into account your EFC. This is effectively how much more money you can get in the form of unsubsidized loans, federal PLUS loans, and Teacher Education Access for College and Higher Education (TEACH) grants.

Sources of Financial Aid

School Aid

School aid is provided by the college or university you are attending and comes in a variety of forms, including stipends, loans, grants, and scholarships. This aid can be more difficult to qualify for because schools have less available funds than the government, and they create more demanding requirements. Schools only award aid to their own students, and they often have a variety of other requirements that federal and state aid doesn’t.

Federal Aid

This aid comes from the federal government and is received through the FAFSA. It offers the largest awards and the widest range of options. It comes in all of the forms discussed above and has generous repayment options. Most schools participate in federal aid programs, and the government helps roughly 13 million students attend college by disbursing over $120 billion each year.

State Financial Aid

States offer financial aid through grants, loans, and work-study programs. These funds are not as deep as federal funds, so awards tend to be smaller. Additionally, they are usually restricted to residents and occasionally to those who are attending school in that state as well. State financial aid often allows for similar interest rates and repayment options as those offered by federal aid.

Privately Funded Scholarships

This aid comes from sources outside of schools and governments, including trusts, corporations, and nonprofits. Scholarships are almost always geared toward specific populations, such as women or Native Americans. They might be tied to specific states or institutions and could require letters of recommendation, essays, and minimum GPAs. There are numerous social work scholarships for graduates and undergraduates out there designed specifically to support this important field.

Types of Financial Aid

Grants are generally rewarded for undergraduate education only to students who demonstrate financial need. They are available from federal and state sources, and while they are generally small amounts of money relative to the entire cost of a degree, they do not need to be paid back. If awarded, grants make up a small portion of any given student’s financial aid package, but they should be the first awards you accept in order to help reduce loans.
Federal Loans
Federal loans are the most widely used type of financial aid and tend to provide the bulk of a student’s aid package. Like any other loan, they must be repaid with interest, but federal loans have a few advantages. Interest rates are low and generally don’t accrue until after graduation, and there are loan forgiveness programs available depending on your career path after finishing your degree.
Private Loans
Like federal loans, these must be repaid with interest, but they come from banks, credit unions, or other lenders. These loans have higher interest that begins accruing immediately and can be harder to repay, as banks are able to garnish wages and take other actions to get their money back. Many of these factors depend on your credit, and private loans might require a cosigner.
Work-study programs help you pay for school by getting you work, often on or around campus, in order to help pay your way through college. These programs can be difficult for nontraditional students who may already have jobs or other commitments, making their schedules much less flexible than the typical undergraduate. Work-study is usually paired with other aid types in order to cover all costs, but it can provide valuable working experience.

Federal Grants

The grant types listed below are offered by the federal government and can be used toward universities, colleges, and trade schools. They go to students with demonstrated financial need (except for TEACH) and don’t need to be repaid. You have to submit a FAFSA to receive any such grants, but the good news is that they are quite common even though they are small amounts of money. If you withdraw from classes covered by the grant you may have to repay it.

  • Federal Pell Grants These grants are only for undergraduates who have not yet completed a degree and offer up to $6,095 per academic year, generally split between fall and spring semesters.
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants These grants range between $100 to $4,000 per academic year and are awarded directly by the financial aid office of participating schools.
  • TEACH Grants These grants are intended for students enrolled in education programs who plan to teach after graduation. They award up to $4,000 per academic year but turn into loans if you don’t go on to teach.
  • Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants This grant is only for students whose parent or guardian was a service member who died in Iraq or Afghanistan during the conflicts following 9/11.

State Grants

State governments also provide grants to help students afford the cost of college. Usually, these are restricted to in-state residents, but exceptions do exist. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators maintains a website where you can search for grants and other funding options by state. You can use this site to find more aid options to help pay for your degree.

Finding Scholarships

Taking Out Loans to Pay for Your Social Work Degree

Many students end up taking out loans in order to pay for college. Grants and scholarships are preferable, but they often leave gaps in your funding. More than 70% of university students have loan debt when they graduate. However much you need to borrow for school, take some time to think about it and aim to borrow as little as possible. These loans deal with large sums of money that add up quickly, and not all loans are created equally.

What Kind of Loan Should You Take Out?

Private loans should be a last resort and used to cover as little of your costs as possible.

When it comes to applying for loans, you want to focus your energy on federal loans. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) offers loans at lower interest rates with more generous repayment options than do private lenders. Federal loans come in two forms: subsidized and unsubsidized. The former are only available to undergraduates and do not require you to pay interest while you are enrolled at least half time and for the first six months after you graduate. For the latter, you can choose not to pay interest during those same times, but interest will accrue regardless. Under some circumstances, your federal loans can be forgiven, but these are rare. For the most part, you’ll have your loans until you pay them off, though they will not count against your credit score.

Private student loans require you to apply for them like any other loan and may require a cosigner. These loans can have much higher and more variable interest rates, and the bank or other lender from which you borrow can change terms or make repayment demands that the government will not. Private loans should be a last resort and used to cover as little of your costs as possible.

Loan Repayment

The ED provides two main plans for repayment: standard and income-driven. In the former, you will generally be expected to pay your loan off over the course of 10 years, and so your monthly payment will be determined by dividing your loans over 120 months. If this isn’t possible, you can apply for income-driven repayment, in which your monthly payment will be based on how much you make. This plan will take longer, but if you have minimal earnings, it can make a huge difference.

If you can’t pay your loans, there are a few options for loan forgiveness or cancellation, but these are hard to achieve. Instead, the government allows you to change your repayment plan, change the due date on your payments, or consolidate your loans into one, so you only have to make one payment per month.

If you want to get a sense of how much repayment is going to cost you, there is a Repayment Estimator available from the ED, which can give you detailed information based on your loan amounts, interest rates, and income.

Loan Forgiveness

Though loan forgiveness is rare, the easiest path to it comes through public service. If you work for the government or in tax-exempt nonprofits, you can have your loans forgiven after 10 years, provided you manage to pay toward them during that time (including income-driven repayment). This is a greater possibility for social workers than many other professionals, since most positions in the field are for government agencies or nonprofits.

There are several requirements, like having to work full time, and 10 years is counted as 10 years of qualifying time, not simply 10 calendar years. You can submit the paperwork for loan forgiveness after you’ve made 120 qualifying payments, meaning those that you made while being employed full time in a qualifying job. While this type of loan forgiveness does take a long time, if you’re on an income-driven repayment plan it can be especially helpful, as you may not have been paying your loan off in less than ten years anyway. Public service loan forgiveness is a smart way to deal with repayment, and it’s important to consider it ahead of time.

Financial Aid for Graduate Students

Outside of specific scholarships for social work, graduate students don’t have access to all the same financial aid options as undergraduates. Pell Grants, for example, aren’t applied to graduate school, but there are other options that make up for these differences. Most other types of federal financial aid, including other types of grants, are still available to graduate students.

There are many scholarships for master’s in social work students, and there are fewer people competing for them than for less specific awards.

Research and teaching assistantships are usually only available to graduate students. Assistantships cover tuition costs and provide a stipend to cover cost of living expenses. In return, students with assistantships work alongside faculty to aid in their research, help teach classes and grade papers, and even teach classes of their own. Ideally, an assistantship will help provide hands-on training in your field of choice, furthering you in your profession and making you a more valuable employee. Many graduate programs at larger universities aim to provide all students with assistantships in order to ensure they don’t have to worry about outside work while completing their program, as well as to reduce the cost of their education.

There are many scholarships for master’s in social work students, and there are fewer people competing for them than for less specific awards. Scholarships for graduate students in social work not only help pay for college, but look great on resumes. Internships can also be helpful, allowing graduate students to work within their field and receive money for college. Fellowships are a late-stage option that can help get you started on a career.

Social Work Scholarships

Bethesda Lutheran Communities Scholarship $3,000

Who Can Apply: Lutheran students earning a bachelor of social work or other degree and intending to work with people with intellectual or developmental disabilities within a congregational setting. Minimum 3.0 GPA required.

Amount: $3,000

View Scholarship

Cenie ‘Jomo’ Williams Tuition Scholarship $2,500

Who Can Apply: African-American or African students with a commitment to social work within black communities, NABSW member in good standing, full-time enrollment in a social work program with a 2.5 GPA or higher.

Amount: $2,500

View Scholarship

Davis-Putter Scholarship Fund Up to $10,000

Who Can Apply: Students with a demonstrated financial need, a proven commitment to social justice or progressive movements, and a plan to continue working within these movements in the U.S.

Amount: Up to $10,000

View Scholarship

Jane B. Aron Doctoral Fellowship $15,500

Who Can Apply: Graduate student in social work whose dissertation topic focuses on health policy and practice, with a preference for those which contain a diversity element.

Amount: $15,500

View Scholarship

Phi Alpha Awards Programs $500 to $3,000

Who Can Apply: Members of the Phi Alpha Honors Society for Social Work.

Amount: $500 to $3,000

View Scholarship

NWSA Graduate Scholarship $1,000

Who Can Apply: Graduate student members of the National Women’s Studies Association who are in the research or writing stage of a thesis or dissertation relating to women’s studies.

Amount: $1,000

View Scholarship

NWSA Women of Color Caucus-Frontiers Student Essay Award $500

Who Can Apply: Graduate women of color who are members of the NWSA and in a graduate/professional program with a focus on the experience of women and girls of color in the U.S. and the diaspora.

Amount: $500

View Scholarship

Emma & Meloid Algood Tuition Scholarship $1,000

Who Can Apply: African-American or African student members of the NABSW pursuing a BSW with at least a 2.5 GPA.

Amount: $1,000

View Scholarship

The Guynn Family Foundation Book Scholarship $250

Who Can Apply: African-American student and member of the NABSW with full-time enrollment, a minimum of 40 hours of community service in an underserved African-American community, and an expressed research interest in the black community.

Amount: $250

View Scholarship

Delois Whitaker-Caldwell Tuition Scholarship $1,000

Who Can Apply: Full-time African-American or African students with a minimum 2.5 GPA and a research interest in public policy that directly impacts black communities.

Amount: $1,000

View Scholarship

Scholarships for Master’s in Social Work Students

Carl A. Scott Memorial Fund Book Scholarship $500

Who Can Apply: Graduate students of social work in their last year of study who are citizens or legal residents of the United States. Must be a full-time student in a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, have a GPA of 3.0 or higher, and a proven commitment to social justice.

Amount: $500

View Scholarship

Consuelo W. Gosnell Memorial MSW Scholarship $4,000

Who Can Apply: MSW students affiliated or committed to working with Native American, Alaskan Native, or Latino populations, or have shown a dedication to nonprofit work.

Amount: $4,000

View Scholarship

Ima Hogg Scholarship $5,000

Who Can Apply: MSW students at accredited schools in Texas who are entering their second year, are nominated by a dean, can show financial need, and demonstrate a commitment to mental health services in Texas.

Amount: $5,000

View Scholarship

Harry S. Truman Scholarship Up to $30,000

Who Can Apply: Undergraduates who intend to pursue a MSW or related degree dedicated to public service. Must be a U.S. citizen or U.S. national.

Amount: Up to $30,000

View Scholarship

Verne LaMarr Lyons Memorial MSW Scholarship Up to $5,500

Who Can Apply: MSW student with experience or interest in health/mental health practice and dedication to working within African-American communities.

Amount: Up to $5,500

View Scholarship