Financial Aid Overview & Scholarships

For many prospective students researching criminal justice programs, the price of college can make it seem like earning a degree represents a financial burden rather than a financial benefit. However, multiple financial aid options exist to help students finance their education with minimal debt. Criminal justice scholarships, grants, and federal loans all exist to help students avoid the debt trap.

Criminal justice scholarships, grants, and federal loans all exist to help students avoid the debt trap.

The easiest and best way to obtain the right financial aid begins with starting your research as soon as possible, even up to a year before starting a criminal justice program. Research the cost of attendance for potential programs and compare it to the financing options to which you can apply.

The federal government created the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as a method to determine a college students' ability to pay for their educations. Like annual tax filings, the FAFSA asks applicants questions related to their past and present finances. If the applicant still lives at home with their parents or other family members, the FAFSA asks for financial information from these family members as well. Every year, the FAFSA opens on Oct. 1, the results of which qualify students for financial aid for the following academic year. The application window closes on June 30.

The federal government created the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as a method to determine a college students' ability to pay for their educations.

To apply, applicants register for a FAFSA ID and password. Applicants use the same login information each year they apply for financial aid. After registering, applicants need their Social Security Number or Alien Registration number, the previous year's tax information, and bank records. Also, all men between the ages of 18-26 must register with the Selective Service System in order to apply for aid. If applicants have all these forms when applying, the process should take approximately an hour.

When applicants submit their information, the FAFSA calculates their ability to pay for college. Applicants receive a report, and if expected tuition exceeds the ability to pay, applicants become eligible for federally backed grants, loans, and work-study programs.

Personal and Family Savings

A 529 college savings plan can help millions of Americans save for educational expenses. Investors set up a 529 with their bank or investment broker, and after transferring money into the 529, the investor then decides to move the money into a specific mutual fund, stock, or another investment device. As the money grows, investors can make tax-free withdrawals on the profit as long as that money goes toward educational expenses. The IRS taxes the original deposit as income.

This savings plan is an excellent for new parents planning for their children's futures, as return on investment can take many years. However, someone considering attending college in a year or more should research and consider this plan as well. A 529 can become a dedicated savings account, and investing 529 money into certificates of deposit can result in a small financial return over the course of a year or more.

Retirement Savings

Earning a college degree represents an investment in your future, including your retirement. As college graduates earn more over their lifetimes, consider using a portion of your retirement savings to finance your college degree. Over time, the money you make from your degree should not only replace the funds you use now, but add even more to your retirement account than you would have saved without a college education. Also, the IRS exempts retirement funds diverted toward educational expenses from the 10% early withdrawal penalty.

Although retirement savings assist many Americans in paying for their college educations, tapping into a retirement account presents significant risks. Retirement savings are many Americans' safety net, and using them can backfire if they do not earn their degrees. Even successful college graduates may withdraw more than they had expected from their accounts as the price of tuition rises. Consider retirement savings as one of the least attractive options to finance a degree in criminal justice.

Scholarships

Scholarships for criminal justice majors represent one of the safest ways to finance a degree. Thousands of companies, organizations, and governments sponsor scholarships to help students attend college. Many scholarship sponsors tie their scholarship to their corporate or organizational mission. A law center that awards a scholarship may require that applicants major in criminal justice or a related subject. Other sponsors award scholarships based on financial need.

Instead of reaching for the most lucrative scholarships, it pays to apply to many small scholarships that attract fewer applicants.

Approach researching college scholarships like researching college programs. Where do you have the highest odds of success? Instead of reaching for the most lucrative scholarships, it pays to apply to many small scholarships that attract fewer applicants. This way, your academic accomplishments or financial need can win over the scholarship committee. Among these smaller scholarships, focus on those that appeal to your niche interests, skills, or background.

Scholarships boast very few drawbacks. However, read the fine print before accepting an award. Some scholarship sponsors rescind awards if a student's undergraduate GPA falls below a certain level or if the student leaves school for an extended period.

Criminal Justice Scholarships

Captain James J. Regan Memorial Scholarship $500

Who Can Apply: The National Technical Investigators' Association (NATIA) presents this merit-based scholarship to two student members every year. Applicants must submit three letters of recommendation, academic transcripts, and an essay discussing the role of technology in law enforcement. View Scholarship

Chief Gary R. Cline Memorial Scholarship $2,500

Who Can Apply: Graduating high school seniors in Camden County, New Jersey, planning to study law enforcement in college may apply for this scholarship. The scholarship committee reviews applicants' academic merit and financial need when deciding scholarship awards. View Scholarship

Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Award $1,000

Who Can Apply: Minority students planning for a career in criminal justice may apply for this scholarship opportunity. Applicants must submit academic transcripts, proof of financial need, and a brief essay reflecting on the ideals and philosophies of Dr. King. View Scholarship

Scholarships for Women in Criminal Justice

Women in Federal Law Enforcement Members-Only Scholarship $3,000

Who Can Apply: Members of Women in Federal Law Enforcement (WIFLE) may apply to this scholarship. Applicants must enroll in a full-time criminal justice program and hold a minimum 3.0 GPA. Applicants submit academic transcripts, recommendations, and a 500-word essay. View Scholarship

Edna R. Anthony Scholarship $1,000

Who Can Apply: High school seniors with a minimum 2.5 GPA planning to study criminal justice in college may apply. In addition to academic transcripts, applicants must submit a 1,000-word essay on the reasons they want to study criminal justice. View Scholarship

WIFLE Annual Scholarship $1,500

Who Can Apply: Women who have completed at least one year of college studying criminal justice may apply to this scholarship. Applicants must hold a minimum 3.0 GPA in addition to submitting a 500-word essay describing their involvement in a community improvement project. View Scholarship

The Jeannette Rankin Women's Scholarship Fund $2,000

Who Can Apply: Low-income women aged 35 or older may apply for this scholarship. Award recipients may apply the scholarship toward education in a technical or vocational field at the associate or bachelor’s level. In addition to financial information, applicants must submit letters of recommendation and proof of enrollment at an accredited college or university. View Scholarship

Grants

The difference between scholarships and grants can be confusing for prospective students. The key difference is that most grant committees base their decisions on applicants' financial need, while most scholarships use academic merit as the determining factor. Private organizations, colleges, and governments offer grants to undergraduates studying criminal justice. Students will often be asked to submit their FAFSA results in addition to proof of acceptance or attendance at an institution of higher learning.

Most grant committees base their decisions on applicants' financial need, while most scholarships use academic merit as the determining factor.

The internet boasts many aggregator websites that list grant opportunities and allow prospective students to search for those that best fit their needs. Make sure to do your research before committing to filling out and submitting grant applications.

Many grant committees automatically decline applicants who have the financial means to pay for college. Also, a student may lose their grant if their GPA falls below a certain level or if they break a rule stipulated by the grant committee. Other than these two drawbacks, grants represent an excellent method of financing a college education.

Fellowships and Assistantships

Fellowships and assistantships provide funding as well as educational opportunities not offered by scholarships and grants. By accepting funding, students agree to work with assisting professors on a project or perform independent research. Universities and professional associations offer this type of financial aid to educate student recipients and invest in the future of an academic discipline.

Prospective students should research universities and professional organizations' websites for fellowships and assistantships. Pay close attention to application requirements, as the majority of these opportunities attract a higher number of qualified applicants than most scholarships or grants. In addition to transcripts and letters of recommendation, most fellowship and assistantship applications require applicants to submit a detailed research proposal. The selecting committee may invite the most qualified applicants for an interview.

Completing a fellowship or assistantship can launch your career. However, before accepting, make sure that you can commit to the time required. Some opportunities may ask you to repay the money if you have to leave your assistantship or fellowship.

Federal student aid programs consist of aid programs run entirely or partially by the federal government. Completing the FAFSA may qualify students for one or more of these programs. To complete the FAFSA, gather your previous year's tax returns. If you still live with a parent or guardian, you will be required to report their tax return information as well. If the FAFSA determines that you can only pay for a portion of your college education, you may qualify for a Federal Direct Loan, Federal Perkins Loan, or Federal Work-Study Program. Other government programs, such as the Post-9/11 GI Bill®, provide military veterans the chance to attend college during and after their service. In addition to federal aid programs, many states offer high school graduates financial incentives to attend college. Depending on the state, aid qualification may depend on FAFSA results.

Federal Direct Loan Programs

Federal direct loans boast lower interest rates than those offered by banks and other lending institutions.

When it comes to Federal Direct Loans, there are four options. Subsidized loans do not charge interest during a student's college education, while unsubsidized loans do charge interest. Direct PLUS loans help parents pay for their children's college education and charge interest like unsubsidized loans. Direct loan consolidation enables students to combine multiple loans into one, potentially lowering the cost of repayment. All loan programs restrict the amount of money students and their parents can borrow each year, and all applicants must demonstrate financial need by filling out the FAFSA in addition to holding American citizenship and a high school degree or GED.

Federal direct loans boast lower interest rates than those offered by banks and other lending institutions, with a subsidized loan having the advantage of not charging interest until a student graduates. The primary drawback of any loan centers on interest; before committing, calculate how the interest rate affects the total amount of money you will pay back over the loan's life.

Federal Perkins Loans

Federal Perkins Loans help the neediest students finance their undergraduate and graduate educations. The application requires the same information as that asked for by the Federal Direct Loan Program. With Perkins Loans, participating colleges and universities loan money to eligible students, and the federal government guarantees the loan, meaning that the school can expect to receive repayment no matter the student's future financial situation. Perkins Loans boast a 5% interest rate, which is lower than loans within the Federal Direct Loan Program.

Undergraduate students may borrow a maximum of $5,500 per year and must begin repaying the loan nine months after graduating. Some colleges and universities do not participate in the program, so do your research to find out which schools accept this and other federally backed loan programs before applying.

Federal Work-Study Program

The Federal Work-Study Program gives students with financial need the ability to work part-time while attending college. Although participants receive paychecks like any other job, the money must go towards educational expenses. The program pairs students with jobs both on and off campus. The program strives to select jobs that match a student's career interests or that benefit their local communities. All participants earn at least minimum wage, although some earn more depending on their previous education and skill set. Before students begin work, the program sets their number of hours based on a students' academic workload.

Federal Work-Study Programs lack the risk of loans, but some participants may find the program challenging. Balancing work and school may negatively affect their academic performance. Leaving the program carries no financial penalty.

School-Based Financial Aid

School-based financial aid is awarded by a college or university, and recipients must abide by the school's rules to continue receiving aid throughout their undergraduate educations. Some school-based financial aid consists of merit-based grants and scholarships, usually those awarded to undergraduates with excellent high school GPAs or other academic accomplishments. Additional financial aid consists of need-based scholarships. Many colleges and universities award need-based aid to students whose families earn less than a set amount each year. In some cases, these need-based awards completely cover the cost of a student's education.

At most schools, once a student receives academic aid, continuing eligibility requires recipients to maintain good academic standing. The undergraduate institutions that provide the most financial aid have the largest endowments; large aid packages attract a large number of applicants, making these schools extremely competitive. Before applying to any of these programs, make sure to perfect your application package by double checking all required documents and extensively editing your application essays.

State Aid

Most high school graduates live in states with either a lottery-funded scholarship program or a government-subsidized community college program. In a lottery-funded scholarship program, proceeds from the state lottery support college scholarships and other educational expenses. Eligibility requirements vary, so research your home state's application process. In all states that offer lottery scholarships, the state pays the participating colleges directly. To receive the scholarship each year, recipients must either prove continued financial need or meet a GPA requirement. The number of college credits a student takes each semester may raise or lower the scholarship amount.

In recent years, some states have passed legislation to subsidize all students' community college education. In the Tennessee Promise program, the state pays for all recent high school graduates to attend a community or technical college for two years. Besides filling out the simple application, aid recipients must complete community service hours throughout their involvement in Tennessee Promise. Oregon, Rhode Island, and Illinois offer similar programs to help people attend college. States that use a government-subsidized community college program set unique eligibility requirements.

Post-9/11 GI Bill®

The Post-9/11 GI Bill® applies to active or retired military personnel who have completed at least 90 days of active duty since Sept. 11, 2001.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill applies to active or retired military personnel who have completed at least 90 days of active duty since Sept. 11, 2001. At 90 days, the Bill pays for 40% of educational expenses at a public or private college. Payments max out at $22,000 per year once a veteran accumulates 36 months of active duty. Veterans with 36 months of service also benefit from free tuition if they choose to attend a public college or university; the bill contains different funding levels if a veteran decides to attend a vocational or flight school. Other benefits include funds for relocation, living expenses, and books. If a veteran serves for 10 or more years in the armed forces, they can transfer educational benefits to their spouse or children. For honorably discharged veterans, the Yellow Ribbon Program may help them cover additional educational expenses above the $22,000 per year cutoff, but not all colleges participate in this program.

Veterans and active duty personnel do not handle funds related to the Bill; the U.S. government pays participating colleges directly. The bill does not disqualify recipients from applying for other federal, state, and private loan opportunities. In fact, many private aid opportunities help veterans exclusively. By pooling aid from the Post-9/11 GI Bill and other sources, active military personnel and veterans should expect to pay very little to earn their degree.

The main drawback of private loans are the high interest rates, which are sometimes as much as 300% higher than those charged by the Federal Direct Loan Program.

Private student loans represent an excellent option for students who need very little financial aid to complete their educations. Private lending institutions offer these loans to applicants with excellent credit. Applicants may use loan cosigners if their credit does not meet the lending institution application requirements. A cosigner acts as a guarantor and becomes financially responsible for the loan if the student should default on payments. Besides credit, lending institutions examine applicants' personal, financial, and educational histories. Factors such as a criminal record may significantly reduce an applicant's chances of receiving a loan. Near the end of the process, the lending institution may request an interview with the applicant and any potential cosigners.

The main drawback of private loans are the high interest rates, which are sometimes as much as 300% higher than those charged by the Federal Direct Loan Program. If not paid back quickly, the amount of interest owed can easily overtake the loan's value, trapping students in a cycle of debt. To lessen your debt burden, select a loan with a fixed interest rate. Variable interest rate loans may seem more attractive at first, but the rate can go up at any time, making it unpredictable.

Financial Institution Loans

Financial institutions represent banks, credit unions, and online lenders that offer financial aid to college students. When an institution approves an application, they write a check to the student each semester who then pays the college. The bank does not explicitly track if every dollar goes towards educational expenses, so borrowers must use sound financial planning to ensure they use the loan correctly.

Unlike most federally backed loans, financial institution loans incur interest from the moment the student takes out the loan. Like a home mortgage, students can select from different repayment plans that affect the amount of interest paid over the loan's life. Payments may increase without warning if students choose a variable interest loan.

Loans From Family and Friends

Many students borrow money from family and friends to attend college. A family member or friend may charge little to no interest, a significant benefit compared to financial institution loans. Though a widespread practice, these loans come with substantial risks. Delinquency on loan repayment can strain even the strongest relationships and lead to lawsuits, liens, and other legal action. To avoid these risks, create a formal loan agreement that includes a detailed repayment plan, and sign and notarize the agreement like any other legal document.

* GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government website at http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill.