Many colleges divide the academic year into semesters or trimesters. Some have four quarters, and some have only one academic year, starting in the fall and continuing through the end of spring. Most universities and professional schools also offer summer courses, and more students are taking these classes to complete their degrees faster.
Taking a few classes throughout the summer keeps your brain engaged and helps you make progress on your degree. If you need financial aid to pay for your other classes, you likely need help paying for school in the summer months too.
Fortunately, the federal government offers some assistance with summer financial aid when you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Limits to Federal Financial Aid, Including Summer Coverage
When you take out federal financial aid for summer courses, there are limits that apply just like other times in the academic year. If you take out the full allotted amount of financial aid before you take summer classes, you cannot apply for federal summer financial aid.
There are limits to the amount of money in grants and student loans that the federal government will offer. For student loans, this is based on the type of loan and your current academic level in school.
- First-year undergraduates: Dependent students can take out up to $5,500 and independent students can take out $9,500 per year in student loans; $3,500 of that money can be in subsidized loans.
- Second-year undergraduates: Dependent students can accept $6,500 and independent students can take out $10,500, of which $4,500 can be subsidized student loans.
- Third-year and higher undergraduates: Dependent students can take out $7,500 and independent students can take out $12,500 in loans per academic year, with $5,500 of that being subsidized loans.
- Graduate and professional students: These students only qualify for unsubsidized federal loans, with an annual limit of $20,500.
- Lifetime totals: Dependent students cannot take out more than $31,000 to complete their degree, with $23,000 of that amount being in subsidized loans. Independent undergraduates can take on $57,500, with $23,000 in subsidized loans. Graduate or professional students can take out $138,500 total, cumulative for both undergrad and graduate school, and no more than $65,000 of that can be in subsidized loans.
For example, if you are a sophomore undergrad and you have already taken out $6,500 for the year, you cannot take out more in federal student loans to apply as summer financial aid.
The federal Pell Grant program provides financial assistance to students who otherwise cannot afford college. If you qualify for this program, you can receive up to $6,195 for the 2019–20 academic year. The amount you receive is based on financial information from your FAFSA and how the school manages its Pell Grant money.
Because more students qualify for the Pell Grant, the federal government adjusted the rules to allow you to take out up to 150% of your Pell Grant award each year if part of that money covers a summer semester. This is often referred to as Year-Round Pell, which can work like this:
- You are awarded $2,000 for your regular academic year
- If you qualify for Year-Round Pell, you can take out an additional $1,000 in the summer
This adjustment stems from the federal government’s lifetime Pell Grant maximum. You can accept up to 600% of your annual eligibility over your lifetime. For example, if you take out $2,000 per academic year, you can accept $12,000 over your lifetime. In the past, this has equated to one Pell Grant for each academic year for six years – enough to apply to a four-year degree program and two years of professional or graduate school.
When you fill out information for summer financial aid on the FAFSA, you can accept more Pell Grant money to apply to your summer semester. If you think you want to use your Pell Grant for graduate school or other educational opportunities later, consider how this will affect your lifetime maximum. If you apply 150% of your Pell Grant to summer courses for three or four years, you will hit your lifetime limit before getting to graduate school.
School Requirements to Receive Summer Financial Aid
Not all schools allow you to take out summer financial aid, even if you qualify for federal student loans or Pell Grant money. Schools that do offer summer financial aid have requirements on course hours and academic progress, just like the rest of the academic year.
- You may be required to enroll in the same number of course hours or credits in the summer semester or quarter as in other parts of the academic year.
- Online, correspondence, or continuing education credits may not qualify for financial aid.
- Courses that are outside your degree requirements may not qualify for financial aid.
- Withdrawing from summer courses will count toward maximum withdrawal for the rest of your academic year.
- You must meet the school’s requirements for satisfactory academic progress (SAP) for the summer quarter, just like the rest of the academic year.
Some schools offer their own institution-based loans or scholarships to cover summer programs. If you want to complete your degree quickly, attending school over the summer can help you complete more coursework toward your degree.
Speak with your school’s student financial services office for more information on applying for summer financial aid. It is important to ask these questions well before any application deadlines, which are usually in the spring.
Other Summer Financial Aid Options
Students with unmet financial needs who want to take summer courses have two basic options: Find merit-based scholarships that cover the cost, or apply for private student loans. As a college student, you can pursue both funding options.
If you only need to take one or two courses over the summer, private student loans can be your best option. You qualify for them quickly, they are dispersed faster, and they have fewer requirements like minimum hours or certain degree paths.