Student Loan Options for Certificate Programs

Written by: Kristyn Pilgrim
Updated: 7/27/20

Certificate programs are educational programs that provide more specialized instruction, usually over a shorter period than a standard two- or four-year degree program. They can be ideal for those looking for a short period of training that will hopefully lead to immediate employment in a specialized field. 

You can often find certificate programs at community colleges as well as vocational and technical schools. The number of certificate programs is very large, and you can usually find certificates available in areas such as:

  • Culinary arts
  • Automotive technology
  • Electrical technology
  • Building inspection
  • Business
  • Health care
  • Criminal justice
  • Social services
  • Arts and design
  • And much more

Certificate programs can be a great way to advance your career in a short amount of time and at a lower cost and time commitment than that of a standard degree. Some certificate programs, however, can be poor returns on investment, and you should always do your research to make sure the program you want to attend is accredited and recognized as valid in the career field you plan to go into. 

If you are in the process of figuring out how to finance your certificate program, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, you will learn how to determine what types of aid your program qualifies for as well as what the different options are for student loans.

Program and School Eligibility

What types of financial assistance you might have available to help pay for a certificate program can depend greatly on the program itself. Many accredited programs allow you access to federal grants and loans, which can be an excellent source of funding. 

When choosing where to go for your desired certificate, it is important to check into what types of aid the program and school are eligible for. A good place to start is the National Center for Education Statistics’ College Navigator page. This page allows you to search for certificate programs at private or public institutions. When you search, you can look at all sorts of facts about any particular school and degree program, including:

  • Tuition fees and expenses
  • Financial aid
  • Enrollment statistics
  • Outcomes measures
  • Net price
  • Accreditation

Visiting this website will give you a clear picture of what to expect financially, both in terms of cost and available assistance, for any particular certificate program. 

Seek Out Free Money First

The first step in taking out student loans is to see if you can reduce how much you need to borrow. Student loans come with interest, and you always end up having to pay back more than you borrow as a result. You always come out ahead in the long run if you can borrow less.

The savings are even greater if you can tap into free money. Just as scholarships and grants are available for traditional degrees, so too are they available for certificate programs. If your certificate program offers federal financial aid, then your first step is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). 

The exact amount of aid you may receive depends on the school you end up attending, but possible free money from the government includes:

  • Federal Pell Grant
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) 
  • Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant

You can search for additional scholarship and grant money by visiting or While many scholarships are for two- or four-year degrees, there are plenty out there for certificate programs, as well. 

If you are a former military member, you have access to the GI Bill, which can pay for most, if not all, of your educational expenses. Visit the VA’s website to check if your school or program is approved and what might be covered.

Another option to consider is your employer, especially if you are currently employed at a place that can make use of the certificate you are trying to acquire.

Federal Student Loans

When you fill out the FAFSA, it will also determine your eligibility for federal student loans. Types of federal student loans available for qualifying certificate programs include:

  • Direct subsidized loans: These loans are offered based on financial need, and interest is subsidized while you are in school or during deferment or grace periods.
  • Direct unsubsidized loans: These loans are not need-based, and interest is not subsidized.
  • Direct PLUS loans: These loans can only be taken out by your parents or you if you are a graduate student.

The maximum annual amount of Direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans ranges from $5,500 to $12,500 per year. Direct PLUS loans have higher borrowing limits and can be used to fund the remainder of your school if needed.

Federal student loans should always be your first choice when borrowing for school. This is because not only are the interest rates on these loans generally lower, but also the repayment options are much more flexible, and there is a multitude of programs in place to help you out during times of financial hardship. 

Private Student Loans

There are many reputable private student loan lenders out there. If you are unable to secure any or enough federal funding to cover the cost of your certificate program, or if your program is not eligible for federal aid, then a private loan might be the way to go.

Many lenders even have specific loan options for certificate programs, such as Sallie Mae’s Career Training Smart Option Student Loan, which is for professional training and trade certificate courses at nondegree-granting schools. This loan can even cover expenses such as housing, meals, travel, and school supplies. 

Other private lenders that offer loans for certificate programs include Citizens Bank, Wells Fargo, and STILT

Personal Loans and Secured Loans

If you are unable to secure a student loan from the federal government or a private lender, another option is to obtain a personal loan or a secured loan. 

A personal loan is a loan you obtain from a bank or another lender that you pay back over time, just like a student loan. Often, these loans are unsecured (meaning you don’t need to provide collateral), and the amount you can borrow and the interest rate you can get are often very much dependent on your credit history. You can usually expect interest rates to be higher on these types of loans than on student loans and repayment terms to be more strict.

A secured loan is a loan that has collateral tied to it. If you take out a second mortgage, for example, this is a secured loan. You are essentially giving the bank claim on some type of property they can repossess if you fail to pay off the loan. In addition to property, vehicles, valuables, and investments can be used as collateral.

Because a secured loan is tied to collateral, it is often possible to borrow a larger amount and even obtain a lower interest rate. But make sure you are careful with your finances, and make payments on such loans in a timely manner to avoid the risk of losing your collateral.

Other Ways to Fund Certificate Programs

If you want to avoid loans or cannot obtain enough funding from borrowing, you may be able to pay for your certificate program via a payment plan. Many schools offer this as an option, allowing you to pay in increments over time instead of all at once. 

Another option that has come into play recently is called an income sharing agreement. This is where you agree to pay a certain percentage of your income for a set number of years after you graduate instead of paying tuition. The idea behind these agreements is that the program you attend has the incentive to give you marketable skills that will help you earn money because how much they get from you depends on how much you make after you leave. 

Income sharing agreements are relatively new and come with a word of caution, however. In some instances, you can end up paying more than you would have if you just took out loans, for example. Always do your research before committing. 

Stay Informed About Student Loans

Navigating the student loan landscape can feel daunting if you haven’t done it before. There is a lot of uncertainty involved as you wonder if you will earn enough with your certificate to pay your loan back. After all, it’s hard to say what the future might hold. 

Staying informed about how loans work and what your payback options are will help you stay financially on track with your life and career goals. College Finance has the resources and tools to assist you with just that.