Financial Aid Overview and Scholarships

Social work degrees prepare students for rewarding careers helping others. Unfortunately, like in any field, students may face challenges when it comes to financing their undergraduate and graduate education. In addition to the cost of tuition, students must pay for their books, housing, campus fees, and other expenses. These fees often lead to a steep price tag, especially over the course of four years. Luckily, social work students at all levels and from all financial backgrounds can access financial aid opportunities, including scholarships, grants, loans, and work-study programs. Whether the money comes from the federal government, the state government, a student's school, or a private organization, students can alleviate their financial burden through social work scholarships and financial aid packages.

This guide provides an overview of the different types of financial aid available to social work students, including grants, loans, and work-study programs. The guide also clarifies how to calculate financial need to how to begin searching for financial aid. Social work majors can also learn about the pros and cons of different student loans. At the end of the guide, students will find a list of scholarships for social work students.

Paying for Your Social Work Degree and Licensure With Financial Aid

The first step in securing financial aid is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA typically takes half an hour to complete and does not cost anything. The FAFSA connects students to grants, loans, and work-study funds offered through the federal government. Private organizations and state colleges may also use information from the FAFSA to determine whether students qualify for financial aid.

Students must complete a new FAFSA each year in order to account for changes in their financial situation. Learners and their families must input their most recent tax information and report any changes in income. Students can access the FAFSA form on October 1st of each year and can apply as late as June 30th of the year they require aid. However, the deadline for financial aid differs from state to state, meaning students interested in accessing aid should check their state's deadline. Financial aid deadlines may also differ depending on the college or school. Because states and colleges may possess limited funds, students applying for social work scholarships should complete the FAFSA as soon as possible.

All students, regardless of their age, location, academic history, citizenship, or financial background should fill out the FAFSA. Required documents include social security number, federal tax information, driver's license number (if applicable), Alien Registration number (if not a U.S. citizen), and information about all income, both taxed and untaxed. Students who depend on their parents financially must also submit their parents' social security numbers, federal tax information, and information about cash holdings, back accounts, assets, stocks, and bonds.

Determining Your Financial Need


A student's financial need depends on a few factors, primarily estimated family contribution (EFC) and the school's cost of attendance (COA). To calculate a student's EFC, colleges evaluate a family's income, benefits, and assets, as well as other factors like the size of the family and whether any of the student’s siblings will also enroll in school during the same year. The COA includes the cost of tuition, fees, room and board, books, loan fees, transportation, supplies, and peripheral costs like study abroad fees and childcare. For the COA, colleges typically combine the cost of the fall and spring semesters.

The government calculates student need by subtracting the EFC from the COA. The resulting number determines the maximum amount of need-based aid a student can receive from the federal government each year. The government offers five different need-based aid programs: the Federal Pell Grant, the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, direct subsidized loans, federal work-study, and federal Perkins loans.

Non-need-based aid does not take a student's EFC into account. Instead, the government subtracts the amount of aid already awarded from the student's COA. The amount of aid awarded includes all need-based aid, institutional awards, and private scholarships. Students can take advantage of three non-need-based federal aid programs: direct unsubsidized loans, federal PLUS loans, and the Teacher Education Access for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant.

Sources of Financial Aid


  • School Aid: Colleges often award students with grants or scholarships, also known as school aid. This money can come from specific departments or the school as a whole. These awards may recognize financial need, academic achievement, athletic ability, or community involvement. Unlike federal loans, schools do not require students to pay back grants or scholarships. Some schools offer more scholarship and grant money than others. Students should check with their school's office of financial aid to determine which financial aid opportunities they qualify for or whether the school offers any social work scholarships.
  • Federal Aid: Federal aid comes from the federal government. Common forms of federal financial aid include grants, loans, and work-study programs. In order to qualify, students must complete the FAFSA. The federal government also provides aid for military members and their families, tax benefits for education, vouchers, AmeriCorps education awards, and a selection of scholarships awarded through the Department of Health and Human Services.
  • State Financial Aid: Students who do not qualify for federal aid may still qualify for aid through their state's education agency. Most U.S. states offer at least one type of scholarships or grant for state residents. States typically specify that scholarships only apply to residents who plan to attend a school or college in-state, although some may make exceptions. Students should research what aid their state offers and make sure to adhere to annual deadlines.
  • Privately Funded Scholarships: Many private organizations offer scholarships and grants to students entering or attending school. Grants assist students based on need, while scholarships assist students based on academic merit, character, background, or personal achievement. Some local scholarships reward students for their involvement in the community, while many large-scale scholarships recognize students based on their commitment to a certain subject area or research topic. Students can find privately funded scholarships through small businesses, large corporations, churches, community centers, nonprofits, and other organizations.

Types of Financial Aid


  • Scholarships: Scholarships reward students for academic or personal achievement. Scholarships stem from a variety of sources, including the federal government, state government, colleges, and private organizations. Some scholarships award a one-time gift, while others provide repeat installments on a semester or annual basis. The amount of money varies greatly; some social work scholarships award as little as $100, while others grant as much as $20,000.
  • Grants: Grants provide students with aid based on financial need. Like scholarships, grant money comes from a variety of sources, including private organizations, corporations, foundations and trusts, the federal government, state governments, and colleges. Grants serve as gifts, meaning students do not need to pay them back. However, the government may require students to pay back part of their federal grant if their enrollment status changes, they withdraw from their program, or they receive additional aid that changes their financial need.
  • Federal Loans: Federal loans provide students with money, but students must eventually pay back the total amount with interest. Loans from the federal government typically provide lower interest rates than loans from a bank, credit union, or other financial institution. They also come with a range of other benefits such as fixed interest rates and delayed payments plans. Most federal loans do not require a cosignature or a credit check. The government also offers several loan forgiveness programs.
  • Private Loans: Private loans come from private lenders like banks and credit unions. Private loans may provide students with more money, but this money typically comes at a cost. Private loans charge higher interest rates than federal loans, meaning students pay more over time. Private loans also typically require a credit check, a cosignature, and a stricter repayment plan. They may not allow for deferrals or prepayment. Private loans do not usually qualify for loan forgiveness programs, tax deductions, or government subsidies.
  • Work-Study: Work-study programs connect students with part-time jobs through their school, a nonprofit, or an approved private company. These jobs typically relate to the student's area of study or involve some kind of public service. Employers must consider students’ class schedules when determining work hours. Depending on the job, students can earn more than minimum wage. Work-study programs may not suit students who already hold full-time employment or other obligations.

Federal Grants


To receive a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Education, students must first fill out the FAFSA. Learners must then work with their school to determine how much aid they qualify to receive based on their cost of attendance. With the exception of TEACH grants, federal grants primarily assist students who exhibit financial need. Federal grants do not discriminate based on where a student plans to study; students can use grant money to attend four-year universities, career schools, and community colleges.


Federal Pell Grants: Pell grants serve undergraduate students who do not already possess a degree. Depending on their level of need, students can receive up to $6,000 per year.


Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants: FSEOG grants support students in undergraduate programs who exhibit exceptional financial need. Students can receive up to $4,000 per year, but individual schools possess limited FSEOG funds.


TEACH Grants: TEACH grants provide $4,000 per academic year to students who plan to pursue a career in teaching. To receive the grant, students must agree to teach in a low-income school or area of need after they graduate.


Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants: Students whose parent or guardian died while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan qualify for this grant. Eligible students must not qualify for a Pell Grant based on their EFC. The maximum award for 2017-2018 was $5,920.

State Grants


Almost every state's Department of Education offers at least one scholarship or grant to resident students who exhibit financial need or demonstrate exceptional academic ability. Most often, only residents who plan to attend an in-state school qualify for state-sponsored financial aid. However, some states offer exceptions. To explore grants, scholarships, and other forms of financial aid in each state, visit the National Associate of Student Financial Aid Administrators website.

Finding Scholarships


Scholarships can cover a significant portion of college tuition. Although many scholarships require a minimum GPA or specifically recognize outstanding academic achievement, other scholarships recognize success outside of academia. For instance, some scholarships reward students based on their athletic achievements or community involvement. Other scholarships specifically assist students who belong to a particular minority group (e.g. Native American students, LGBTQ students, and African American students). Students should apply to as many scholarships as possible, including opportunities based on their location, interests, and personal background. To find scholarships specifically designed for students pursuing a career in social work, consult the list of social work scholarships at the end of this guide.

Taking Out Loans to Pay for Your Social Work Degree

Students seeking financial aid should start with scholarships and grants, since these sources do not require students to pay the money back. However, many students still need to take out a loan to cover the remaining cost of their tuition. Taking out loans is normal. In fact, 70% of students attending four-year universities graduate with some amount of student loan debt. That said, some loans cost less than others. Students can select either a federal loan or a private loan. You can find more information about both options below.

What Kind of Loan Should You Take Out?


There are several significant differences between federal loans (loans that come from the federal government) and private loans (loans that come from private lenders). Federal and private loans differ most notably when it comes to interest rates. Federal loans boast fixed interest rates, meaning students pay the same interest rate over the duration of their loan. Private loans, on the other hand, typically feature variable interest rates, meaning the rate fluctuates along with market interest rates. This means that students can not accurately predict their monthly payment amounts or the total cost of their loan over time. Students who receive a federal loan can also qualify for a subsidized loan. With these kinds of loans, the government pays all interest while the student remains in school. Private loans do not qualify for subsidies.

Federal loans sometimes qualify for loan forgiveness programs, while private lenders do not typically offer loan forgiveness programs. Students may also find it more difficult to qualify for a private loan, which may require a cosignature or credit check. Students should only seek out private loans as a last resort after pursuing all other financial aid avenues.

Loan Repayment


When applying for a loan, students select their repayment plan. The standard repayment plan allows students to pay off their debt within 10 years. It comes with fixed monthly payments and generally costs less than other plans over time. However, students who plan to enter a loan forgiveness program should seek out other options. Students can also select an income-driven repayment plan, which calculates a student's monthly payments based on their income. For instance, graduates can select a plan that maxes out at 10% of their income each month.

Students who can't repay their loans can pursue a few options. Graduates can apply for a direct consolidation loan, which combines all of their loans into a single loan with only one monthly payment. Direct consolidation loans also qualify for other repayment plans and loan forgiveness programs. Although consolidating loans can reduce your monthly payments, it often increases the amount of time required to pay off the loan, resulting in more interest payments over time.

Students can estimate their payment amounts and explore other repayment options using the repayment estimator calculator. The calculator provides a comparison of total amounts under all repayment plans, allowing students to choose the plan that will save them the most money over time.

Loan Forgiveness


To incentivize students to enter high-demand fields upon graduating, the government offers several loan forgiveness options. One loan forgiveness program targets educators who agree to teach in low-income or high-demand areas after they graduate. The government may also forgive loans for those who suffer from permanent and total disability. If the school a student attended closes down, the government may discharge the loan.

Students who plan to enter the field of social work may qualify for loan forgiveness through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. To qualify, social workers must work for any government organization, a tax exempt nonprofit organization, or a nonprofit organization that provides a qualifying public service. The program only forgives direct federal loans. To receive forgiveness, graduates must make 120 monthly payments while working for a qualifying organization.

Financial Aid for Graduate Students

Graduate and professional students can access financial aid opportunities such as loans, work-study programs, grants, and scholarships. Graduate and professional students can receive two types of loan from the federal government: direct unsubsidized loans and direct PLUS loans. A direct unsubsidized loan offers eligible students up to $20,500 per academic year. Students who need additional support may apply for a direct PLUS loan. Federal work-study programs help students find part-time work to support their education. This work typically relates to the student's area of study, helping graduate students round out their resume.

In addition to loans, students earning their MSW can seek out grants and social work graduate scholarships. TEACH Grants offer up to $4,000 of aid per year to graduate or professional students who agree to teach in certain schools upon graduating. Although Pell Grants typically support undergraduates, students in some post-baccalaureate teacher certification programs may qualify. In addition to federal aid, graduate and professional students should research scholarships and grants available through their state, school, and other sources. Most state governments offer some form of aid to in-state students. Students should also research scholarships for graduate students in social work offered through private organizations. Students who currently work should should also find out if they can receive aid through their employer. Many of the scholarships listed below accept applications from graduate students.

Scholarships for Social Work Students

Verne LaMarr Lyons Memorial MSW Scholarship
Who Can Apply: The National Associate of Social Workers awards scholarships for master's in social work students who plan to work with African American communities. Students should work in a health or mental health context upon graduating.
Amount: $5,000


Consuelo W. Gosnell Memorial MSW Scholarship
Who Can Apply: The National Association of Social Workers awards up to 10 scholarships for master's in social work students who intend to serve Hispanic/Latino and American Indian/Alaska Native populations. The scholarship also benefits students who plan to work with grassroots or nonprofit agencies.
Amount: Up to $4,000


James F. Reville Scholarship
Who Can Apply: The Arc New York awards this scholarship to students pursuing full-time study in a field relating to intellectual or developmental disabilities. Eligible applicants must either possess New York residency or attend a school in New York.
Amount: $3,000


Bethesda Lutheran Student Scholastic and Service Scholarship
Who Can Apply: Each year, Bethesda Lutheran Community Auxiliary assists five undergraduate students who plan to help people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Applicants must actively participate in a Lutheran community, possess a 3.0 GPA, and attend a four-year college or university.
Amount: $3,000


Carl A. Scott Memorial Fund
Who Can Apply: Each year, the Council on Social Work Education provides scholarships for social work students in their final year of a bachelor's or master's program. Applicants must hold a minimum 3.0 GPA and demonstrate a commitment to social justice.
Amount: $500


The Cenie "Jomo" Williams Tuition Scholarship
Who Can Apply: Each year, the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) assists two African American members enrolled in a social work program. Applicants must have a 2.5 GPA, a record of community service, and research interest in the black community.
Amount: $2,500


The Selena Danette Brown Book Scholarship
Who Can Apply: NABSW awards four book scholarships to students who hold NABSW membership, have a 2.5 GPA, exhibit a commitment to community service, and attend a full-time social work program.
Amount: $250


The Emma and Meloid Algood Undergraduate Tuition Scholarship
Who Can Apply: NABSW awards scholarships for social work majors enrolled full-time at an undergraduate university. Eligible applicants must possess a 2.5 GPA, an active NABSW membership, research interest in the black community, and a commitment to community service.
Amount: $1,000


The Dr. Joyce Beckett Graduate Student Tuition Scholarship
Who Can Apply: NBASW awards scholarships for master's in social work students who hold NBASW membership, posses a 2.5 GPA, express a research interest in the black community, and exhibit a record of community service.
Amount: $1,000


Davis-Putter Scholarship Fund
Who Can Apply: The Davis-Putter Scholarship Fund awards politically active students who demonstrate a commitment to social and economic justice. Students must exhibit a record of progressive political activism. The scholarship favors students who plan to work in the U.S. after graduating.
Amount: $10,000


Eileen Blackey Doctoral Fellowship
Who Can Apply: The NASW Foundation assists social work doctoral students whose research project examines social welfare policy and practice. The fellowship favors dissertations that relate to diversity.
Amount: Varies


Ima Hogg Scholarships
Who Can Apply: The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health awards 17 scholarships for master's in social work students earning their degree at an accredited social work school in Texas. Students must apply in their second year of study and demonstrate a commitment to serving underrepresented communities in Texas.
Amount: $5,000


Leopold Schepp Foundation Scholarship
Who Can Apply: The Leopold Schepp Foundation assists students studying in a field relating to community service, including social work. Applicants must have a 3.2 GPA, exhibit financial need, and demonstrate outstanding character.
Amount: Up to $9,000


Judith Holm Memorial Student Award
Who Can Apply: The American Clinical Social Work Association and EPICC Social Work offer two scholarships for students in their final year of a master's in social work program. The association judges winners based on a paper that recounts an intervention and demonstrates professional readiness.
Amount: $1,000


Patty Gibbs-Wahlberg Scholarship
Who Can Apply: Phi Alpha Honor Society awards three scholarships for social work students who demonstrate exceptional leadership, service, and scholarship. The first place winner also presents their work at the Student Session of the Association of Baccalaureate Program Directors conference. Only Phi Alpha members can apply.
Amount: $1,000-$3,000

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