How Vocational Financial Aid Works

wind turbine
A recently laid-off Ohio plumber, enrolled in the Cerro Coso Community College wind turbine technician class, performs his maiden climb on a wind turbine.
Gilles Mingasson/

"What do you do?" is one of the first questions a new acquaintance asks. Most of us define ourselves by our work, and our career choice can be one of the most pivotal decisions we make in our lives. Of the many paths that could lead to a satisfying, well-paying career, vocational education (also called career and technical education) is probably the most straightforward.

The next step is figuring out to pay for that education. It might surprise you to learn that vocational students have access to the same types of federal financial aid as college, graduate and professional degree students. A 2009 U.S. Department of Education study found that 66 percent of undergraduates, including those enrolled in career and technical training programs, received some sort of financial aid, including:


  • Pell Grants: money that does not have to be repaid, gifted to students with financial need
  • Stafford Loans: federal loans, available to all eligible students regardless of financial need
  • Work/study programs: federal program that matches students with paying jobs

[source: IES]

In addition, people interested in career and technical training may benefit from many other types of aid as well, including:

  • State and institutional aid: money gifted or loaned by states or schools
  • Scholarships: gifts of money for students who meet various criteria
  • Registered apprenticeships: on-the-job training offered by employers in certain fields
  • Job Corps: free U.S. Department of Labor job training program for at-risk young people ages 16 to 24
  • Workforce Investment Act Training: federal program that provides short-term training and education

[source: Career One Stop]

Federal aid is probably the most common form of financial assistance for either traditional four-year colleges or vocational education programs. We'll tackle eligibility requirements and different types of federal grants in the next section.



Federal Financial Aid: Eligibility and Grants

All students applying for federal aid and most students applying for state, institutional and other aid will need to submit the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA). In order to qualify for federal aid, applicants need to meet several eligibility requirements:

  • Prove financial need. Financial need is determined by the answers you give on your Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA).
  • Have a high school diploma or GED, or prove eligibility by other means.
  • Be enrolled at least part-time at an eligible school in an eligible degree program. Check with your school to make sure your school and program are eligible for federal aid.
  • Meet academic progress standards.
  • Be a U.S. citizen or an eligible non-citizen.
  • Have a valid Social Security number (exceptions include citizens of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau).
  • Males aged 18 to 25 must comply with Selective Service registration.
  • Applicants cannot be in default on a federal student loan or owe a refund on a federal grant.

[source: Department of Education.]


Grants are probably the most coveted type of federal aid because they're essentially free money. You don't need to repay grants. The federal grants most applicable to career and technical students are:

  • Pell Grants: Pell Grants are the type of grants awarded to most eligible students. The award amount varies from year to year.
  • Federal Supplemental Opportunity Grants: FSOGs are awarded to students who prove the most financial need. The award amount is $100 to $4,000 per year. Funds are limited, so not all students who qualify for an FSOG will be awarded one.

If you can't prove financial need or are otherwise ineligible to receive federal grants, consider applying for a federal loan or a work/study program. We'll talk about those on the next page.


Student Loans and Work/Study Programs

Carpentry is one of many professions you can study at vocational school.
Sami Sarkis/Getty Images

Federal loans must be repaid. However, most loans will allow you to defer paying interest until you have completed your education. This gives students a chance to find a job and establish some income before they need to begin repaying the loan. To apply for federal loans, fill out the Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA). Types of federal loans include:

  • Stafford Loans: Students who are enrolled at least part time may be eligible for Stafford Loans.
  • Students with financial need can apply for subsidized Stafford Loans. With subsidized loans, the U.S. Department of Education pays the interest while you are in school. Unsubsidized Stafford Loans don't require financial need. While you're in school, you can sometimes defer payment on the interest that accrues; however once you graduate, you have to repay both full interest and principle on unsubsidized loans.
  • Perkins Loans: Not all schools participate in this program, but the ones that do can award Perkins Loans to students with financial need.
  • PLUS Loans: If you are still a dependent, your parents may qualify for a PLUS Loan if they have good credit.

[source: Department of Education]



For more information on federal loans, take a look at the U.S. Department of Education's guide "Funding Education Beyond High School."

The Federal Work Study (FSW) program gives jobs to students with financial need who are enrolled at least part time. Students can use their earnings at their discretion. Most work/study jobs are with the school or nonprofit and public agencies. The FWS program encourages students to work in their fields of study or in community service jobs [source: Department of Education].

If you don't think federal aid will work for you or if you're hoping to supplement it with additional aid, there are still several other options. Next, we'll cover state aid, institutional aid and scholarships.


State Aid, Institutional Aid and Scholarships

Most states offer need-based grants or scholarships. The eligibility requirements for need-based scholarships are sometimes more flexible than federal grants. If you think you were close to qualifying for Pell Grant but didn't quite meet the criteria, or if you qualified for a Pell Grant but would like to find additional aid as well, look into a need-based scholarship. Eligibility requirements and the types of aid offered by states vary. Check with your vocational or technical college to see what sort of state aid is available through your school.

In addition, some institutions also offer financial aid, often in the form of scholarships, which does not need to be repaid. For instance, Rockingham Community College in Wentworth, N.C., offers the Michael Mansfield scholarship to students enrolled in the information systems technology program or a vocational field related to manufacturing [source: NextStudent]. Check with your school to see which institution-specific scholarships might be available to you.


Businesses, foundations, community groups, churches and almost every imaginable type of organization also offer scholarships. These gifts of money are given to students from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, students from particular regions, students with financial need and for many other reasons. Free databases, such as, match parents and students with dozens of applicable scholarships. Here are a few examples of the many scholarships available specifically to students pursuing vocational education:

  • American Standard Companies Scholarship: a $2,500 award for students enrolled in a qualified plumbing-heating-cooling-contractors (PHCC) program
  • Logan Nainoa Fujimoto Memorial Scholarship: a variable award available to Hawaiian students enrolled in an accredited program in Hawaii or the continental United States
  • Mildred Sorensen National Scholarship: a $750 award for Danish Sisterhood of America members or their children enrolled in a technical/vocational program

[source: NextStudent]

Hunting for scholarships takes dedication and research. Be persistent and you may well discover a scholarship tailor-made for your situation or background. You aren't always required to fill out the Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) when applying for scholarships; however, most sources strongly recommend you do, since most aid -- both federal and nonfederal -- requires a completed FAFSA.

People looking to pursue a specific career path, which may or may not require a degree or certificate at a vocational school or technical college, may also benefit from federal job training programs, such as registered apprenticeships, Job Corps programs and Workforce Investment Act (WIA) training. Read on to find out how these programs work.


Registered Apprenticeships, Job Corps and WIA Training

You may be able to receive financial aid for chef school through a registered apprenticeship.
Noel Hendrickson/Getty Images

The Department of Labor's registered apprentice program has been training eligible individuals for skilled labor careers since 1937. Registered apprenticeships are available for more than 1,000 occupations, including able seaman, carpenter, chef, electrician, pipefitter and many more. Apprentices receive paid, on-the-job training as well as the education needed to pass certification examinations. In most cases, employers pay for all or most of the education expense, which can include associate or even bachelor degree programs [source: DOA].

Job Corps is a U.S. Department of Labor job-training program open to at-risk 16 to 24 year olds. Through Job Corps, students receive free career and technical training in more than 100 fields of study, including automotive repair, construction, renewable resources, manufacturing and information technology. If students don't already have a high school diploma or GED, Job Corps helps them earn one. Job Corps also helps students develop social and independent living skills and provides them with assistance in finding a first job [source: JobCorps].


The Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 1998 created "one stop" career centers in each state that bring a full range of job seeker assistance together under one roof. One type of assistance offered at Career One Stops is help in applying for various WIA training programs. A number of various and sometimes highly-specialized opportunities are available. For instance, Casey and Son Horseshoeing School in La Fayette, Ga., is affiliated with the WIA program. If an advisor agrees that a certain region may have a need for more trained farriers (professionals trained in equine hoof care), the WIA program might agree to subsidize tuition at the school. Visit the WIA Web site for more information about training programs available in your area.

By now we've covered most of different types of financial aid available for vocational education. In the final section, we'll go over some of the more specialized assistance available to veterans and individuals with unique backgrounds and qualities.


Other Options for Vocational Financial Aid

If you meet certain specialized criteria, scholarships and other financial aid may be available to you. Here are some examples:

  • Veterans: Under the GI bill, veterans, their spouses and dependents may be eligible for comprehensive educational benefits including full payment of tuition, fees, a housing stipend and a stipend for books and supplies [source: Department of Education].
  • Employer tuition assistance: If you're already employed, your employer may foot the bill for a portion of your tuition or certification training. This option is most often available to professional degree seekers (doctors, lawyers, MBAs); however, companies employing tradesmen and skilled workers may also sometimes offer tuition assistance [source: FinAid].
  • Older and nontraditional students: Many scholarships are specifically available to older and nontraditional students, and statistics show that nontraditional students are more likely to receive federal Pell grants. Also, many schools offer free or reduced tuition to senior citizens. If you've lost a job or you're thinking about changing careers, be sure to look for scholarships available for displaced or mid-career workers [source: FinAid].
  • Financial assistance for community service workers: Several organizations exist to promote community service and volunteerism, such as AmeriCorps, National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) and others. Some of these offer tuition or certificate training assistance when you complete their programs. For instance, AmeriCorps volunteers who have finished their service term and enrolled in the National Service Trust are eligible to receive the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award. This substantial award can be used to pay for tuition, educational training or to repay student loans [source: AmeriCorps].
  • Other types of aid: Special scholarships and other types of aid exist for many different target groups including international students, students with disabilities, minority students, women, gay, lesbian and bisexual students, Jewish students, undocumented students and illegal aliens. There are even scholarships for cancer patients and survivors. is a great place to start when you're researching the different types of available aid [source: FinAid].

Vocational education is geared toward increasing a person's chance of finding stimulating, well-paying work. Wherever you are along your career path, financial aid opportunities abound for individuals looking to advance their technical skills and education. For more information, check into the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • "FAQs: Eligibility." Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). (Jan. 15, 2010)
  • "Frequently Asked Questions." JobCorps. Aug. 14, 2009. (Jan. 26, 2010.)
  • "Funding Education Beyond High School: The Guide to Federal Student Aid 2009-2010." US Department of Education. (Jan. 16, 2010.)
  • "National Assessment of Vocational Education". U.S. Department of Education. September 2002. (Jan. 19, 2010.)
  • "Other Types of Aid." FinAid. (Jan. 26, 2010)
  • "Registered Apprenticeship." United States Department of Labor (DOL). Jan. 7, 2010. (Jan. 26, 2010)
  • "Segal AmeriCorps Education Award." AmeriCorps. (Jan. 26, 2010)
  • "Vocational Scholarships List." NextStudent.Com. (Jan. 26, 2010)
  • Wei, C., Berkner, L., He, S., Lew, S., Cominole, M., Siegel, P., et al. "2007-08 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study." Institute of Educational Sciences (IES). April 2009. (Jan. 26, 2010)
  • "What's Available." Career One Stop. (Jan. 26, 2010)
  • "Workforce Investment Act." Department of Labor (DOL). Jan. 07, 2010 (Jan. 26, 2010)