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Students looking for an affordable education in Arizona have two main options—community college or public university. Arizona State University (ASU), the University of Arizona (UA), and Northern Arizona University (NAU) are strong choices. But you could also consider transferring from a local community college to a state school after two years. There isn’t much state financial aid in the Grand Canyon State, so it’s very important to file a FAFSA. This will ensure you’re considered for federal aid.
Arizona State University, which has four campuses in the Phoenix metropolitan area and one in Lake Havasu, is the largest public university in the U.S., as well as one of the top public research universities. Students at the university's main campus in Tempe have good odds of getting help with the cost of their education, with 85% of full-time beginning undergraduate students receiving institutional grants or scholarships, and 34% of all undergraduates receiving Pell Grants. A few of the special institutional grant and scholarship programs offered at ASU include the New American University Scholarship, which is awarded to academically outstanding students, and the ASU College Attainment Grant Program, which is awarded to low-income students. The school also offers student jobs and Federal Work-Study jobs to eligible students.
Accreditation: North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, The Higher Learning Commission
The University of Arizona, established in 1885 with 32 students and six teachers, is now one of the leading public research universities in the country, with an undergraduate population of 33,000 students. Through a combination of loans, grants and work-study programs, the average first-year financial package comes to $12,526. The university's Wildcat Excellence Tuition Award is open to incoming freshmen who are Arizona residents. The award amount ranges from $1,500 to $10,000 per academic year. Non-Arizona freshmen or transfer students can vie for the Achievement Award, a need-based award which can total up to $4,000 per academic year.
Accreditation: North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, The Higher Learning Commission
Arizona is one of the easiest states in the nation for transferring college credits. With the AZTransfer program, students have access to several different transfer pathways and options. Students can decide to complete general education curriculum, follow individual major guides, or participate in four year university pathway programs, all of which offer guaranteed transfer options.
Students who complete transfer pathways in Arizona will enter their four year college or university with junior standing. In Arizona’s transfer pathways programs, blocks of classes are treated as a whole and not examined separately for transferability. Students are also exempted from GPA requirements for Arizona public university admission.
Students who are undecided on a major can simply complete the Arizona General Education Curriculum (AGEC). This course work applies to associate’s degrees at two year colleges, and will also apply to your bachelor’s degree at any public four year college or university in Arizona.
For those who know the field of study they’d like to major in, AZTransfer offers major guides. These guides are specific to community colleges in Arizona and create a pathway from a community college associate’s degree to a bachelor’s degree offered by two or more Arizona public universities.
Students who have already chosen their desired four year university can follow specific university transfer options. These options include guaranteed transfer of credits, and some may also offer admission guarantees as well.
The Arizona Commission for Postsecondary Education (ACPE) is responsible for administering state financial aid. (Unfortunately, there isn’t much aid to go around.) For the most up-to-date listing of Arizona student grants and scholarships, visit the the ACPE’s child website, AZGrants.
While you’re there, check out ACPE’s online Arizona College & Career Guide. This is a one-stop resource for students considering an affordable Arizona college, university, vocational or career school. It lays out your financial aid options and profiles almost every higher education institution.
Worried about the paperwork? Visit College Goal Arizona. You’ll find help with filing the FAFSA (College Goal FAFSA), advice on the financial aid process (pay4collegearizona) and helpful links to college preparation and career websites. College Goal Arizona also partners with Arizona high schools to provide personal support with individual college applications (Arizona College Application Campaign).
On the hunt for extra funding? The Arizona Community Foundation (ACF) is Arizona’s largest private provider of college scholarships. High school seniors and college students fill out one application and are automatically matched with up to 90 scholarship opportunities. AZGrants also has a helpful Scholarship Resources page.
Summary: AzLEAP gives need-based grants to low-income Arizona students who wish to attend an undergraduate program at an eligible college or university in Arizona. The AzLEAP website has a list of participating institutions, which includes ITT Tech. The state allocates money to institutions, and institutions award the grant. The maximum AzLEAP award per academic year is $2,500. The average amount is $1,000 per academic year.
Eligibility: You must:
How to Apply: File your FAFSA and list a participating institution in your choice of schools. Schools select eligible recipients for the award using information from the FAFSA; contact your university’s Financial Aid Office if you have any questions about the process.
Summary: MSSE provides need-based forgivable loans to Arizona college students (juniors or seniors) who are willing to teach in Arizona public schools in certain counties (e.g. La Paz) and/or specialty areas (e.g. math).
In return for a commitment to teach for a period of time equal to the number of years of the award plus one extra year, students can receive a maximum of $7,000 per academic year for up to three years of education. For example, if you receive funds for two years of college, you must work for three years as a teacher.
This award money excludes all grants, scholarship and other tuition benefits (e.g. tribal and military). Funds can be applied to tuition & fees and instructional materials. If you don’t complete your teaching obligation, the award converts to a loan, which must be repaid with 7% interest.
Eligibility: You must:
Summary: PCPLRP and RPPCPLRP are State Loan Repayment Programs (SLRPs) administered by the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS). In return for working for two years as primary care practitioners in high need areas throughout Arizona, participants receive loan repayments on qualifying educational loans.
Eligibility: You must:
How to Apply: Complete the SLRP Application Packet for the appropriate program.
Summary: Any veteran who has been honorably discharged from the U.S. Armed Force and resides in Arizona is granted immediate classification as an in-state student.
Eligibility: To retain this in-state classification, a veteran must:
How to Apply: Contact the Financial Aid Office at your choice of Arizona institution.
For more info on education benefits (federal & state) for Arizona military, contact the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services (DVS) .
Summary: Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) Student Exchange Programs allow tens of thousands of Arizona students to attend undergraduate, graduate and professional programs in other Western states at reduced rates.
Eligibility: Each program has its own set of eligibility requirements and participating institutions—please visit the WICHE website or the Arizona Board of Regents page on Arizona WICHE Student Exchange Programs for more information.
How to Apply: Contact the Financial Aid Office at your choice of participating institution for an application.
College is seldom cheap, especially for low-income Arizonans. If you and your family are starting to struggle with basic needs, the Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES) may be able to help. You’re probably already aware of programs like Nutrition Assistance (food stamps) and AHCCCS Health Insurance, but the DES also provides child care subsidies, utility assistance (LIHEAP), temporary cash, employment resources and much more. DES’s Online Services page allows you to apply for most of these benefits.
Don’t qualify for state benefits? Call 2-1-1 or visit the website of Arizona 211. 211 is a free referral organization that connects residents to the right local resource. Wondering what benefits are available for veterans? Looking for short-term help with household bills? In danger of being evicted? Searching for GED programs? 211 counselors can answer almost question you have.
Alternatively, you can contact your local Community Action Agency (CAA). These agencies are located throughout Arizona and provide a huge range of services related to basic needs.
The total cost of on-campus housing will depend your school’s size, location and commitment to housing. For instance, UA has 23 residence halls; a lot of community colleges have none. If you’re not sure what to do, play with the budget calculators on MappingYourFuture.org and CalcXML.com. These allow you to compare on-campus costs (meal plans, dorm fees, etc.) with off-campus bills (groceries, commuting, utilities, etc.). Many students try to save money by sharing dorm space (e.g. NAU’s discounted triple room) and opting for the lowest cost meal plan.
It’s also important to remember that some schools require—or highly recommend that—first year students to live on campus. For example, ASU expects first-time freshmen to live on campus in the residential college of their major. The housing section of the university’s website will have information on current rates and requirements.
A lot of financial aid packages don’t pay for room & board. If you’re stressed about your options, talk to your high school counselor, the university’s residential life/housing coordinator and/or an officer at the Financial Aid Office. They may be able to refer you to work study programs or private & institutional scholarships that deal with housing. For example, the Flinn Scholarship Program covers the cost of tuition, fees and room & board for scholars attending ASU, UA or NAU.
Students at big state schools and Arizona commuter colleges often end up staying at home or renting. Generally speaking, apartments close to university campuses tend to have higher rents than more distant neighborhoods. One place to look for guidance is the housing section of your university’s website. ASU’s Off Campus Housing provides printed & online housing guides and hosts two housing fairs. NAU’s Off Campus Housing Resources page has links to its housing guide, NAU-partnered housing options and commuter advice. And UA has partnered with Off-Campus Housing Partners to create a separate Off-Campus Housing website.
Craigslist, local rent sites, and bulletin boards will have postings for cheap apartments (just vigilant about scams—folks love to take advantage of students). You might also try websites like CampusRent.com, ApartmentGuide.com and MyApartmentMap.com, which allow you to target your college or university. If the worst happens and you’re facing eviction, HomelessShelterDirectory.org has a list of emergency shelters and transitional housing opportunities in the Arizona Homeless Shelter Directory.
Always find out what utilities you’ll be responsible for covering (e.g. electricity, water, etc.) before you sign any lease. If you’re sharing with other students, work out a written agreement about how expenses will be paid—you don’t want to have late payments on a utility bill in your name. To get a better handle on the budget, ask your prospective landlord for a monthly estimate of utilities or talk to former renters.
Unable to afford your bills? Low-income Arizona residents who own or rent are often eligible for utility assistance programs. For example, the DES contracts with Community Action Programs (CAPs) to offer temporary energy help through LIHEAP.
What’s more, Arizona utility companies have their own programs for low-income customers. Examples of these include Arizona Public Service Company (APS) Assistance Programs, the Southwest Gas Energy Share Program and the EPCOR Water Low-Income Program. Ask your utility company what’s available. Your local Salvation Army or Community Action Agency will also be able to refer you to programs.
Most Arizona schools—even community colleges—will have a campus health center that provides free/affordable medical care. Big schools tend to have more services. For example, UA’s Campus Health offers mental health counseling & psychiatric help, massage therapy, X-rays, prescription services and more. But even the smallest college usually provides primary care, preventive health services and immunizations.
Need help beyond campus? The Arizona Department of Health Services (DHS) has an interactive map of Sliding Fee Schedule (SFS) clinics. These clinics provide free or low-cost primary, mental and dental health services to persons without insurance. (FreeClinicDirectory.org and NeedyMeds.org have similar databases.) Hitting the wall? Mental Health America (MHA) of Arizona has a list of mental crisis hotlines; the national Mental Health Crisis/Suicide hotline is 1-800-273-8255.
Finding affordable dental care may require a bit more research. Try searching the SFS clinic list above or looking for a dental school or training facility nearby. For example, PCC’s low-cost Dental Hygiene Clinic allows dental students to practice on patients under the eye of licensed dental hygienists and dentists. ATSU’s Dental Clinic at the Arizona School of Dentistry & Oral Health offers a large range of services at reasonable rates to the entire public. FreeDentalCare.us: Arizona also has a list of free and low-cost dental clinics in each county.
For many student parents, child care is the ultimate barrier to college. A few Arizona colleges & universities—including ASU—have on-campus daycare facilities, but competition for places is often fierce. Apply as early as you can.
You should also ask your school if any subsidies or discounts are available. For example, NAU’s Childcare Voucher Program provides funds to qualifying undergraduate, graduate, international and extended campus students. UA’s Student Child Care & Housing Subsidy Program helps parents defray costs and customize the setting and location of their daycare facility. (UA also provides customized referrals and advice.)
Another excellent resource is Arizona’s Child Care Resource and Referral (CCR&R). It has a great advice section on Help Paying for Child Care—with ideas about scholarships, sliding fee scales, discounts and tax credits—and a Child Care Search with a free customized referral service. Child Care Assistance from the state (i.e. the DES) is available for low-income parents who need to participate in employment or specific education and training activities.
Car, bike, bus—whatever your choice of wheels, we recommend a quick look at the transportation section of your university’s website. It will probably be dull as ditchwater, but it will have tons of useful info on how to save money. You’ll find links to parking services, free campus shuttles & light rails, rideshares, carpools, Zipcars, bike auctions & rentals and more. Some schools have even started programs that reward students who commit to alternative transportation.
In addition, a lot of Arizona universities and colleges have forged deals with local transit companies. UA’s discount U-Pass gives students unlimited rides on the Sun Link streetcar, Sun Tran and Sun Express buses. ASU’s U-Pass is good for unlimited rides on Valley Metro light rail and all Valley Metro Local, LINK, Express and RAPID bus routes. National carriers like Greyhound and Amtrak also offer discounts to college students.
UA, ASU, NAU, Estrella Mountain Community College and Southwest University of Visual Arts have opened food pantries on campus and the list continues to grow. A few schools around the country have also created programs to supply at-need or homeless students with leftovers from dining services. When you hit a crisis, talk to your Financial Aid Office—counselors may know of ways to reduce your meal plan costs.
Or you can turn to your community. The Association of Arizona Food Banks has info on SNAP (food stamps), a list of food assistance programs and a large database of emergency food options in Arizona. FoodPantries.org and HomelessShelterDirectory.org have similar lists. New moms or moms-to-be may also wish to see if they qualify for the Arizona WIC Program.
SEE ALSO: our Encyclopedic Guide to Saving Money as a College Student.
According to Sperling’s Best Places, the overall cost of living in Phoenix was just below the national average in 2018. The heat can be crushing, so you’ll want to keep in mind costs for air conditioning. The affordably priced Phoenix Metro Light Rail runs for 20 miles (though rents tend to be expensive for apartments near it) and bikes are everywhere. Despite its desert reputation, you’re always near a trail of some description, complete with coyotes and rattlesnakes. General info for residents can be found on the City of Phoenix website.
If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a city to send that kid to college. Whether you’re sixteen or sixty, there are many non-profit organizations in Phoenix that can help with the goal of higher education.
Home to UA and all its amenities, Tucson is a fairly reasonable place for students. In 2018, the overall cost of living was lower than Phoenix; utilities and housing costs were particularly affordable. It has a reputation as a bike- and hike-friendly city and the Sun Link Streetcar goes right through the UA campus. Plus, the whole city has plenty of low-cost dining and entertainment options. Things to watch out for include crime (think property theft and renters insurance) and the scorching heat (think air conditioning bills). General info for residents can be found on the City of Tucson website.
Tucson has fewer college preparation & youth development programs than Phoenix, but there are still plenty of non-profit organizations that are willing to lend a hand.
Thanks—in part—to higher housing costs, Mesa is more expensive than Tucson or Phoenix. A lot of residents commute, and public transport isn’t great, so you’ll probably need to consider the costs of a car or a bike. Fortunately, the city has 40+ miles of bike lanes and plenty of access to trails and recreational opportunities. Summer temperatures regularly soar past 100 degrees, so be prepared for electricity bills. General info for residents can be found on the City of Mesa website.
Finding a cheap college education in Arizona takes time, effort and support from the whole community. No matter what you need—financial aid advice, family support, test preparation—there is a Mesa organization that can help.