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5 states that step up to help students pay for college

The federal government is the largest source of financial aid for students, but many states also offer robust aid programs that can ease your debt burden. Oftentimes overlooked, state financial aid programs range from scholarships and grants to tax credits and loan forgiveness incentives, and they frequently have smaller applicant pools than awards offered through private organizations. Here are five states that go above and beyond when it comes to helping students afford their education.

1. Virginia

Scenic view There's a reason why this state lands in the No. 5 slot on Schools.com's list of the best states to pay back student loans. Not only does Virginia offer a reasonable cost of living and decent jobs to graduates once they're out of school, it also provides strong financial incentives to help limit debt while in school. The state offers an absolutely huge array of scholarships, grants and tuition waiver programs for undergrad in-state residents only, but there's also help if you're looking to go out of state for school. Virginia is a member of the Academic Common Market, a reciprocation agreement among 16 Southern states that allows students who are majoring in a field that's not offered in their home state to attend a public college in a member state without paying pricey out-of-state tuition.

2. Alaska

Alaska has its share of state-funded grants — the Alaska Performance Scholarship, for instance, offers up to $4,755 per year to high-achieving resident high school grads who attend a participating Alaska institution — but the real incentive to head up north is the state's generous public tuition policies. With average tuition and fee rates at public four-year schools clocking in at under $5,900 per year, according to the College Board, Alaska already has the second-lowest average tuition price in the U.S. (just above Wyoming). And that deal is often extended to out-of-staters as well. Those who invest in Alaska's 529 plan qualify for in-state tuition at schools in the University of Alaska System.

3. Georgia

Low public tuition rates combined with the HOPE Scholarship program make for an affordable education. Designed for state residents attending two-year, four-year and technical schools, the HOPE Scholarship offers up to $226 per credit hour — that's $6,780 over a standard 30-credit year — to residents attending one of the public or private HOPE-eligible schools. Students must have a 3.0 GPA or score in the 80th percentile or above on the SAT or ACT to qualify, and award amounts vary by institution, but they are renewable until the student has attempted 127 credit hours. On top of the HOPE Scholarship, the state's Zell Miller Scholarship rewards state high school grads with up to $270.40 per credit hour (a maximum of $9,002 annually) for those with high GPAs and test scores. Students may claim either the HOPE or Zell Miller scholarships, but not both. Georgia is also a member of the Academic Common Market, which can mean deep discounts for residents headed out-of-state, too. Whether it's campus or online colleges in Georgia, education in the Peach state certainly has a lot to offer.

4. Washington

Seattle skylineWashington gets major kudos for its investment in education for low-income students. The Washington State Need Grant provides up to $10,868 for the 2014-15 school year for low-income families. On top of that, low-income students may also qualify for the College Bound Scholarship program, which offers comparable awards to help fill in the financial gaps. As an extra bonus, many of the state's public and private institutions also have need-based grants that can help reduce or eliminate remaining college and housing costs. The double good news is that even if you do need to borrow to get through school, Washington is ready to help you pay those loans back. The state currently holds the No. 3 position, just behind Wyoming and Utah, on Schools.com's best states to pay back student loans list, thanks to high average incomes, low loan default rates and no state income tax.

5. California

Another especially high-finisher (No. 7) on the list of best states to repay loans, California deserves a standing ovation for its Cal Grant program, which provides up to $12,192 per year at University of California institutions and reduced amounts at a wide array of public and private four-year schools, as well as technical and community colleges. Additional funding is available for low-income students to assist with housing and living expenses. California is also one of the few states that extend some financial aid incentives to undocumented students. Thanks to the California DREAM Act, children who moved to the United States at a young age and who fulfill certain academic requirements are eligible for state financial aid programs.

Starting this year, the state is also rolling out a new scholarship program aimed at those in the middle. The Middle Class Scholarship provides an award equivalent to 14 percent off of the price of tuition and fees for students who are attending a school in the University of California or California State University systems and who hail from families earning up to $100,000 annually. Reduced awards are available for students from families earning between $100,001 and $150,000 annually. A 14 percent discount isn't enormous, but it is a beginning — and it's growing. By the 2017-18 school year, California plans to scale the award up to a 40 percent discount.

Sources:

"Alaska High School Students - Earn the Alaska Performance Scholarship (APS) to Pay for College or Training in Alaska," Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education,
http://acpe.alaska.gov/STUDENT-PARENT/Grants_Scholarships/Alaska_Performance_Scholarship

About Cal Grants, CalGrants.org, California Student Aid Commission,
http://www.calgrants.org/index.cfm?navId=10&

Apply for a Cal Grant in 2 Easy Steps, California Student Aid Commission,
http://www.csac.ca.gov/doc.asp?ID=48

California Dream Act FAQs, California Student Aid Commission,
http://www.csac.ca.gov/pubs/forms/grnt_frm/cal_grant_dream_act_faqs.pdf

Ten Things You Need to Know About California's Middle Class Scholarship, California Student Aid Commission,
http://www.csac.ca.gov/mcs.asp

Tuition and Fees by Sector and State over Time, The College Board,
https://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing/figures-tables/tuition-and-fees-sector-and-state-over-time

Georgia's HOPE Scholarship Program Overview, GACollege411.org,
https://www.gacollege411.org/Financial_Aid_Planning/HOPE_Program/Georgia_s_HOPE_Scholarship_Program_Overview.aspx

Georgia's Zell Miller Scholarship Program Overview, GACollege411.org,
https://secure.gacollege411.org/Financial_Aid_Planning/Scholarships/Zell_Miller_Scholarship/Zell_Miller_Scholarship_Program_Overview.aspx

"HOPE Scholarship and HOPE Grant Standard Undergraduate Award Amounts for Fiscal Year 2015," Georgia Student Finance Commission,
http://www.gsfc.org/main/publishing/pdf/2012/hope_award_amounts.pdf

"Eligible Institutions: HOPE Scholarship, Zell Miller Scholarship, Public Safety Memorial Grant," Georgia Student Finance Commission,
http://www.gsfc.org/main/publishing/pdf/common/HOPE_Eligible_Institutions.pdf

"HOPE Scholarship & Zell Miller Scholarship Overview," Georgia Tech Office of Financial Aid,
http://www.finaid.gatech.edu/hopezell

Academic Common Market, Southern Regional Education Board,
http://www.sreb.org/page/1304/academic_common_market.html

Academic Common Market: In-State Tuition for Select Out-of-State Programs, State Council of Higher Education for Virginia,
http://www.schev.edu/students/academiccommonmkt.asp

Financial Aid Programs for Undergraduate Students, State Council of Higher Education for Virginia,
http://www.schev.edu/students/undergradFinancialaidPrograms.asp

Tuition & Fees, University of Alaska Fairbanks,
http://www.uaf.edu/catalog/current/expenses/tuition.html

Explore Financial Aid, U.S. Department of Education,
http://www2.ed.gov/students/college/aid/edpicks.jhtml

College Bound Scholarship Program, ReadySetGrad.org, Washington Student Achievement Council,
http://www.readysetgrad.org/college/college-bound-scholarship-program

State Need Grant, Washington Student Achievement Council,
http://www.wsac.wa.gov/state-need-grant