Graduating from high school and heading off to college is one of the most exciting times in a young person’s life, but it also comes with a fair amount of anxiety as both parents and students worry about everything from newfound teen independence to paying for college expenses. Finding ways to fund your college education without graduating with a mountain of debt can take some creativity. Financial aid is an option for many students, but aid packages usually include student loans that must be paid back.
Grants and scholarships provide free money for college, making them much better financial aid alternatives. To maximize your grant potential, you have to know what you potentially qualify for and apply well in advance of the school year. Here’s a look at what you need to know to find the best grants for college.
Grants vs. Scholarships
Grants and scholarships are both types of financial aid that students don’t have to pay back, but the qualifying criteria are usually dramatically different. Scholarships are most often merit-based, meaning you qualify for them based on excellence in some area, such as academics, athletics or hobbies. In some cases, they may be based on membership in a particular group or club or based on gender or ethnicity.
On the other hand, most grants are need-based, meaning you qualify for them based on your family’s income level in relation to the current cost of attendance at your chosen college. In some cases, other factors may also determine eligibility — future teachers, future health professionals, future social workers, for example — but almost all grants have some type of income limitation to qualify.
Both grants and scholarships may be eligible for renewal each year (up to a maximum number of semesters), but it’s fairly common for scholarships to only last a single semester or school year. The rules for renewal vary, but they often include merit-based features like maintaining a specific grade point average and taking a full schedule of classes each semester.
It’s important to note that grants can have merit-based requirements like scholarships, and scholarships can be need-based. However, the distinctions of grants for need and scholarships for merit are typically what differentiate the two. In rare cases, you may have to pay back free grant money — for dropping classes shortly after receiving the funds, for example. The rules vary for different grant programs.
Start by Submitting Your FAFSA
Regardless of your opinion about your family’s income, grants are definitely worth pursuing when it comes to paying for college. Don’t assume your family makes too much money for you to qualify. The first step is to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) provided by the U.S. Department of Education. Submitting this one application automatically processes your request to be considered for all types of federal financial aid at any college you want to attend.
The Department of Education analyzes your application to determine an estimated amount your family could be expected to contribute to the cost of your education for that year. Lower Estimated Family Contributions (EFC) qualify for higher need-based grant amounts, but this number doesn’t have to be zero to qualify for federal aid. The details in your application help your school determine your entire financial aid package, including loans, scholarships and work study in addition to grants.
Fill out and submit your FAFSA as early as possible — the application currently opens on October 1 each year — because some grant programs may be limited with funds awarded on a first-come/first-served basis. Be sure to add all the colleges you are interested in attending to your FAFSA, so you can receive and compare financial aid offers from each school. Some aid packages will be very similar, but some might include grants that aren’t available at every college or higher amounts for some grants due to different schools’ resources.
Learn About Common Federal Grants
Federal education grants come in many forms, but the most common option that is available to every student that financially qualifies is the Pell Grant. This grant is based solely on financial need and is reserved for students who haven’t earned their first undergraduate degree yet. Students with zero EFCs qualify for the maximum Pell Grant amount each year, but reduced grant amounts are also available to students with higher EFCs.
If your parent or guardian died as a result of military service in Iraq or Afghanistan after 9/11, you may qualify for an Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant, even if your EFC calculated on your FAFSA is too high to qualify for a Pell Grant. You must have been younger than 24 or already enrolled in college part-time at the time of the death.
For students planning on going into elementary education, a Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) grant may offer the perfect solution. These grants cover up to $4,000 per year of college expenses for students who agree to teach in a high-need field at a school or educational agency that serves low-income families for at least four years after graduation.
The Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) also pays as much as $4,000 per year to eligible students, although amounts are often much lower at only a few hundred dollars per semester. Unlike Pell Grants, FSEOG funds are limited to a certain amount per year per school, so the exact amount awarded to each student depends on the number of students who qualify by the school’s deadline.
Search for Other Non-Federal Grants
Federal grant funds are extremely helpful when you need money for college, but they won’t usually cover the full cost of attendance. The next best resources for grants include state governments, universities and colleges, and private organizations. You should start checking into the details for these types of programs as soon as you complete your FAFSA. To find state programs, search the internet for college grants for your state. Make sure the site you use for information is authentic and connected to the state. For example, College for All Texans is a reputable site that provides information about Texas-based education grants (and much more).
Individual colleges and universities will have specific pages on their websites with information about any college-specific financial aid they offer, including grants. Some colleges, particularly private ones, may also require you to complete a CSS Profile through CollegeBoard before processing financial aid packages. This profile is similar to the FAFSA and includes detailed information about your family’s financial situation. It also potentially connects you with college-specific grant programs that could apply to you. Not all schools require a CSS Profile, but it can be a helpful resource for information.
Private organizations around the country work to uplift specific groups of people, such as women, people of color and those who practice certain religions, by providing college grants to help them reach their goals. If you participate in a specific hobby or activity, search for prominent groups related to the activity that might offer grant or scholarship programs. It takes more time and internet digging to find these hidden funding options, but not as many people know about them, which sometimes makes these funds easier to get.
Finally, don’t forget about the academic advisor at your high school. In fact, if the school is large enough, you might even have access to a specific college-bound counselor that focuses exclusively on helping students with college-related issues related to admissions and financial aid.
Special Grant Considerations
Applying for non-federal and non-state grants at some institutions may require you to jump through a few extra hoops. You may need to provide additional information about yourself, including documents to back up your accomplishments if you’re applying for a merit-based grant. It’s also very common for private organizations to require written essays on topics related to their organization or detailing your own accomplishments and plans for the future. They may require you to cater to various whims, but it’s all worth it with free money on the line.
When you start the grant search process, create a calendar with deadlines as you find them. Try to get your applications in as early as possible and definitely never miss a deadline. Keep in mind that extremely competitive grants may reserve the right to stop accepting applications once a certain number has been reached.