A grant can be one of the most useful forms of financial aid that you can receive, and you could be automatically eligible for some student grants if you apply for federal financial aid.
Even though some student grants require additional work, though, you should seek out as many opportunities for free money as possible — that money could help you avoid student loans or dipping into savings to pay for your education.
Grants vs. scholarships: What’s the difference?
Grants and scholarships are both free forms of financial aid, or gift aid. If you receive a grant or scholarship, you won’t need to repay the money unless you don’t follow through with the terms — for example, leaving school before the end of the term.
Both student grants and scholarships may have some general requirements, such as being enrolled at an accredited school and taking a full-time courseload. The primary difference between the two is that grants tend to be need-based, while scholarships may also be merited-based.
For example, you may be eligible for a grant if you or your family’s annual income is below a certain amount. Regardless of whether you qualify for that specific grant based on your income, you might qualify for scholarships based on your academic, athletic or artistic abilities.
These aren’t strict lines, though. Some student grants may have merit-based components or not require a financial need. Likewise, there are scholarships that require applicants demonstrate a financial need to qualify.
In the end, it may not matter much whether you earn money from a grant or scholarship program. However, as you search for funding options, you may want to start with scholarships if you don’t have a large financial need. Consider starting with student grants if you do.
How to find student grants
You can find grants from different types of organizations, including the U.S. Department of Education, your state, colleges or universities, nonprofits and private organizations. The qualifications, deadlines and amount offered can vary depending on the grant and may change from one year to the next.
Here are a few examples of grants from a variety of organizations.
Through the Department of Education, the federal government offers four grants to students who are attending a college, university or career school. Each year, you may automatically be considered for these student grants after submitting your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Federal Pell Grants are generally awarded to students who haven’t received a bachelor’s or graduate degree and who have an exceptional financial need.
A Pell Grant could be worth up to $6,095 for the 2018-19 award year. However, the amount you’ll receive can depend on the cost of attendance at your school, your family’s expected contribution amount and whether you’re a part- or full-time student.
In total, you can receive a Pell Grant for up to 12 semesters, or about six years of schooling. Also, unlike with some other grant programs, you won’t be limited by your school’s funding and other financial aid you receive won’t impact your Pell Grant award.
Although the Department of Education funds FSEOGs, schools administer the grant program and may not participate in it. Like Pell Grants, FSEOGs are awarded to students who haven’t yet earned a bachelor’s or graduate degree.
The FSEOG may be worth up to $4,000 a year, although each school is only allocated a specific amount of funding. Awards may be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis to the students who have the most financial need. Submitting your FAFSA early could help you qualify.
A federal TEACH Grant isn’t need-based — it is intended to help students who are preparing to teach in a high-need field and are enrolled in a bachelor’s, master’s or postbaccalaureate program at a qualified school.
Recipients must sign a TEACH Grant Agreement to Serve. In part, it’s a promise to work as a full-time teacher serving low-income students for at least four academic years during the eight-year period afterYou must also teach in a high-need field, such as foreign languages, mathematics, science or special education. If you receive a TEACH Grant and don’t follow through with the agreement, your award amount will become a Direct Unsubsidized Loan, which you’ll need to repay.
While the TEACH Grant Program allows awards of up to $4,000, the federal sequester law can limit the maximum award amount for a particular year. For the 2018-19 award year, the maximum award is $3,752.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant is for students whose parent or guardian served in the U.S. armed forces and died during military service in Iraq or Afghanistan after 9/11. You must have been either under 24 years old or enrolled in school at least part time when your parent or guardian passed away to be eligible.
If you meet these criteria, you may receive an award that’s equal to the maximum amount of the Pell Grant for the award year. Even if your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is too high and disqualifies you from receiving the Pell Grant, you may still receive the Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Grant award could be reduced due to sequestration. You also can’t receive a larger award than your school’s cost of attendance for the year.
Many states have grant programs that could help you pay for school. As with federal student grants, you may need to submit the FAFSA to be eligible for a state grant for the year. The financial information from your FAFSA along with your school’s cost of attendance could determine your grant amount, as well.
Your state’s grant programs could have an earlier deadline than the federal FAFSA deadline, so it could be important to submit your FAFSA as early as possible. You can check your state’s FAFSA deadline on FAFSA.ed.gov.
There are often residency requirements for state-based grant programs. You may also need to attend a qualified in-state school to be eligible, although some states have reciprocity agreements that allow residents to attend schools in other states.
State grants can vary in size and the programs may be intended to help those who show a financial need, exceptional merit or are part of an underserved population.
Here are a few examples of state grant programs. Student Loan Hero, another LendingTree company, also has an in-depth guide to state grant programs.
California offers three student grants (Cal Grant A, B and C). These can help you pay for tuition and fees at California public and private schools, including career schools. Cal Grant B also offers low-income students funds they can use to pay for textbooks and living expenses, among other costs.
Eligible students are automatically assigned the appropriate grants based on their FAFSA and the school they’re attending.
Additionally, the California Dream Act allows qualified state residents, including some undocumented residents who don’t meet the requirements for the FAFSA, to qualify for state- and school-based grants by submitting a CA Dream Act Application.
In Indiana, the Frank O’Bannon Grant is a need-based award that offers merit-based incentives. Depending on their EFC, recipients could receive up to $9,000 to attend a private school or $4,500 for a public school. Additional awards are given to students who maintain at least a cumulative 3.0 GPA or are on an accelerated track to finish their program.
Massachusetts offers a Public Service Grant that doesn’t have a need-based component. It covers full-time tuition cost of Massachusetts public colleges and universities, or an equivalent amount at independent college or universities in the state.
Recipients must have been permanent residents of Massachusetts for at least the previous year and be the child or spouse of someone who was killed or missing while serving in a public service role in Massachusetts.
The Advanced Placement Incentive Grant in Missouri awards $500 to high school students who earn a three or higher on at least two Advanced Placement exams in math or science. There’s no financial-need requirement to be eligible.
There are many other state grant programs, including additional grants offered by some of the states listed above. The federal Department of Education maintains a list of contact information for each state, and your state’s department of education or higher education agency can help you find state-based grant programs.
Colleges and universities
In addition to administering federal or state grants, some colleges and universities may also offer their own grants to students. These awards can take different forms and help students in various circumstances.
For example, students at New York University may be eligible for the Wasserman Center Internship Grant, which offers $1,000 to students who have a nonpaying internships in fields such as the arts and public service. Students at the University of Chicago may also be eligible for student grants if they have unpaid internships during the summer, or an unpaid internship or professional opportunity outside the U.S.
The University of Central Florida has two needs-based grants that students may automatically qualify for if they submit the FAFSA by the school’s Dec. 1 deadline. The UCF Grant is for eligible students with substantial financial need, while the Charge On! Grant is for students who enroll in at least 15 credit hours in a term. Students may also be eligible for state-funded grants, such as the First Generation Matching Grant for students whose parents don’t have a bachelor’s degree.
Contact your school’s financial aid office, or the financial aid office at each school you’re considering, to see if you may be eligible for any school-based grants.
Some companies put aside funds to help students pay for school. Often, there’s a requirement to either be in a field of study related to the company’s industry or to work at (or have a parent who works at) the company.
The Airbus Leadership Grant is one such opportunity. The $5,000 grant is awarded to a college student who has a 3.0 or above GPA, exhibits leadership potential, is at least a sophomore, and is attempting to earn a degree in an aviation-related field. The applicant also needs to be a member of Women in Aviation International; both women and men can join the organization.
Nonprofits, including local community groups, large nonprofits and religious organizations, may offer student grants to members or other qualified applicants. Generally, the grant will be awarded to individuals who further the mission or values of the organization.
The Costume Society of America’s Stella Blum Student Research Grant, for example, offers funds to undergraduate and graduate students who are researching North American costume. The recipient receives a $3,000 grant, along with additional funds to present the research at the CSA National Symposium.
Another example is the InterExchange Christianson Grant. Although it isn’t an educational grant, it could help you to finance a gap year. The awards, ranging from $2,500 to $10,000, are given to 18- to 28-year-old applicants who commit to do at least six months of work in an approved program. However, you can’t receive college credit for your project.
Professional and student associations
Some professional organizations, associations, fraternities and sororities offer grants to members (and sometimes even nonmembers) pursuing a degree or certification program. These grants may be a good option for students who don’t qualify for need-based grants or didn’t receive enough aid to cover all of their expenses.
For example, the Alpha Epsilon Phi sorority has a fund that it uses to give out emergency grants to undergraduate students who may otherwise have to withdraw from school, and also offers several scholarships to its members.
The American Association of University Women (AAUW) has Career Development Grants to help women who have a bachelor’s degree and are continuing their education by enrolling in a certification, second bachelor’s, master’s, technical or specializing training program. The AAUW awards $2,000 to $12,000 to recipients, and prioritizes to women of color and women seeking training in nontraditional fields.
Another example is the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which offers grants and scholarships to student-athletes. The NCAA generally offers aid to undergraduates in the form of scholarships or awards, but there’s a Graduate Student Research Grant Program that awards up to $7,500 to graduate students who are studying college athletics or student-athlete well-being and are attending an NCAA-member school.
There are also grants from profession-specific organizations, such as the Joseph C. Johnson Memorial Grant from the American Society of Certified Engineering Technicians (ASCET). To qualify, you must have a letter of recommendation from a faculty member from your school’s engineering technology department and be a member of the ASCET. If you win, you’ll receive $750 to help pay for tuition, books and lab fees.
How to apply for grants for college
There are two important general applications that can put you in the running, or be a prerequisite, for many student grants.
The FAFSA is a requirement for federal financial aid, including student loans, work-study and grants. It’s also a requirement for student grants from other organizations, including some state- and school-based grants. Once you submit your FAFSA, you may automatically be considered for multiple grants.
You must complete a new FAFSA by June 30 each year to remain eligible for federal financial aid. However, since many states and schools may have earlier deadlines and offer grants on a first-come, first-served basis, completing and submitting your annual FAFSA early is generally a good idea. The earliest you can submit is the previous Oct. 1 before your school year (e.g. Oct. 1, 2018, for the 2019-20 school year).
You may also want to complete the CSS Profile. Nearly 400 organizations, including schools, funds and scholarship programs, use the CSS Profile to evaluate students and award non-federal financial aid. Like the FAFSA, the CSS Profile application window opens on Oct. 1 and requires you to submit personal and financial information about you and your family.
The College Board has a profile overview video with step-by-step instructions for filling out your CSS Profile. There’s a $25 fee to submit your CSS Profile to a school or scholarship program, and an additional $16 fee for each subsequent submission. Low-income students may qualify for up to eight fee waivers.
Grant programs may also have individual applications or additional requirements along with submission of the FAFSA and CSS Profile. Pay close attention to each grant’s eligibility requirements, application process and deadline to help ensure you qualify and submit the necessary paperwork or information on time.
Just as your financial situation may change over the course of your time at school, your eligibility for grants and scholarships could change as well. Both grants and scholarships may be available to undergraduate and graduate students at all grade levels, and continuing to apply could limit how much you need to borrow or pull from your savings.
How might grants affect your finances?
While receiving grants means you could have more money to pay for school that you don’t need to repay, there are potential ramifications of accepting a grant.
With some types of financial aid, including many grants, scholarships and loans, the amount of aid you receive depends on other financial aid you’ve received. In some cases, if you receive a grant, your other financial aid offers could be decreased or you might even need to repay money you’ve received.
Ideally, if this happens, the school will decrease the loan amount it offers you. However, you might wind up with less grant or scholarship money, leading to no net gain on your part.
Taxes are another thing to consider. Some money from grants and scholarships might be tax-free as long as you’re in a degree-granting program and you spend the money on educational expenses. However, that only includes what you pay for tuition, fees and required books or supplies.
Grant money may be taxable if you use it to pay for other expenses, such as room and board or travel between home and school. You may also need to include the grant money as income for the year if you must work (e.g., as a teaching or research assistant) as part of the grant program.
Alternative ways to fund your college education
While student grants can be a great source of money for school, they’re not the only type of financial aid. Many students, especially those who don’t have an exceptional financial need, may not qualify for grants. Or the student grants they receive might not be enough to cover all of their educational and personal living expenses.
Here are several additional sources of money that could help you pay for school.
As another form of free money for school, scholarships should be a priority for students looking to pay for school. There are billions of dollars worth of scholarships available to students who are attending career, certificate, undergraduate and graduate degree programs. There are even scholarships that are open to children in grade school and high school.
While some scholarships have a need-based component, there are also many that are awarded regardless of the recipient’s finances. In some cases, you can qualify even if you don’t have outstanding grades, athletic skills or other particularly meritocratic achievements.
You can find scholarships online by asking high school or college counselors, looking for lists from local nonprofits that focus on educational access and asking about opportunities from organizations that you have some connection to, such as churches, after-school programs or a parent’s employer.
Federal student loans are available to eligible students regardless of financial need, credit history, credit score or income. Dependent undergraduate students may be able to borrow up to $5,500 during their first year at school, $6,500 during their second year and $7,500 during each subsequent year.
If these options aren’t enough to cover a student’s educational expenses, their parent may be able to take out a PLUS Loan to help cover costs. The student may also be able to borrow more if the parent doesn’t qualify for a PLUS Loan.
Private loans are another option for additional funding. Private student loans are credit-based loans, meaning your credit history, score, income, outstanding debts and other factors could all impact your ability to get approved, along with your loan’s rates and terms. Many undergraduate students may need a creditworthy cosigner — someone who agrees to also take legal responsibility for repaying the loan — to qualify for a private student loan or receive a good rate.
However, if you’ve reached the federal loan limit and need additional funds, you may want to question whether taking on additional debt is worth it. If you’re still deciding between schools, or are open to transferring, you may want to consider a less expensive school or one that offers you a stronger financial aid package.
Savings and income
Some parents have a college savings fund set up for their children. Since the money is already set aside to pay for school, it’s naturally a place you may turn to early on. However, it could still be wise to apply for as many scholarships and student grants as possible and save as much of your college fund as you can.
Students may also be able to take on a job while they’re at school, during holiday breaks and over the summer. While the income from work may not be enough to pay for everything, it could help offset the cost of school and allow you to borrow less money. Additionally, the work experience you gain could help you determine what you want to study, the types of work you want to do and make it easier to land a job after graduation.