College education in the United States may seem pretty ubiquitous. After all, you can't get a job without a degree, so heading off to college after high school has become a rule, not an exception. Surely the cost of tuition must be far more affordable than it seems.
In fact, student loan debt in America totals $1.757 trillion. That's twelve zeros. Clearly, even the brightest students in our country haven't figured out how to pay for college without succumbing to life-ruining debt.
If you're preparing to head to the classroom, you don't need to accept that reality. You can receive free government money, regardless if you are your school's valedictorian or a star athlete. The key is understanding what grants and scholarships are available so you can apply and put that free money to work for you.
We've created this guide to teach students like you how to access your free money and avoid drowning in college debt. Read on to learn the ins and outs of funding your college education without working yourself into the ground.
Grants and Scholarships
The words “grant” and “loan” often get lumped together, meaning many potential students assume they're the same thing. While you may receive grants and loans at the same time, they are distinct and follow different rules.
Unlike loans, you do not need to pay back a grant. It is a gift of funds, similar to a scholarship. The organization offering the grant will sometimes (but not always) require that you use the money for a specific purpose, such as tuition, textbooks, or educational technology.
Grant funding tends to go to students with financial need, especially when the funding organization is the government. In contrast, organizations give away scholarship money based on need, merit, or ability. Many non-government organizations award scholarships to individuals who have shown dedication, demonstrated talents, or belong to a marginalized group.
Despite what you've seen in the movies, organizations will not seek you out to award a scholarship. You need to apply to receive scholarship or grant funding.
Do I Ever Need to Repay a Grant?
The granting organization may void your funds in several rare and specific cases. For example, if you withdraw from school, you must return grant money earmarked for tuition. Otherwise, grant funds are free money, with no expectation of repayment.
How Do I Apply for a Grant?
When you begin applying for schools, you'll hear the acronym “FAFSA” a lot. This stands for “Free Application for Federal Student Aid.” Your school may require you to fill out this form before enrolling.
Whether or not your school requires it, you should fill out the FAFSA every year. You may be eligible for a state or federal government grant. Your eligibility often changes from year to year, so staying up to date is essential.
Consider setting a recurring calendar reminder for October 1st, when the FAFSA becomes available. The sooner you fill out the form, the more likely you are to receive a generous aid package. This is a case in which the early bird really does get the worm!
What You Need to Complete the FAFSA
Most of the questions on the FAFSA form are self-explanatory. It will ask for personal information such as your name, address, and the schools you've applied to.
The only additional information you'll need will be on your family's tax returns. If you are applying independently of your family, you will need your personal tax returns. Schools will generate an aid package based on these numbers.
Receiving an Aid Package
After completing the FAFSA paperwork, each college will offer you a financial package. Your package may include grants, scholarships, and federal work-study funding. Your school may also offer you loans at special rates.
Be aware that you are not obligated to accept loans if you prefer to avoid debt. In fact, you can pick and choose which aid you will happily accept. That might mean accepting grants but choosing to forego work-study (which may be the case if you expect to work while enrolled).
FAFSA and State Grants
In addition to federal grants, you may also be eligible to receive state grants. These are government grants from a separate funding source. In most states, you must fill out the FAFSA to become eligible for these additional funds.
If you live in the Tri-State area, you must fill out additional paperwork in addition to the FAFSA to apply for state funds. In other states, your FAFSA is enough. Research your state on the Department of Education website to familiarize yourself with the requirements.
University Grants and Scholarships
Many students receive additional scholarships for college from their school. Upon acceptance, your university will likely offer you an initial financial aid package. This can include private scholarships and grants to entice you to choose that institution over another.
Most universities have financial aid counselors on staff. Before deciding, schedule an appointment to meet with your prospective school's financial aid officer. They can explain your package and point you toward other sources of funding that can make it easier to pay for school.
Types of University Grants
Schools often offer two general types of grants: needs-based and merit-based grants. You may receive one or both from your college. In rare cases, such as the Academic Competitiveness Grant, a grant may be both need and merit-based.
In other cases, you may receive individual personal grants. These are funds intended for the purchase of something you need, such as a laptop.
Your college may provide you with an additional needs-based grant based on your FAFSA information. They will also take your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) into account. This figure reflects the amount the school expects your family to be able to pay to help with tuition, regardless of whether or not they plan to contribute.
The lower your EFC, the more likely you are to receive a university grant. Needs-based grants are the most common types of grants awarded by colleges and universities.
In contrast, a merit-based grant will relate to achievements in the classroom, the arts, community service, or athletics. This is usually based on your initial application. Be sure to demonstrate your leadership and academic achievements when you apply.
You may need to apply directly for some of these grants. Some applications require an essay, portfolio, or interview. When you meet with each school's financial aid counselor, ask about the requirements.
Additionally, many outside organizations offer merit-based grants to exceptional students.
Common Grants You Can Receive
The government puts aside funds to help college students afford tuition each year. When you receive your aid package, your school may offer you one of the following common grant awards.
A Pell Grant is the most common needs-based grant awarded to students. The Pell grant application process is part of the standard FAFSA application. The amount you receive will depend upon your financial situation and the tuition at the institution you plan to attend.
TEACH grants are merit-based grants. You must commit to four years of service in a high-need field at a low-income elementary, middle, or high school to receive this grant.
High-needs fields include:
- Foreign languages
- ENL or bilingual education
- Special Education
You can apply for this grant annually when you submit your FAFSA paperwork. Students who receive funding become eligible for up to $4,000 annually in free grant funds while in school. While teaching, you receive your full educator salary based on individual district pay scales.
FSEOG stands for Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants. Participating schools receive funding to support students with a higher-than-average financial needs. These funds are extremely limited, and schools tend to award them on a first-come, first-served basis.
Military Service Grants
Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants are for students with family members who died in service after 9/11. You cannot receive both an Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant and a Pell grant. Students are only eligible if they were twenty-four years old or younger at the time of their family member's death.
If you are a reserve or active duty member of any branch of the United States military, you may also be eligible for service-related grants. If you are a veteran, you can receive GI Bill funding, which may cover all of your tuition and related expenses.
There are additional grant and scholarship funds available for military families, including both children and spouses of U.S. citizens.
Many international students receive Fulbright grants. This government-funded exchange program makes it possible for students from countries worldwide to pursue higher education in America. Grant opportunities for international students are otherwise limited.
Historically, students from certain marginalized groups have had more difficulty paying for, attending, and completing college degrees. Many grants exist specifically to help members of these groups.
Grants for Racial and Cultural Minorities
While some grants for racial and cultural minorities may be available through your university, you may have more success applying to specific scholarship opportunities.
Some organizations providing this assistance include:
- The United Negro College Fund
- American Indian College Fund
- Ciri Foundation
- National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development
- The American Bar Association
- Asian-American Journalist Association
Individual states may offer grants to students from specific backgrounds. Iowa, Wisconsin, Connecticut, and Missouri assist minority students in certain academic programs.
Grants for Gender Minority Students
There are many grants for women available, mostly from private organizations. Some of the funding includes grants for single moms who may wish to attend school to improve life for their children.
Look into the following opportunities:
- Patsy Takemoto Mink Education Foundation Scholarship
- American Indian College Fund Full Circle Scholarships
- Soroptimist Live Your Dream Awards
- Zonta International Jane M. Klausman Women in Business Scholarship
Many GNC and transgender students may be eligible for funding through LGBTQ+ organizations. Again, you will have to apply directly to these organizations to receive funding.
Scholarship and grant opportunities include:
- The Gender Odyssey Scholarship
- GRTF Academic Scholarship
- The Jim Collins Foundation Transition Grant
- Unitec Institute of Technology Trans Scholarship
- Trans Student Educational Resources Scholarship
You may be able to find additional gender-based grant and scholarship opportunities by browsing the grants gov website. You should also reach out to organizations in your community that may offer academic funding for queer and GNC students.
Grants for Students With Disabilities
Students with specific disabilities may also be eligible for funding. This money should make a college education more accessible for students with extra disability-related expenses.
Some universities offer grants and scholarships to students with disabilities in an effort to increase diversity on campus. Many of these schools offer exceptional on-campus disability services.
Organizations offering disability-based funding include:
- The National Federation for the Blind
- The Billy Barty Foundation
- The Cystic Fibrosis Scholarship Foundation
- Help America Hear
- Lighthouse Guild
- Jared Monroe Foundation
- The Center for Reintegration
Several large corporations, such as Microsoft, also make funds available for disabled students seeking higher education. Furthermore, if you need specific assistive technology to succeed in the classroom, you may be eligible for certain personal grants from your state.
How to Pay for College, Avoid Debt, and Thrive
“Debt” is a four-letter word with the power to ruin your life. Instead of surrendering to a lifetime of paying back your student loans, why not take advantage of the free money that is waiting for you to claim it? The right scholarship can make any degree an affordable path toward lifelong career fulfillment.
Now that you know how to pay for college, the time to begin applying for government grants is now.
Keep Reading: Everything You Need to Know About College Grants
**Data collected and distributed by the National Center for Education Statistics https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2022/2022144.pdf
***Data collected and distributed by the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2022144