Worried about racking up student loan debt? College grants are helping many students lower the costs of earning a degree. In fact, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that nearly half of undergraduate students received some type of grant to pay for college during the 2018-2019 school year. So before you apply for any student loans, be sure to figure out how much financial aid you can get for free.
What Are College Grants?
A college grant is a form of financial aid that you don’t have to repay (in most cases). The government and other organizations offer grants to in-need college students to help them pay for higher education. However, to qualify, you must meet certain eligibility requirements.
In some scenarios, you may have to repay grants if you don’t fulfill the requirements (for example, you withdrew from the program early). Be sure to read and understand the fine print before accepting any grant money.
Grants vs. Scholarships
Comparing grants and scholarships can be confusing because both provide students with financial aid that doesn’t have to be repaid. However, scholarships are typically merit-based, whereas grants are need-based. For example, scholarships are often available for students that have a proven athletic or academic ability, while grant eligibility depends on your family’s economic situation.
Types of College Grants
College grants can be broken down into three main types: federal, state, and other.
In the 2018-2019 school year—the most recent data available—42% of enrolled college students were awarded federal grants.
The federal government provides college grants through the U.S. Department of Education for students attending career schools, community colleges, and four-year colleges/universities. They include:
- Federal Pell Grant: a grant that provides up to the yearly maximum ($6,495 for the 2021-2022 school year) to qualifying undergraduate students with “exceptional financial need.” The amount you get depends on your cost of attendance and enrollment plans.
- Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) grants: a grant for students pursuing a teaching career. It awards up to $4,000 per year. Recipients must agree to teach in a high-need field at a school serving students from low-income families for four of their first eight years.
- Federal Supplemental Education Grants (FSEOG): a grant between $100 and $4,000 per year per student, depending on an individual’s financial need. Students must maintain enrollment in an undergraduate program and can’t hold a bachelor’s degree.
- Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants: a grant for students with a parent or guardian who died as the result of military service they provided in the Afghanistan or Iraq wars after 9/11. The maximum limit is the same as the Federal Pell Grant and depends on your cost of attendance.
To apply for federal grants, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The amount of aid you qualify for will depend on your family’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which will be included in your Student Aid Report.
In the 2018-2019 school year, 34% of enrolled college students were awarded state grants.
State governments also offer a variety of grants to qualifying students. For example, in California, the California Student Aid Commission offers three Cal Grant programs.
“Each state usually has a grants and scholarships webpage where state-funded grants are listed and you can find links to the eligibility criteria,” said Tom Stuart, director of financial aid at Grantham University in Kansas. “Depending on your state, there might be a grant or scholarship for being a resident, for your future profession, or based on your grades.”
Find the contact for college grants in your state here.
Other Types of Grants
In the 2018-2019 school year, 48% of enrolled college students were awarded grants from institutions.
Grants are also available from many colleges, career schools, nonprofit organizations, and private organizations. Be sure to ask your school about any grants it offers directly. You can also use this tool to search for grants (along with other rewards) based on the level of study you’re pursuing.
Stuart recommended that employed students check to see if their employers offer tuition assistance or reimbursement programs.
How to Find a College Grant
How do you start the process of finding college grants?
Fill Out the FAFSA
The first step is to complete your FAFSA. You can do so online at studentaid.gov, by mailing in a paper form, or by using the MyStudentAid app available in the iTunes or Google Play stores.
You should submit your FAFSA before the deadline for each academic year. The Department of Education deadline for the 2020-2021 academic year is 11:59 p.m. Central Daylight Time (CDT) on June 30, 2021. If you miss the deadline, your application may still be considered by some colleges but your chances will be slimmer. The deadline for the 2021-2022 year is June 30, 2022, at 11:59 p.m. CDT.
Determine Your Eligibility
After completing your FAFSA, you’ll receive a financial award letter from the schools you’re considering that will state your eligibility for FAFSA aid (including grants, scholarships, loans, and work-study programs). If you still have outstanding college expenses, explore additional grant options.
Explore Additional Grant Options
The next step is to look for grants from your state government, your school, and other organizations. Keep in mind that you may qualify based on your career path, background, family income, and more. Contact your state’s education department, your schools of interest, and searchable online grant databases.
Tips for Applying for College Grants
What should you know before applying for college grants?
- Do your homework: Research college grants from the government (federal and state) as well as from other institutions. Make a list of the grants for which you are eligible and how you can apply.
- Know the deadlines: Mark the due dates for the various grants on your calendar.
- Get prepared: You’ll need to have a collection of paperwork on hand to apply for most grants. This checklist can help you prepare.
- Apply early: Plan to send in your grant applications as early as possible. Many non-federal college grants use the FAFSA to determine eligibility but have earlier deadlines or limited funding.
- Take your time: Don’t speed through the applications, as mistakes can delay your grant or reduce the amount of aid you receive. Take the time to ensure all the fields are completed with the correct information.
- Reapply each year: Re-apply each year for any financial aid you qualify for. Many grants don’t limit you to receiving one year’s award.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
How do I apply for grants to college?
When ready to apply for college grants, start with the FAFSA. Find out if you qualify for federal aid as well as some types of state aid. Then, research any additional grants available in your state that aren’t included in the FAFSA Student Aid Report.
The final step is to search for additional financial aid available from other organizations such as your school, nonprofits, and private companies. You can ask the financial aid office at your college and can also search online.
If you are a part of a marginalized group, search for grants that are applicable to your situation (for example, education grants for single mothers and fathers).
What grants can I get for college?
A variety of college grants are available. What’s available to you depends on your situation, such as the school you are attending, your educational background, your financial situation, and where you live. The best place to start is by filling out the FAFSA.
What is the difference between college grants and scholarships?
College grants are typically awarded based on the needs of the applicant. For example, to qualify for the Pell Grant, your family’s financial situation will be considered. Scholarships are more often earned based on merits like athletic and academic accomplishments.
How do you receive college grants?
The way you receive college grants depends on the grant. For example, with the Pell Grant, once you are approved, your school or college may credit the grant to your school account, pay you directly (often by check), or a combination of the two. You’ll need to check the details of the grant you are awarded to find out how you will receive it.