Grants are a lot like scholarships. Both are free money for students that, unlike a loan, does not need to be repaid. So what’s the difference? By and large, grants are gifts given by large institutions like the federal government, the state and colleges. Grants are almost always need-based and rely on the student filling out the Free Applicant for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Just like scholarships, grants are highly competitive, so apply early to maximize your chances of winning.
The most generous grants are broken down by the federal, state and collegiate level, but there are also funding sources outside of these main categories. Students possessing particular skills or attributes are eligible for a multitude of scholarships. Avoid student loans or keep them at a minimum when financing your college education by taking advantage of grant opportunities.
The first step in applying for grants is filling out a FAFSA, which generates an Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC determines what the government expects from you financially. Students that display the most financial need will be eligible for Federal Grant funding. Students pursuing high-demand fields will also have funding options. Any private group grant applications will require information on need, academic experience, or major study interests.
The most popular federal grant is the Pell Grant. Eligibility for the Pell Grant is determined after completing your FAFSA. Your EFC is then compared to their Cost of Attendance (COA). Students whose family income is approximately $50,000 may be eligible for the need-based funding, however most Pell Grant money is awarded students whose family income is below $20,000. Pell Grants are awarded primarily to undergraduates, although first time professional students can receive Pell funding. The maximum Pell grant for the 2015-2016 school year is $5,775, however eligible students often receive less than the maximum amount.
Students who are eligible for Pell Grants are still able to receive funding through other grants, including the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) program. This grant is for undergraduates with the greatest unmet financial need, and students can earn up to $4,000 depending on their intended college and EFC.
State sponsored grants are awarded based on criteria such as minority demographics or interest in a high-demand fields. For example, Texas students who have been in the foster care system between the ages of 16-23 may be eligible for the Education and Training Vouchers for Youths Aging out of Foster Care program, if they attend a Texas college. Contact state-based educational organizations, local higher education assistance foundations, your high school, or your intended college for updated state-based grant opportunities. Find scholarships by state easily by conducting a scholarship search.
Most colleges will have funding available to assist low-income students. The first step in applying for these grants is filling out a FAFSA to determine financial need. Grants can also be awarded based on merit, field of study, or student-specific criteria. Athletic grants supplement sports scholarships to draw the most talented athletes to a college, and require both a minimum GPA and high-level sports talent. Funding is usually supported by endowments so funding levels for college-based grants vary year to year. Contact your intended college or start with a college search to find out more about college-based grants.
Career specific grants have become increasingly popular for high-demand fields such as teaching and nursing. Both career paths have a number of scholarship opportunities available. The federally-funded Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant Program, provides grants of up to $4,000 for teaching students who intend to work in low-income school districts. The Nursing Scholarship Program through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services covers tuition, fees, and gives a monthly stipend to nursing students in exchange for two years of service at facilities with a nursing shortage.
To determine your financial eligibility, fill out a FAFSA. Although most grants are awarded to undergraduates, graduate grants are available and very generous. Graduate grants will often fund your education and pay for career advancement opportunities such as internships and research positions. If you are employed and plan to return to school, check with your employer about scholarship and grant opportunities. Private companies often fund employees who are looking to get a masters, and may offer an increase in pay after the degree is attained. If you plan to utilize your employer’s financial aid, anticipate working for that company post-graduation.
Like scholarships, there are grants available for a multitude of criteria. Whether you come from a military family, low-income family, play the tuba, or survived cancer, there is a grant tailored to your specific situation. Make a list of your unique attributes, interests, and skills, and investigate the major organizations, local groups, and private corporations that fund higher education with respects to specific criteria.
Minority grants are the most common student-specific awards. Many organizations fund underprivileged groups to entice more minorities to attend college. For example, the United Negro College Fund awards students attending historically black colleges. Students with disabilities also have many options to pay for school and cover any special accommodations. Thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act passed in 1975, schools are more cognizant of students with special needs.
As scholarships come in all shapes and sizes, so do grants. Grants for unique hobbies such as rocketry or writing haikus are less competitive than needs and minority-based grants. Consider what makes you unique and search beyond the resume when seeking grants. Contact local organizations in your unique field of interest because you may be eligible for more funding than advertised by your intended college.