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Grants and scholarships are the most desirable types of funding you can receive to pay for your college education, since they don’t need to be repaid. While any amount of free money will be competitive, especially in a tough economic climate, the sooner and more often you apply the more luck you’ll have.

The most popular grants are broken down by the federal, state and college level. These will usually be more generous, but many other sources of free funding exist outside those three main categories. Students with particular characteristics or talents may also find they’re eligible for at least a handful of grant opportunities, so do your research. Student loans should always be kept at a minimum when you’re financing your education, and many grant opportunities will allow you to do just that.

Applying for Grants

The first step in applying for most grants, especially federally-funded awards, is filling out a FAFSA, which comes up with the student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC). That EFC will determine what the government expects you to come up with as far as financing your education. The neediest students will be eligible for the most grant funding on the federal level, although students going into fields where there is a high need for new graduates may also find a plethora of options for grant funding. Grants from private groups will often have an application process that will emphasize need, academics experience, or your intentions to pursue a specific field of study.

Federal Grants

The most popular federal grant is the Pell Grant. Students determine whether they are eligible and how much they may be eligible for by first filling out a FAFSA. A student’s EFC is compared to their Cost of Attendance (COA). Students whose families have a total income of up to $50,000 may be eligible for the need-based funding, though most Pell grant money goes to students with a total family income below $20,000. These grants go primarily to undergraduates, although some students receive Pell funding to help pay for their first professional degrees. The grants are dependent on federal funding. The maximum Pell grant for the 2013-2014 school year is $5,635. The amount of total funding available to colleges is determined by government funding, and most students receive less than the maximum.

Those found eligible for Pell Grants may also 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 most students receive between $100 and $4,000 depending on the intended college and EFC. Pell recipients may also be eligible for the Academic Competitiveness Grant, which provides up to $750 to freshman and $1,300 to sophomores, or the National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent (SMART) Grant, which provides up to $4,000 for each of your third and fourth years if you major in math, science and certain liberal arts programs.

State Sponsored Grants

Most states offer grants to students based on specific criteria, such as whether the student is a minority or planning to pursue a particular high need field. The Illinois Future Teacher Corps (IFTC) Program, for example, is available to juniors and above who want to be teachers in Illinois, especially in districts with high teacher turnover rates. Qualified applicants of this grant may receive between $5,000 and $10,000. Texas students who have been in the foster care system and are between 16-23 years old may be eligible for the Education and Training Vouchers for Youths Aging Out of Foster Care program if they attend Texas colleges. Contact state-based educational organizations, local higher education assistance foundations, your high school and your intended college for up-to-date state-based grant opportunities. Many scholarships are also grouped by state, and easily found through via scholarship search.

College-Based Grants

Most colleges will have a pool of funding available to assist low-income students in attending their school. The first step in applying for these grants is usually filling out a FAFSA to determine the student’s need. Grants may also be awarded based on merit, field of study or other characteristics specific to the student. Athletic grants may supplement sports scholarships at schools to draw the most talented athletes to a college, and will usually require a minimum GPA in addition to a high level of talent in a given sport. As funding is usually supported by endowments, funding levels for college-based grants may change from year to year. Contact your intended college or start with a college search to find out more information about college-based grants.

Career Specific Grants

Grants awarded to students interested in pursuing a particular career have become more common as the need for new hires in certain categories has increased. The federally-funded Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant Program, for example, provides grants of up to $4,000 to students who intend to teach in low-income school districts. Grants targeting nursing students include the Nursing Scholarship Program through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which rewards would-be nurses with a monthly stipend and covers the costs of tuition and fees in exchange for two years of service at a health care facility where there is a nursing shortage. Both teachers and nurses also have a number of scholarship opportunities available to them, as the two fields are currently in high demand.

Grants by Degree Level

Most grants target undergraduates, as that population is often most in need of needs-based funding. High school students relying on scholarships and grants to cover tuition not addressed through student loans should apply to those funding sources early and often. The first step will be filling out a FAFSA to determine whether you’re eligible for federal, state and college-based grant funding. Incoming freshmen with a better idea of what they would like to study, or who have a particular talent they’ll be pursuing on the college level, may be eligible for other grants specific to their situation.

Grants for graduate students are harder to find, but often very generous. Such grants will often not only fund your education, but help pay for internships, career-advancement opportunities and research positions that will give graduates valuable experience once they complete their programs. If you’re a returning student, check with your employer. Often, private companies will offer scholarship and grant opportunities for employees looking to further their educations with master’s degrees, and may even offer a pay bump after completing the program. Such programs usually require repayment in the form of service though – if you take money from a particular company or organization, expect to work for them once you’re done with your degree.

Student Specific Grants

As with scholarships, grants exist for nearly every characteristic you can think of. Whether you come from a military family or a low-income family, play the tuba or have survived cancer, chances are there is a grant you’re eligible for. Make a list of what makes you special, and investigate the major organizations, local groups and private corporations that may have funding set aside for education.

The most common student specific grants are those available to minorities. Many organizations have funding available to groups they feel have been traditionally underserved in higher education to entice more minorities to go to college. The United Negro College Fund for African Americans, for example, awards grants predominantly to students attending historically black colleges. Students with disabilities also have many options to not only help pay for school, but to cover special accommodations they’d need to pay for out-of-pocket otherwise. Thanks to the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1975, schools are much more cognizant of students with special needs and funding assistance for that group.

Unique Grants

As scholarships come in all wacky shapes and sizes, so do grants. The good thing about having a unique hobby like rocketry or writing haikus is that the awards for those talents may be less competitive than for needs-based or the big minority grants. Think about what makes you stand out, and look beyond the resume when seeking out grants you may be eligible for. Also consider contacting local organizations if the field of study you’re pursuing in college is a unique one. You may be eligible for funding not advertised by your intended college.

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