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Grants and Scholarships: What You Need to Know

Nov 20, 2007 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 3 Comments

Student debt is a growing problem in the United States.  Tuition costs are rising much faster than inflation, and wages aren’t keeping up.  If you’re wondering how on earth you’ll manage to pay for a college education, you’re not alone.

You may feel you have no choice but to take out loans to finance your education.  But before you take out a private loan, make sure you’ve exhausted all your opportunities to earn grants and scholarships.  There are many different ways to earn these, and you don’t have to be a traditional student to qualify.   Here are the general types of grants you’ll encounter, and what you can do to earn them.

Types of Grants

Some grants are given based on financial need

Some are given for achievement, while others are given based on your talents, interests or contributions to the community.  If you’re a non-traditional student, come from a certain socio-economic or ethnic background, or face special challenges in pursuing your education, there may be grants designed with you in mind.  Here are the main types of grants you’ll encounter in your search.

See Also: Distance Education Colleges

Government grants

Grants are given out at the federal and state level.  The Pell Grant program is the largest program at the federal level, and it’s given based on financial need.  Many states have their own student aid programs, many of which are based on need, although some have academic requirements as well. 

Institutional grants

Colleges offer grants and scholarships to students based on their financial situation, academics, and personal details such as ethnic background or special talents.  Most of the time, you do not have to apply separately to college grants when you send in a college application.  The admissions officers will look at your application and, if you fit the requirements for a certain scholarship or grant, you’ll find it included with the financial aid package offered by the school.

Corporate and private grants

Here’s where it pays to do your homework.  Many institutions, from national companies to religious organizations, offer scholarships for students.  Most of the time you’ll have to find and apply for these grants separately.  Many are run as contests, with the winner selected from a pool of applicants.   While some of these programs take financial need into consideration, many look primarily at your application essay, background, interests and activities to choose the right match.

How to Improve Your Odds

Fill out the FAFSA

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is your application for federal money.  You can get the application online here.  Fill it out and send it in, and the government will determine whether you qualify for a Pell or another federal grant for college. 

The federal government starts accepting FAFSA applications on January 1 for school years starting in September of that year.  It’s best to fill out your application as early as possible.  Funds are given on a first-come, first-served basis, and you may find your award is substantially reduced if you wait.

Check out local businesses

Many national companies offer private scholarships.  However, they draw thousands of candidates from all over the country.  It may be easier for you to land a regional scholarship from a business or organization in your area.  Check out local businesses for scholarships that support your community in particular, and you’ll probably compete with dozens or hundreds of applicants instead of thousands.

Investigate your state’s grant programs

Every state is different when it comes to student aid, but most states have some form of it.  You may be eligible for some state grants simply by filling out the FAFSA, but others may require a separate application.  Do a search on the Internet for college grants in your state; most states have an official website for their student aid programs.  Make sure you know exactly what your state offers in terms of grants and scholarships so you don’t miss any opportunities.

Investigate organizations you belong to

Do you attend religious services, belong to a fraternal order, or volunteer with a community organization or nonprofit?  Any organization you belong to may have a student grant program available for its members.  Ask around and see what you come up with.

Look for grants specific to you

There are nonprofits, grants, and scholarships to assist many subcategories of students. Anything that makes you stand out from the crowd may also make you eligible for a special grant.  If you’re the first in your family to go to college, a woman interested in math or science, a single parent, a handicapped student, or come from a certain ethnic or cultural background, there may be a foundation looking for someone just like you to award a grant to.

There are many ways to earn grants and scholarships for college.  Before you sign up for an expensive student loan, make sure you apply for as many scholarships and grants as you can.  You don’t have to pay this money back, and it will help to lower your debt burden once you graduate.



Sharold Over a year ago

I enjoyed the helpful hints and suggestions in this article. I have been researching scholarships and grants and this article was very helpful.

Nadine Larsen Over a year ago

Thank you for explaining the types of grants available. I have just started researching getting back to school and grants/scholarships that may be out there, this helped me narrow down what would be the best to apply for for my situation

Meghan Over a year ago

I have been working with my cousins who are still in high school. I have been trying to help them see that they should start searching now so they know what is available. Both of them are worried they won't be able to go to college because their parents are struggling financially now. This article was great to help them see the difference in grants and scholarships. I know this helped them understand things and gave them a place to start from.

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