How many times have you seen this in a pop-up or on-line ad? The truth is, there is a lot of "free" money out there for college, as long as you can qualify and as long as you can find it. In fact, a Department of Education report released in May, 2009 shows that 64.4% of full-time/full-year undergraduate students receive some form of grants, which is a greater percentage than the 52.9% who take out loans. Part-time students show a lower percentage receiving grants (43.5%).
First, a little vocabulary lesson. Scholarship and grants are financial aid that does not get repaid. Traditionally, the term "scholarship" refers to awards based on specific criteria (such as academic, athletic, or artistic skill and accomplishment), and "grants" refers to awards based on financial need. However, the term "grant" is often used to include both categories. Most grants are awarded based on the information you submit in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), as long as you meet the (various) deadlines for FAFSA submittal. So fill it out early!
So who awards these grants and how? Broadly speaking, there are four categories: federal grants, state grants, institutional grants, and private grants. Federal grants are Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), and a small number of grants and scholarships from other federal programs (military service, teachers, etc). State grants and institutional grants are any grants, scholarships, or tuition waivers funded by a state or by the institution attended. Private grants include grants and scholarships from private sources outside of the institution, including tuition aid from employers.
From the report above, the distribution of these grants (percent receiving grants of each type) and average grant amount by source for the 2007-2008 school year was:
The federal grants are focused more on lower-income families and students. Application for the Pell Grant is free, by filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), so be sure to fill it out! The maximum Pell grant for each student for the 2012-13 award year remains at $5,550. The actual award depends on financial need, costs to attend school, status as a full-time or part-time student, and plans to attend school for a full academic year or less. The FSEOG is for Pell Grant recipients with exceptional financal need, and can be valued up to $4,000 a year, based on when you apply, your financial need, the funding at the school you're attending, and the policies of the financial aid office at your school.
State grants are also awarded based on the data you submit in your FAFSA (are you sensing a theme?). This data is passed to the state agencies by the US Department of Education, as long as you meet the state deadline. While the deadlines can vary, the earliest is typically March 1 for the upcoming school year. These grants vary greatly in size and number from state-to-state, so check with each individual state agency to get the most accurate and current information for your state. There may be several state agencies and grant programs in any given state, so you may have to look over many links from these state sites.
Institutional grants are awarded by the school itself, and may be based on need, merit, major, or even gender. These are specific to the school, so you must contact their financial aid office. You should find a complete searchable list of all grants and scholarships on each school's website. I have seen deadlines for institutional grants as early as February 15 for the upcoming school year, so get that FAFSA in early (there, I said it again!).
Once you have narrowed your school choices and submitted a (timely) application, you can expect to get a financial aid award letter from each school that will show all the grants and scholarships offered, so you can make a comparison among the schools to help make a final decision. However, this comparison is not always easy, as the award letters do not have a uniform format, though focusing on net cost to you (tuition, room & board, fees, transportation, etc., as reduced by total aid excluding un-subsidized loans) should provide a good comparison. Since the deadline for your FAFSA application can vary from school-to-school for institutional grants, you should check the deadline for both your state of residence as well as the state the school is in where you are applying.
Private scholarships are awarded from outside the umbrella of the FAFSA application. They can be difficult to find, but can have the broadest (and narrowest) and most unique eligibility requirements. Eligibility ranges from a scholarship essay, to ethnic or religious heritage, to community service, to parents' military service. There are even scholarships for left-handedness and creative use of duct tape. These can be local to your high school, state-wide, or nation-wide, and sponsored by non-profit organizations, corporations, individuals, or trusts. Be sure to check your employer's scholarship opportunities as well.
Here are some of the best of the free scholarship search sites, in terms of relevant and accurate matches to the individual's situation, as well as completeness. Some of these may require you to register to receive your matches.
Other sites that provide free scholarship services are:
· Scholarship America - Large Philanthropic Organization with Local Chapters
· UNCF - United Negro College Fund
· Bureau of Indian Education - US Department of the Interior
Be aware that there are a lot of scholarship scams out there - be very careful of requests for money to find or apply for scholarships, especially when they guarantee results. I think the best approach is to use one of the free scholarship search services on-line, rather than pay someone to do what you can easily do.