Special academic grants and fellowships for college

Discover alternative ways to pay for college

What’s the best way to pay for college? With money that you don’t have to pay back, of course! One way to get those funds is through scholarships, which can be awarded for a whole range of interests and skills. But if you have an outstanding academic record, you can find special sources of money for college: grants and fellowships.

What is a grant?

A grant is money from the federal or state government for a specific purpose, like research or paying for college or graduate school. Some organizations also offer grants.

  • Need-based grants include popular federal programs, like Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), and TEACH Grants. They’re awarded to students who meet financial guidelines; you can apply for them by filling out and submitting the FAFSA®. States also offer grants to residents who are attending in-state schools.
  • Merit-based (academic-based) grants reward exceptional academic achievement. These grants can be offered by federal/state governments and private organizations. For federal grants, grants.gov is a good source for the application process. Many grants are awarded to institutions for specific programs; those programs can then result in opportunities for students.

Note: Although grant money doesn’t need to be repaid under most circumstances, there may be some cases where it does—if you don’t fulfill the grant’s requirements, like leaving school or not keeping your GPA above a certain number.

What is a fellowship?

A fellowship is a merit-based monetary prize that’s given to exceptional students to help them continue in advanced research, specialized education, and training in their field. The funds are often given not just for tuition, but also for expenses relating to conferences, dissertations, and research.

Students compete for fellowships and are chosen on the basis of their potential to make advancements in their field. While fellowships are often earmarked for graduate and post-graduate students, there are some prestigious ones for undergrads. All are very competitive but winning one can give a big boost to your future career. 

Prestigious merit-based grants and fellowships

These grants look first at academic achievements, but there’s more of a whole picture involved. Panels will examine extra-curricular activities, leadership, field of study, and overall work ethic. When you’re awarded one of these, it will set you apart from other students, and can give you a head start on advanced degrees and employment opportunities.

Here are some of the most popular—and prestigious—academic scholarships, grants, and fellowships. Note that many of these are named “Scholarship” even though they’re classified as grants or fellowships.

  • Fulbright Fellowship: This international program lets students learn abroad and experience other cultures. It pays all expenses.
  • Rhodes Scholarship: The Trust covers all expenses for high-achieving students (in terms of leadership potential and outstanding characters) to study at Oxford University in the United Kingdom for two or three years.
  • Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GREFP): This program’s goal is to increase the talent, diversity, and participation of outstanding graduate students who want to enter the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). Applicants must be pursuing full-time research-based master’s and doctoral degrees in STEM or STEM education at accredited US institutions.
  • National Merit® Scholarship: This award, from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, gives $2,500 to high school students with the highest scores on the PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test).
  • Marshall Scholarship: These are awarded to American undergraduates so they can study for a graduate degree in the United Kingdom. It covers all expenses.
  • Harry S. Truman Scholarship: This foundation awards scholarships to exceptional college juniors who are interested in working in the areas of government education, public interest, and non-profits. It covers up to $30,000 in expenses.

The smart way to fund your degree

You’ve worked hard to make the most of your studies and external activities. When it’s time to pay for college or grad school, most students need some financial help. How you get money for school can make a big difference in your financial future. Here are some steps to take—but remember to start with free money (that you don’t have to repay) first before moving on to student loans.

  1. Scholarships: When you’re looking for ways to pay for college, always start with free money first. That includes scholarships. A great way to start your search is with free Scholly by Sallie.* Simply tell Scholly Search® about your interests, background, and accomplishments and you can get matched with scholarships in just minutes. Then start applying so you can get the most free money possible to help pay for college.
    *By clicking the link, you'll visit our affiliate Scholly's site. Any information that we may collect or that you provide will be shared with Sallie Mae and will be covered under the SLM Education Services, LLC privacy policy and terms of use.

  2. Grants: You may be eligible for need-based grants and other financial aid, but you’ll only know if you are by filing the FAFSA®.
  3. Specialized academic fellowships: If you’re at the top, academically, start with your school’s counselor for suggestions. Check out the examples we’ve listed above. And, if you’re passionate about a specific field, be sure to reach out to that field’s leading organization, whether it’s a branch of science, technology, arts, or medicine.
  4. Loans (the final step): After you’ve explored all the possible scholarships, grants, and fellowships, and you still need money for college, turn to loans. First use your federal student loans, which may offer lower rates and more flexibility. Then, if you still need more, consider a private student loan to fill any funding gaps.

You’ve worked hard to get high grades and demonstrate your leadership and commitment. It’s time to use that academic excellence to help you pay for school, expand your experiences, and put you ahead in your field of study. 

footnote Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey, financial, tax, or legal advice. Consult your own financial advisor, tax advisor, or attorney about your specific circumstances.

footnote External links and third-party references are provided for informational purposes only. Sallie Mae cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information provided by any third parties and assumes no responsibility for any errors or omissions contained therein. Any copyrights, trademarks, and/or service marks used in these materials are the property of their respective owners.

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