College grants: What are they?

College grants are financial aid that doesn't have to be paid back. Learn more about federal and state grants, how to apply for grants for college, what grants can pay for, and more.

Differences between grants for college and scholarships

Both scholarships and grants for college are free money to help you pay for your education. Unlike student loans, you don't have to pay back college grants or scholarships, except under certain circumstances, like withdrawing early from a program or a change in your enrollment status.footnote 1

The biggest difference between college grants and scholarships is that grants for college are typically need-based. Scholarships may be need-based or merit-based, which means they're given out based on some kind of ability, hobby, ethnicity, religion, etc.

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Types of college grants

Grants for college can be need-based or merit-based.

  • Many grants for college are need-based. Need-based grants are awarded based on your family's economic situation. To figure out your financial need, most schools consider your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) and Student Aid Index (SAI). Your SAI is a number used by your school to calculate how much financial aid you are eligible to receive.
  • There are merit-based college grants, too. Merit-based grants are awarded to students who demonstrate high levels of academic achievement, a commitment to community service, or excellent leadership skills. To find merit-based grants for college, start by doing an online search for college grants in your home state.

How to get grants for college:

Follow these steps when looking for college grants

  1. Fill out the FAFSA
    Both federal and state governments give out college grants. To find out if you qualify and to become eligible, you need to fill out the FAFSA. This allows colleges to determine how much financial aid you qualify for. Financial aid helps students and their families pay for college by covering educational expenses. Grants, work-study, and federal student loans can all be part of your financial aid package from a school.
    Our FAFSA Guide offers step-by-step assistance, walking you through each FAFSA question so you can maximize your financial aid for college.
  2. Submit the FAFSA before the deadline
    Some grants are awarded on a first-come, first served basis. So complete your FAFSA early—as soon as you can after the starting date in December.
  3. Read your financial aid offer
    After you fill out your FAFSA, you'll receive financial aid offers from the colleges that accepted you. Your offers will tell you if you're eligible for any college grants, among other types of financial aid, like scholarships, work-study, and federal student loans. You don't need to accept every piece of financial aid that's offered to you.

Covering college costs with grants

Generally, your school will pay out your grant money in at least two payments called disbursements. Typically, the college applies your grant money toward your tuition, fees, and (if you live on campus) room and board. Any money left over is paid to you for other expenses.footnote 2

Most college grants are not guaranteed for all years of college. For example, you may become ineligible for a need-based grant if your family’s financial situation changes dramatically from one year to the next. Similarly, merit-based grants may not be guaranteed every year either. You might be required to maintain a certain GPA or meet other criteria to qualify for the grant.

If you’re offered grants for college, make sure you understand all the requirements and how you can qualify in the future—and remember to fill out your FAFSA every year.

Learn about specific grants for college students

Federal Pell Grants are usually awarded only to undergraduate students. The amount of aid you can receive depends on your financial need, the cost of attendance at your school, and more. The Pell Grant application process is the same as any federal financial aid process—you need to complete the FAFSA.footnote 3

TEACH Grants provide grants to students who agree to teach in a high-need field for four years at an elementary school, secondary school, or educational service agency that serves students from low-income families. You’ll need to apply for a TEACH Grant every year by submitting the FAFSA. You’ll also need to complete TEACH Grant counseling and sign a new Agreement to Serve every year and meet other requirements.footnote 4

Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) assist low-income undergraduate students who need a lot of financial aid to help pay for college. Each participating school receives a certain amount of FSEOG funds each year from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid. Once all of the school’s FSEOG funds have been awarded to students, no more FSEOG awards can be made for that year.footnote 5

Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants are available to students whose parent or guardian died as a result of military service after September 11, 2001, in Iraq or Afghanistan and meet other eligibility requirements.footnote 6

College grants for international students

There are college grants available to international students. Grant programs and financial aid for international students are not as abundant as those for domestic students. However, there is still a variety of grants for college dedicated specifically to supporting international students.

The Fulbright Program is an international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government. Its purpose is to create mutual understanding and connections between Americans and people of other countries.footnote 7

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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.

footnote FAFSA is a registered service mark of U.S. Department of Education, Federal Student Aid.