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 grants or scholarships, except under certain circumstances, like withdrawing early from a program or a change in your enrollment status.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 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 Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC 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.
  2. Submit the FAFSA before the deadline
    Many grants are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. So complete your FAFSA early—as soon as you can after the starting date of October 1. Your family's tax returns are needed to complete the FAFSA, so you should set aside time to gather those documents before you start the application.
  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.

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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.2

Most 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 college grants for 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.3

Academic Competitiveness Grants (ACG) are awarded to Federal Pell Grant recipients who have successfully completed a rigorous high school program, as determined by their state or local education agency and recognized by the Secretary of Education.4

National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent (SMART) Grants are available to students for their third and fourth academic years of college and are intended to encourage students to pursue college majors in high demand in the global economy, such as science, mathematics, technology, engineering and critical foreign languages.4

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.5

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.6

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.7

College grants for international students

There are student grants available to international students. Grant programs for international students are not as abundant as those for domestic students. However, there is still a variety of grants 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.8

1. This information was gathered on 09/16/20 from https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/grants-scholarships#why-repay-grant.
2. This information was gathered on 09/16/20 from https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa/next-steps/receive-aid.
3. This information was gathered on 09/16/20 from https://studentaid.gov/understand-aid/types/grants/pell.
4. This information was gathered on 09/16/20 from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ope/ac-smart.html.
5. This information was gathered on 09/16/20 from https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/grants-scholarships/teach#agreement-to-serve.
6. This information was gathered on 09/16/20 from https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/grants-scholarships/fseog.
7. This information was gathered on 09/16/20 from https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/grants-scholarships/iraq-afghanistan-service.
8. This information was gathered on 09/16/20 from https://us.fulbrightonline.org.
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