How Do You Find Grants for College?

By Staff WriterLast Updated Aug 26, 2020 10:31:11 AM ET
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Finding ways to fund your college education while keeping the costs lower for yourself can take some creativity. There’s always financial aid, of course, but you’ll need to begin paying back the amount you’ve borrowed plus interest after you graduate. That’s where grants and scholarships come in. 

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These forms of assistance are free, meaning you don’t need to pay them back after you’ve received and put them towards your tuition and other related expenses. Learn more about grants, including the process of applying for them, to decide whether these may be a course of action you’d like to pursue in order to pay some of your education costs.

What Are Grants?

As mentioned, grants and scholarships are both types of financial aid that you don’t have to pay back. Scholarships are typically merit-based, meaning you qualify for them by having certain qualities, such as excellence in your athletic or academic achievements, a particular ethnicity or participation in a unique hobby. In contrast, most grants are need-based, which means you qualify for them based on criteria like your financial situation or how much you need assistance in being able to afford college. Many scholarships tend to be ongoing — paying for costs for an entire year of school, say — while grants are often given in lump sums to cover costs at a point in time. Because of this, scholarships often have rules you must follow and conditions you need to continue meeting if you want to keep receiving the aid.

It’s important to note that grants can have conditional requirements like scholarships or be merit-based, and scholarships can also be need-based. However, these distinctions — grants for need and scholarships for merit — are typically what differentiate the two. It’s also possible you may need to pay back grant money in rare circumstances, such as if you drop classes, but the exceptions vary based on the grants you select and their individual requirements.

Get Started With the FAFSA

Grants are definitely worth pursuing for covering college costs. But how do you get going in getting grants? One of the best places to start is by looking to the federal government and to your state government, both of which give out grants to students. But before you start searching for particular grants you might qualify for, you’ll want to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This is a form that helps the federal government and your school determine your eligibility for receiving financial aid, whether that’s in the form of loans, grants or a combination of those sources.

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Once you fill out and submit the FAFSA — doing so as early as possible, because grants are sometimes limited and can get competitive — you’ll receive financial aid offers and packages from the colleges where you were accepted. These offers will let you know if you’re eligible for any federal grants and grants specific from the schools, along with the other types of financial aid like scholarships and federal student loans.

Common Federal Grants to Consider

There are several common federal grants you may be offered, depending on your financial and family situation. The Pell Grant is one of the most common; it’s based solely on financial need and is intended for students who haven’t earned their first undergraduate degree yet. Most Pell Grant money goes to students whose families’ total income is $20,000 or below.

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If you’re eligible for a Pell Grant, you may also qualify for an Academic Competitiveness Grant (ACG). College freshmen and sophomores who are offered Pell Grants and have also completed rigorous high school education programs and performed well are typically eligible for the ACG.

Your family history and your chosen course of study might also gain you access to several other federal grants. Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants, for example, are awarded on a need basis to students with a parent or guardian who died during military service in Iraq or Afghanistan following September 11, 2001.

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If you’re planning on going into elementary education, on the other hand, a TEACH grant may be for you. These grants pay up to $4,000 to students who agree to teach in a high-need field at an elementary school or in a program for young low-income students for four years after graduation. While these are some of the more common federal grants available, they’re not the only ones — and the federal government isn’t the only place to source grants.

Finding Other Grants

States, universities and a variety of other organizations also provide their own grants, and you’ll want to start looking into these after you find out which federal grants you’re eligible for following the processing of your FAFSA. Your next step is to fill out a form called the CSS Profile, which asks for additional information about your family’s situation and gives you access to state- and college-specific grants you’re eligible for. Not all schools accept the CSS Profile, however, so it’s a good idea to check with the financial services office at each college you’re thinking about attending to determine if it’s an option. Check this list, which is provided by CollegeBoard, the administrator of the CSS Profile, to see if your schools are on it.

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Organizations around the country that work to uplift groups like women and people of color also provide college grants. If you participate in a specific hobby or activity, there may also be a group in that field that offers a grant or scholarship you could be eligible for. It can take some work to find these smaller funding options, but you can get started by performing a search for terms like “[your state’s] student grant database” or “[your state’s] college grant database/list.” The academic advisor at your high school is another helpful resource to check with; they may be aware of some lesser-known grants and can help you with the application process.

Applying for Grants

The process to apply for grants depends on the type of grant you’re hoping to earn. You’ll need to fill out the FAFSA for federal grants, and once you’re offered those grants you can accept them. Grants from other institutions and entities may have different requirements, and you may need to provide additional information about yourself or, for example, if it’s a merit-based grant, write an essay about your accomplishments.

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It’s also essential to be aware of the deadlines for the grant applications, and it can help to write them down on a calendar to keep track of them. Try to get your applications in as early as possible so each institution can process them and get back to you. This is especially important for more-competitive grants that may stop accepting applications once a certain number of applicants have sent in their information.