College Scholarships and Grants

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) estimates that nearly 1.8 million students will graduate with bachelor’s degrees in 2013, and all of them will use personal funds, student loans, work-study programs, or grants and scholarships – or some combination thereof – to get there.

About 60 percent of college students graduate with student loan debt, while about two-thirds of the nation’s full-time students pay for college with scholarships or grants. Scholarships and grants are sometimes referred to as “gift aid,” because they don’t have to be repaid. While the words “scholarship” and “grant” are often used interchangeably, they do have slightly different meanings: Scholarships are generally based on merit, while grants more often connote financial need.

Each year, an estimated $46 billion in grants and scholarship money is awarded by the U.S. Department of Education and the nation’s colleges and universities. In addition, about $3.3 billion in gift aid is awarded by private sources, including individuals, foundations, corporations, churches, nonprofit groups, civic societies, veterans groups, professional groups, service clubs, unions, chambers of commerce, associations and many other organizations.

In 2012-13, full-time undergraduates at public, four-year schools received an average of $5,750 in gift aid from all sources; full-time undergraduates at private, nonprofit schools received an average of $15,680.

As the cost of college continues to climb, it’s more important than ever for students and parents to learn the types of gift aid that are available and how to apply for scholarships and grants.

College Costs Have Soared

In 2012, undergraduate enrollment at all American public, private, four-year and two-year institutions of higher learning was approximately 17.5 million students; 11 million attended the country’s 2,474 four-year schools, and 6.5 million attended its 1,666 two-year institutions.

Over the past two decades, costs at these colleges and universities have increased at more than twice the rate of inflation. Between 2008 and 2010, the average tuition at a four-year public university rose by 15 percent. The increase from 2011 to 2012, alone, was 4.8 percent.

According to the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center’s Trends in College Pricing, average tuition and fees for out-of-state students at four-year public schools during the 2012-13 school year, was $21,706; total charges, including room and board, books and supplies, transportation, and other expenses, averaged $30,911. Average published tuition and fees at private, nonprofit four-year institutions were $29,056 in 2012-13, while total charges averaged $39,518. Yearly costs at the country’s most expensive private institutions are reaching $60,000 per year.

As the price of a college education in America has soared over the past several years, the ability to pay for it has diminished: As a result of the Great Recession, income has declined every year between 2007 and 2011 for 80 percent of U.S. families. Thus, scholarships and grants have become an increasingly important way to pay for college.

Types of Scholarships and Grants

There are many different types of scholarships and grants available, and students – and their parents – are advised to explore the full range of possibilities. Scholarships and grants are often awarded based on merit or financial need, and can be specific to the school, the student and/or the student’s chosen major.

Merit-Based Aid

Merit-based aid is based on a student’s academic, artistic, athletic and/or leadership qualities, or other abilities, such as proficiency in extracurricular activities and/or community service.

Academic scholarships are most often awarded by private organizations or by a school, and are based on high scores on standardized tests, a high grade-point average (GPA) in high school, or other forms of measurable, superior academic achievement. Some merit awards are “grade-blind” and are not tied to academic measurements, but rather to a student’s talent, ability, achievement or potential. Included in grade-blind merit aid are athletic scholarships and scholarships for artistic accomplishment.

Institutional merit aid generally makes up a small part of a college’s financial assistance budget, and awards tend to be somewhat competitive. Usually there are more applicants than available funds, and some schools provide no merit aid at all. Private merit scholarships are often awarded on the basis of submitted essays and/or other application criteria as outlined by the granting organization.

 Need-Based Aid

Need-based aid is awarded on the basis of a student’s and/or his or her family’s financial situation. To qualify for this type of aid, which can be school-sponsored or privately funded, students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA uses a formula to analyze family income and assets and determine financial need and the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) in relation to a particular college or university’s Cost of Attendance (COA). Individual schools often require additional financial forms, such as the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile and federal tax returns, to determine financial need.

Pell Grants are the nation’s largest need-based grant program and are awarded based on the FAFSA. They are funded by the government and administered by the U.S. Department of Education. Pell Grants typically go to students with a total family income of below $20,000, although students with higher family incomes still may qualify. For the 2012-13 school year, the maximum Pell Grant was $5,550. In 2010, nearly 8 million students received a total of $28 billion in Pell Grants.

The Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) is another government grant program for undergraduate students with exceptional financial need; it is also based on the FAFSA. Each year, schools that participate in the program receive funds from the U.S. Department of Education and must contribute 25 percent of the aid awarded. Per-student aid can range from $100 to $4,000.

Student-Specific Aid

Student-specific aid is awarded to students based on personal, social or demographic criteria, such as gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, family associations, place of origin, medical history, etc. The different types of institutional and private student-specific aid are extensive and wide-ranging. For example, some aid goes only to international students studying in the United States. Some schools offer scholarships to students with disabilities. Some pharmaceutical firms provide grants for students with certain medical conditions. There are also scholarships for students who are twins or triplets, and those who have survived cancer.

In addition, scholarships exist for students who are part of certain ethnic or religious groups or for those with ancestors from specific countries. Some aid is given only to students whose parents or relatives belong to a trade union, or have worked in a certain profession or for a particular company. Some scholarships are reserved for students whose families have some military affiliation or historic significance.

Students who are veterans of the uniformed services, or are the spouses or survivors of veterans, can qualify for college aid and tuition assistance programs administered by the Veterans Administration (VA) and the Department of Defense (DoD).

Because student-specific aid is awarded by such a wide variety of groups and organizations, it’s important for students to explore every avenue of aid. Aid amounts can vary from a hundred dollars to several thousand dollars or more. Each scholarship likely will have its own requirements and deadline for application.

Career-Specific Aid

Career-specific aid is awarded to students who are planning to pursue a course of study leading to a specific career, like nursing or teaching. Some federal programs will forgive student debt – effectively acting like a retroactive grant – for students who pursue certain careers or specific types of public service after graduation.

Private and school scholarships are also available for students with more general career goals, i.e. those who intend to pursue work in specific areas, such as government service, science and mathematics, culinary arts, finance, journalism, etc. 

College-Specific Aid

College-specific aid is awarded by individual colleges and universities to qualified applicants based on academic and/or personal achievement in a variety of categories. Often, these awards are the product of gifts or endowments made by alumni of the school. They can result in a “full-ride” scholarship, which covers all costs for the recipient, or they can cover only a portion of expenses.

How to Apply for Scholarships and Grants

Applying for need-based aid requires the submission of the FAFSA and any other financial forms requested by the college or university. Privately offered need-based aid will also generally require an applicant to supply sufficient and verifiable financial information.

Merit aid may be awarded based on a student’s initial application with no additional information required — especially if the award is for academic achievement — or it may require a special application, audition, essay or portfolio.

Athletic scholarships are awarded only by certain schools and are the result of a complex process that is governed by rules and regulations promulgated by the federal government and administrative bodies like the National College Athletic Association (NCAA) and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).

All private scholarships and grants must be applied for through the approximately 5,000 groups and organizations across the country that provide such aid. Each scholarship will have its own set of qualifying procedures, rules and deadlines.

Exploring potential sources of scholarship aid should be part of every student’s agenda. Each high school guidance office will have information about available scholarships and how to apply for them. In addition, colleges and universities provide information about their own financial aid programs via their websites and financial aid offices. Veterans seeking college aid can get information from the VA or the DoD.

Finally, there are many websites and books to educate students and parents about the thousands of scholarships and grants that can help make college more affordable. U.S. News & World Report says the best scholarship search websites are free, including Fastweb.com, Scholarships.com, CollegeBoard.com, CollegeNet.com and ScholarshipMonkey.com.

Cecillia Barr

Cecillia Barr is a graduate of the University of Central Florida. She blogs about her extensive knowledge on student loans in order to help others reduce their debt and live financially independent lives.

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