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Scholarships & Grants for College Students

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When an 18 year old is concerned about budgeting, you know the cost of college tuition is getting out of hand.

A new survey conducted by the Princeton Review says the No. 1 worry among college applicants is the level of debt they will take on to pay for a college degree. In 2006, the top worry was they wouldn’t get into their top choice of college.

The survey results illustrate a much larger point: The cost of a college education has ballooned the last decade to the point where even high school students are worried about it.

Tuition and fees cost $3,508 to attend a public 4-year university in 2000. The cost jumped to $9,648 in 2016-17, an increase of 275%. The price of college has risen more than double the rate of inflation.

If the same thing happened to milk, the gallon that cost $2.79 in 2000 would be on the shelf today for $7.67!

Higher college costs mean more debt. The average college graduate in 2016 had $37,172 of debt. The comes from massive amounts of student loans, but there are other ways to pay for college like scholarships and grants. In fact, they covered 34% of college costs in 2015-16.

Scholarships and grants are sometimes referred to as “gift aid,” because they don’t have to be repaid. Keep in mind that you may still need to meet requirements or benchmarks such as GPA for certain scholarships, and receiving scholarships or grants outside the government may reduce your amount of federal aid.

While the words “scholarship” and “grant” are often used interchangeably, they do have slightly different meanings: Scholarships are generally based on academic or athletic merit, while grants are intended to solve 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, veteran’s groups, professional groups, service clubs, unions, chambers of commerce, associations and many other organizations.

As the price of a college education in America has soared, the ability to pay for it has diminished. Income declined every year between 2007 and 2011 for 80% 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. 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 or athletic achievement. It also goes to students who demonstrate 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 aimed at students from low-income families. 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) and demonstrate a financial need that must be met in order for them to attend college.

The FAFSA uses a formula to analyze family income and assets and determine financial need and the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). It compares that to the 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 verify financial need.

There’s nothing to lose by filling out a FAFSA, only a lot of money to be gained. Despite this fact, a study conducted by NerdWallet found that 47% of high school students didn’t complete a FAFSA in 2015, letting $2.9 billion in federal grant money go unclaimed.

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 $25,000, although students with higher family incomes still may qualify. For the 2017-18 school year, the maximum Pell Grant is $5,920.

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% of the aid awarded. Per-student aid can range from $100 to $4,000.

Aid For Women

Women earn only 37% of undergraduate STEM degrees (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), despite making up over 57% of the college population.

In an effort to increase interest in these fields, numerous groups offer scholarships to women who pursue degrees in those fields. For example, the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) awarded 230 scholarships worth a total of $750,000 in 2016. The Center for Women in Technology (CWIT) is another organization dedicated to helping women in STEM. Students that apply can receive scholarships ranging from $5,000-$20,000 per year for four years.

Single mothers can also find scholarships to help with tuition. Raise the Nation is an organization that provides scholarships and grants for single mothers. They can also help repay student loans for those who have already graduated college. MyOrganicCompany, which sells organic baby food, offers a $2,000 scholarship to single mothers (or single fathers) twice per year.

Aid For Minorities And Other Groups

Aid for minorities and other groups is awarded to students based on personal, social or demographic criteria, such as 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 military 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. 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.

Aid for Graduate Students

Graduate students can also receive federal financial aid by filing a FAFSA. If you are employed, look into scholarships and grant opportunities offered by your employer. Companies will often pay for their employees to pursue a degree or masters. They may even increase your salary once you have the degree.

Foster Care Aid

Tuition costs can particularly burden those in foster care. It is part of the reason only 10% of foster youth graduate from college. Fortunately, there are many private organizations and state programs that are available for children who are in foster care or have been adopted.

Organizations like National Foster Parent Association (NFPA), Horatio Alger Scholarships and Foster Care to Success provide scholarships and resources for foster children. The Sponsored Scholarship Program is run by Foster Care to Success and connects foster students with donors.

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,,, and

About The Author

Max Fay

Max Fay has been writing about personal finance for for the past five years. His expertise is in student loans, credit cards and mortgages. Max inherited a genetic predisposition to being tight with his money and free with financial advice. He was published in every major newspaper in Florida while working his way through Florida State University.


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