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Finding Free Money for College

December 21, 2021 · 5 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

Finding Free Money for College

Scholarships and grants are two types of financial aid that don’t need to be repaid, making them feel like free money for college. Students may need to put in a little legwork to find, and apply for scholarships or grants but minimizing the amount of money you have to pay for tuition can be worth the hustle.

These types of funding options can help you manage the cost of attendance. Finding free money to cover the cost of college can help you succeed by letting you focus on your midterms instead of tuition bills. Read on for information on the differences between scholarships and grants and tips for finding scholarships and grants.

Free Money for College!?

Yep, that’s right! It is possible to find “free money” for school. In searching for free money for college, it may be helpful to start your search with scholarships and grants. Scholarships and grants are two types of funding that you generally don’t need to repay, which means that nabbing a scholarship or grant equals free money for school. Sounds good, right? Here’s more information on the difference between scholarships and grants.

What Are Scholarships?

Scholarships are typically merit-based awards given to students for certain activities, achievements, or characteristics.

Scholarships can be a smart way to help finance your degree because there are so many different types available, whether you’re looking for awards honoring your high grades, your achievement as an Eagle
Scout
, or your ability to do a killer duck call .

Scholarships can also be based on a specific trait, like your race or ethnicity, if you’re a first-generation college student, or where you live.

What Are Grants?

Grants, on the other hand, are typically need-based awards. This means that while grants are similar to scholarships, they generally have eligibility requirements that take into account a student’s financial means and their expected family contribution (sometimes abbreviated as EFC).

Like scholarships, grants do not typically have to be paid back, but different grants have different rules and requirements, so it’s always a good idea to read the fine print. In order to qualify for a grant, you will likely need to meet the financial eligibility criteria set by the grantor.

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Finding Scholarships and Grants

Scholarships and grants are offered by many organizations, from your college to private businesses, which can make it challenging to know where to look. There are some smart ways to simplify the search for free money for school.

Researching Scholarship

When it comes to scholarships, you might consider starting with a scholarship database . Scholarship databases compile many different types of scholarships and let you create a profile with all of your information — which could help you match with scholarships.

Some scholarships are merit-based and may evaluate a talent or skill, or could be based on academic or athletic achievements. When looking for scholarships you might qualify for, think broadly—consider making a list of your interests, background traits, or achievements to keep in mind while you search.

As mentioned, some scholarships may be location-based. For more information on scholarships available in your home state, check out SoFi’s state-by-state guides for scholarships and other types of aid.

Consider making a list or spreadsheet to keep track of the scholarships you want to apply to, their deadlines, and application requirements. This can help you not only track deadlines but prioritize the scholarships based on things like award amounts or how competitive they are. You might not get every scholarship you apply to, but the more you apply for, the more opportunities you have to secure some of that free money.

Researching Grants

When it comes to grants, the process can look a little different. While scholarship databases may have some grants listed, these are often awarded through your school. The awards typically come either as part of the federal financial aid process or as a separate application process.

Recommended: Grants For College — Find Free Money for Students

For example, one common type of grant is the Pell Grant, which is awarded to students with significant financial need from the federal government during the financial aid award process.

But in addition to federal grants, schools may also have institutional grants available to some qualified students who apply. When it comes to finding those types of grants, a great first step may be to talk to your school’s financial aid office and ask for a list of grants available to students.

Applying for a Scholarship or Grant

Whether you’re applying for a scholarship or grant, there are certain things you can do to make the process easier. Just like when it comes to your schoolwork, it is crucial to keep your scholarship application information organized.

Consider keeping a file containing important information like your grades, certificates, awards, and SAT/ACT scores. You may also want to keep a copy of your FAFSA® (the application you fill out to apply for federal student aid—more on that below), as it will contain much of the information you may need for some institutional grant applications.

Other Options to Help Pay for College

One important thing to consider when making plans to pay for college is that there are many different ways of paying for school, and students and their parents may use a combination of methods to cover the cost of attendance.

Paying for College with Student Loans

Many students who attend college take out some type of student loan. Unlike grants and scholarships, student loans need to be paid back — with interest.

Federal Student Loans

The federal government offers student loans to college students through the federal student loan program. You apply for federal student loans using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). Many students’ first choice for student loans are federal loans because they may have favorable interest rates, and borrowers may qualify for loan forgiveness or income-driven repayment plans down the road.

The amount of money you may borrow in certain types of federal student loans is limited, however, and not all students will be able to rely solely on federal student loans to meet the cost of attendance.

Private Student Loans

Some students might turn to private student loans after all their federal aid options are depleted. For some students, a private student loan may be a helpful solution for covering the remaining costs. When making lending decisions, private lenders will generally evaluate a potential borrower’s credit score and financial history, among other factors.

Recommended: Private vs Federal Student Loans

Private student loans don’t always offer the same borrower protections as federal student loans — like income-driven repayment plans or deferment options. For this reason, private loans are generally considered after all other options have been thoroughly evaluated.

Federal Work-Study Program

The federal work-study program allows students to earn money that can be used to pay for school or other expenses. Students who exhibit financial need may be eligible for the work-study program.

Jobs may be on- or off-campus. While you may receive work-study as a part of your financial aid award, you’ll likely still need to apply for a job on campus. Your financial aid award will detail how many hours you are able to work.

The Takeaway

Researching and applying for grants and scholarships can help you find free money for college. Scholarships are generally awarded based on some type of merit while grants are often need based. Other ways to finance your education include federal work-study, federal student loans, or in some cases, private student loans.

If you think a private student loan might be right for you, be sure to do your research before applying. As mentioned, private student loans may lack the protections afforded to federal student loan borrowers. For this reason, private student loans are usually only considered after all other sources of funding have been depleted.

If you do decide that a private student loan is the right fit for your education, consider SoFi. SoFi’s private student loan process is easy and fast. We offer flexible payment options and terms, and don’t worry, there are no hidden fees.

See if a private student loan can help you pay for college.


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Please borrow responsibly. SoFi Private Student Loans are not a substitute for federal loans, grants, and work-study programs. You should exhaust all your federal student aid options before you consider any private loans, including ours. Read our FAQs. SoFi Private Student Loans are subject to program terms and restrictions, and applicants must meet SoFi’s eligibility and underwriting requirements. See SoFi.com/eligibility for more information. To view payment examples, click here. SoFi reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at any time. This information is subject to change.

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Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

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