Finding Free Money for College

By Jody McMaster · February 15, 2023 · 7 minute read

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Finding Free Money for College

Free money for college sounds too good to be true, but it’s a real thing. It comes in the form of scholarships and grants, which almost never have to be repaid.

Families may need to put in effort to find scholarships and grants, but the hustle can pay off.

Free Money for College‽

Yes, that’s right. Scholarships and grants are gifts that reduce the need to take out student loans.

The average student loan debt loads, rounded up, are as follows, according to EducationData researchers:

•   $37,700 for undergraduate students

•   $80,500 for master’s degree holders

•   $132,300 for doctorate holders

Depending on your perspective, that might seem like a lot or might seem manageable. But let’s say a borrower was eligible for free money and left it on the table: That, unfortunately, does happen.

Here are details about the two types of financial aid gifts.

What Are Scholarships?

The many types of scholarships include merit scholarships, which are not based on financial need.

Academic and athletic scholarships are well known, but merit aid also may be determined by community involvement, dedication to a field of study, or your ability to do a killer duck call or create promwear from duct tape.

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

Scholarships are awarded by companies, nonprofits, states, religious groups, employers, individuals, and professional and social organizations. A big source of merit scholarships is colleges themselves.

What Are Grants?

Grants are awarded by the federal government, state government, private companies, and nonprofits.

Almost all federal and state grants for college are need based, but some nonprofit and for-profit organizations offer need- or merit-based grants.

Students who plan to attend a community college, career school, or four-year college are smart to complete a FAFSA application each year. Information in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid determines what kinds of federal financial aid they qualify for, including grants.

Most states and schools use FAFSA information to award non-federal aid, so even higher-income families may benefit from submitting an application.

How Much Does Free Money for College Help?

Scholarships and grants can make a big difference in lightening the college debt load.

Take a look.

How Families Pay for College

Average college expenditure in the 2021-22 academic year $25,300
Parent and student income and savings 54%
Scholarships and grants 26%
Borrowed money 18%
Relatives and friends 2%
Source: Sallie Mae “How America Pays for College 2022” report

Finding Scholarships and Grants

With federal and institutional grants, you are automatically considered for need-based financial aid when you submit the FAFSA.

Finding private scholarships can take more time and effort.

Federal Student Aid recommends that students start researching scholarships the summer after their junior year of high school. An ambitious few start before that.

Researching Scholarships

Here are ideas to look for scholarships:

•   Consider using a database like that lets you create a profile with all of your information, which could help you match with scholarships and grants.

•   Use the Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop site to sort more than 9,000 opportunities for financial aid.

•   Try more than one scholarship search tool. The nonprofit College Board also offers one.

•   Ask college financial aid offices about their scholarship availability and process.

•   See if your employer or your parents’ employers offer college aid.

•   Look for scholarships offered by foundations, religious or civic groups, local businesses, and organizations related to your field of interest.

You don’t have to be a scholar or standout athlete to get a scholarship. Students may have success finding non-academic scholarships for, like, an awesome duck call.

Finding those private scholarships and completing the essay and application will take time, however.

Recommended: Search Grants and Scholarships by State

Researching Grants

Grants are typically awarded in a federal financial aid package.

In addition to federal grants, schools may award institutional grants.

It’s a good idea to take a shot at free money by submitting the FAFSA each year when it becomes available or soon after.

The Sallie Mae “How America Pays for College” report found that 75% of families were not aware that the FAFSA is available on Oct. 1 and that 36% did not file an application because they thought their income was too high to qualify for aid.

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Other Options to Help Pay for College

There are many ways to pay for school, and students and their parents may use a combination of methods to cover the cost of attendance, an estimate of the total cost of attending a particular college for one year.

Paying for College With Student Loans

Most students leave school with debt, thanks to all the costs of college, which go well beyond tuition and fees.

When it comes to private vs. federal student loans, most students first go for federal student loans.

For one thing, an undergrad might qualify for Direct Subsidized Loans. The government pays the interest on those loans as long as the student is enrolled at least half-time. The interest is also covered for six months after the student leaves school, graduates, or enters a period of deferment.

For another, borrowers may qualify for an income-based repayment plan, Public Service Loan Forgiveness, or federal deferment or forbearance down the road.

Not all students or parents will be able to rely solely on federal aid to cover all their bases, though, and that’s where a private student loan could come in handy.

Private student loans don’t come with all the borrower protections and programs that federal student loans do, but they can be used to cover any remaining school-certified costs, here or abroad, from transportation to books and lodging.

The interest rate may be competitive with federal student loan rates. Also, most federal student loans have loan fees — a percentage of the total loan amount — whereas a private student loan may have no fees.

Federal Work-Study

The federal work-study program allows students to earn money that can be used to pay day-to-day expenses. Students who demonstrate financial need may be eligible for jobs on or off campus.

Not all colleges participate in the program.

Does a Student Ever Have to Repay a Grant?

Federal Student Aid says the only time you might have to repay all or part of a federal grant is when:

•   You withdrew early from the program for which the grant was given to you.

•   Your enrollment status changed. If, for example, you switch from full-time to part-time enrollment, your grant amount will be reduced.

•   You received outside scholarships or grants that reduced your need for federal student aid.

•   You received a TEACH Grant, but you did not meet the service obligation. In that case, the grant could be converted to Direct Unsubsidized Loans.

If you don’t meet the expectations of a scholarship, such as GPA or credit-hour minimums, you could lose the gift and have to pay out of pocket.

When it comes to sports, the head coach decides whether an athletic scholarship will be renewed. Injury or poor academics can sack an athletic scholarship.

NCAA Division I and II colleges alone award more than $3.7 billion in athletic scholarships each year. But only a tiny fraction of high school students are offered athletic scholarships, and an even tinier number get a full ride.

Recommended: FAFSA Tips and Mistakes to Avoid

So Who Wants Free Money for College?

Changes to the federal application for student aid are afoot. What hasn’t changed is the benefit of filling out the FAFSA on or soon after Oct. 1 for the next school year. Funding is limited and often doled out on a first-come, first-served basis.

And, to reiterate, other student aid programs piggyback off the FAFSA.

The FAFSA considers student income, parent income and assets, and family size to calculate the expected family contribution (EFC).

The EFC is used to determine whether a student qualifies for federal grants like the Pell Grant, for low-income families; federal student loans; or work-study. The maximum Pell Grant award for the 2023-2024 year is $7,395.

Some FAFSA changes will be launched this year. Starting with the 2023-24 award year, for example, students incarcerated in federal and state correctional facilities will be eligible for Pell Grants.

The “Student Aid Index” will replace the “expected family contribution” starting with the 2024-25 award year, to clarify the misunderstood EFC.

The Takeaway

Free money for college is a real thing. Grants and scholarships are worth seeking out because they reduce the need to take out student loans. But if you still need to borrow, there’s no shame in that game. Most students do.

If you’re a student or parent and don’t anticipate being able to cover every cost of college in any given year, consider a SoFi Private Student Loan.

SoFi offers undergraduate, graduate, and parent student loans — with a variety of repayment options and no fees whatsoever.

Get your rate on a private student loan within three minutes.

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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 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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