Attending college is a major decision for students and their families. According to the College Board, the average 2020-2021 tuition cost for public four-year colleges was $10,560 for in-state students, while private four-year colleges averaged $37,650.
Students have multiple options available to pay for college, including savings, financial aid, and student loans. College grants are a form of financial aid that can be used to pay for tuition, room and board, and related school expenses. What’s more, grants do not need to be repaid by the student.
Getting free money for college through grants can be competitive, but it’s possible with some planning and know-how. This guide will explore college grant opportunities, common eligibility requirements and application processes and some, and additional ways to pay for college.
College Grants vs Scholarships – What’s the Difference?
Scholarships and grants for college both represent free money to pay for an education that generally does not have to be repaid. Dropping out of college or switching to part-time enrollment are a couple of exceptions that may require paying back a grant or scholarship.
Grants for college students may come from the federal and state government, private organizations, nonprofits, or colleges. Generally, these financial gifts are awarded on a basis of need. However, some college grants may incorporate demographics and a specific academic discipline in their selection criteria.
Scholarships may be awarded based on a student’s financial need or merit. Besides academic performance, merit can be defined by athletic ability, leadership skills, community service, or other character traits and activities.
Together, scholarships and grants accounted for 25% of funding to pay for college costs in the 2019-2020 academic year.
Types of Federal College Grants
Federal grants for students attending community college, career schools, and four-year colleges are offered through the US Department of Education. Here is a list of federal grants for college students.
The Pell Grant is the Department of Education’s largest grant program. Pell Grant funding changes from year to year, and is geared towards students who demonstrate significant financial need. The maximum Pell Grant total for the 2021-2022 award year is $6,495.
The amount an eligible student receives is calculated according to enrollment status, cost of attendance, Expected Family Contribution, and duration of the study.
It’s worth noting that the award amount for Pell Grants is not impacted by other forms of financial aid. Often, a Pell Grant is awarded in combination with other federal financial aid, such as work-study and student loans.
Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG)
The FSEOG program is another grant for students with exceptional financial need to pay for college expenses. FSEOG awards range between $100 and $4,000.
Individual grant totals are calculated by overall financial need, timing of the application, total financial aid, and funding availability within the college.
Though FSEOG is funded through the Department of Education, it is administered by participating schools—and not every college participates. Check with a college’s financial aid office to learn if FSEOG is an option for assistance.
Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants
This program includes more specific criteria for award than financial need alone. Students may qualify for a grant if their parent or guardian died while serving in the U.S. armed forces in Iraq or Afghanistan after 9/11. This must have occured before the applicant was enrolled in college or 24 years old.
Additional requirements for the Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant include failing to qualify for a Pell Grant due to Expected Family Contribution but satisfying the remaining eligibility criteria.
Grant funding is equal to the maximum Pell Grant award for any given year. Thus, grants can be up to $6,495 for 2021-2022, but will vary based on financial need and the cost of attendance for the applicant’s college.
The Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant program offers awards up to $4,000 per academic year for students pursuing a career in teaching.
Compared to other federal grants for college, TEACH grants carry more stringent requirements. For instance, recipients must fulfill a service obligation of teaching in a high-need subject area at a school or educational service agency for at least four academic years within eight years of completing TEACH grant-funded studies.
Otherwise, the TEACH grant is converted into a direct unsubsidized loan which must be repaid in full with interest accrued from the date of the initial award.
To qualify for a TEACH grant, students must attend a participating school and achieve high academic performance (GPA of at least 3.25 or college admissions test scores above the 75th percentile). Additionally, recipients must partake in counseling sessions and sign a TEACH Grant Agreement to Serve.
Applying for Federal College Grants
Students looking for federal grants for college can begin the process by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). The FAFSA considers student income, parental income and assets, and family size to calculate the Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is used by schools to determine how much money students are eligible to receive.
After completing the FAFSA, students will receive financial aid packages from any college they have applied and been accepted to. This includes a breakdown of any eligible financial assistance, including grants, scholarships, and work-study, and federal student loans.
Take note that students need to fill out the FAFSA every year they’re enrolled in college and eligible for grant awards and other financial assistance.
Since some aid is awarded on a first-come-first-served basis for certain grant programs, be sure to pay attention to FAFSA deadlines, and if possible, submit the FAFSA promptly.
The FAFSA form generally becomes available annually on October 1st.
Recommended: FAFSA 101: How To Complete The FAFSA
Other College Grants for Students
In addition to federal grant programs, there are opportunities to get free money for college from state governments, nonprofits, and private organizations.
There are state-level grants for students to consider too. Filling out and submitting the FAFSA may automatically check eligibility for certain state grants.
To find funding in any given state, this Department of Education map provides contact information for relevant state-level agencies and organizations that administer grants for college students.
For example, there are numerous California scholarship and grant opportunities to help students pay for school. Every year, the Cal Grant provides 41,000 awards to undergraduate, vocational, and teacher certification students.
Keep in mind that some state government scholarship and grant programs have different deadlines than FAFSA.
College Grants for Women
There are a variety of college grants geared specifically to women. Here are a couple grant programs women can apply to for college and graduate school.
• Program for Continuing Education Grant : The Philanthropic Education Organization offers one-time need-based grants for women in the U.S. and Canada to put towards college and education-related expenses.
• Career Development Grant : The American Association of University Women provides grants between $2,000 to $12,000 to female students pursuing an advanced degree or certificate.
Finding Additional Grants
In addition to state and federal grants or grants offered through a student’s college or university, private companies and nonprofits may also offer grants. Students may have to do a little leg work to find these opportunities, but a chance at free money for college can be worth a little time invested up-front. Online databases like Scholarships.com have a variety of grant opportunities for students to peruse.
Recommended: Finding & Applying to Scholarships for Grad School
College grants are a helpful way for eligible students to pay for school and reduce student debt. Nearly half of students used grants to pay a portion of their college and education expenses in 2019-2020.
Even so, many students require additional financing to pay for college. Students pursuing a master’s degree can explore graduate school scholarships and fellowships.
When grants, scholarships, and federal loans aren’t sufficient, students may choose to take out private student loans to cover the difference. Private student loans lack the same borrower protections as federal student loans, so they won’t be the right choice for all students.
SoFi offers private student loans for undergraduates, graduates, and parents, with competitive rates and no hidden fees. SoFi’s flexible payment options and terms can help find a loan that aligns with your financial situation and goals.
Photo credit: iStock/Deejpilot
SoFi Loan Products
SoFi loans are originated by SoFi Bank, N.A., NMLS #696891 (Member FDIC), and by SoFi Lending Corp. NMLS #1121636 , a lender licensed by the Department of Financial Protection and Innovation under the California Financing Law (License # 6054612) and by other states. For additional product-specific legal and licensing information, see SoFi.com/legal. Equal Housing Lender.
SoFi Private Student Loans
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.
External Websites: The information and analysis provided through hyperlinks to third-party websites, while believed to be accurate, cannot be guaranteed by SoFi. Links are provided for informational purposes and should not be viewed as an endorsement.
Third-Party Brand Mentions: No brands, products, or companies mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third-party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.
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.