The Differences Between Grants, Scholarships, and Loans

By Becca Stanek · May 31, 2023 · 8 minute read

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The Differences Between Grants, Scholarships, and Loans

Grants, scholarships, and student loans can all help you pay for your education. But there are key differences between the three — namely, how they award funds and whether you need to repay those funds. Grants and student loans often depend on financial eligibility and need, while scholarships tend to be merit-based. And while both grants and scholarships don’t need to be repaid, student loans do.

Here’s a breakdown of how student loans, and grants vs. scholarships work, as well as some of their key differences.

Student Loans

Simply put, a student loan is money borrowed that has to be paid back (usually with interest). You can take out a loan from a bank, an online lender, a college or university, or the state or federal government. If you’re wondering about grants vs. loans, both are based on financial need, but what sets them apart is that grants don’t need to be repaid and student loans do.

So, how do student loans work? Loan terms for college can vary based on a few different factors: whether they’re federal (offered by the government) or private (offered by a financial institution), whether you choose fixed or variable interest rates, how long it takes to pay the loan back, and how much can be borrowed. Loans offered to you could be based on your credit score or the personal financial information you supply on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®).

To determine your eligibility for a student loan from the federal government, you must fill out the FAFSA. States and colleges may use information from your FAFSA to determine state and school-specific aid, as will some private financial aid providers.

To fill out the FAFSA form, you’ll need a few pieces of information, including:

•   Your Social Security number or alien registration number (if you are not a U.S. citizen)

•   Your driver’s license number (if you have one)

•   Federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of money earned

•   Bank statements and records

•   Records of untaxed income (if applicable)

•   Information on account balances, investments, and assets

•   FSA ID for electronic signature (this is your username and password needed to access and submit your FAFSA online)

If you are applying as a dependent student, you will need all of the above information from your parent(s) as well.

What Is the Difference Between Unsubsidized and Subsidized Loans?

There are two primary types of federal student loans: subsidized loans and unsubsidized loans. The main difference between unsubsidized and subsidized loans is how the interest accumulates through the life of the loan.

What Is an Unsubsidized Loan?

Unsubsidized loans are available to undergraduate and graduate students, regardless of any financial need. An unsubsidized loan starts accruing interest as soon as the loan is dispersed.

That means if you accept an unsubsidized loan during your freshman year of college, the loan will accumulate interest throughout the rest of your time in school. Ultimately, that means the interest will capitalize — in other words, it will be added onto the principal of your student loan.

When Do I Need to Pay Back an Unsubsidized Loan?

You are responsible for starting to pay back an unsubsidized loan six months from when you graduate or if you drop below half-time enrollment. Because of the interest capitalizing on your unsubsidized loan from the day it’s disbursed, your loan balance will likely be more than what you originally borrowed if you don’t make interest payments while you’re in school.

What Is a Subsidized Loan?

A subsidized loan is a need-based loan available to undergraduate students on which interest accumulates only after you begin repayment. The government will pay the interest while you’re in school at least half-time or until you graduate and for the first six months after, as well as during a period of deferment.

When Do I Need to Pay Back a Subsidized Loan?

Like unsubsidized loans, repayment for a subsidized loan typically occurs after a six-month grace period from when you graduate or drop below half-time enrollment. You are responsible for paying back the total outstanding balance, plus interest. There are plenty of ways to pay off federal loans, from the standard 10-year repayment plan to income-based repayment plans.


A grant can be beneficial to students because it is financial aid that does not have to be repaid. That’s one main difference between a grant vs. a loan. Grants may be obtained directly from your university, the federal government, state government, or a private or nonprofit organization. It is important to note that you may be required to meet certain financial eligibility criteria, depending on the grant.

What Is a College Grant?

A college grant is financial aid money awarded to a student that does not have to be paid back. When it comes to a grant vs. a scholarship, grants are typically awarded based on need, not on academic achievement or merit. Scholarships are based on merit.

One popular type of college grant is the Pell Grant. Pell Grants are given to undergraduate students with significant financial need, which means they are typically awarded to low-income students.

Do You Have to Pay Back Grants?

In most cases, you do not need to pay back grants as long as you maintain eligibility. If, for example, you decide to drop out of school, you might be required to pay back certain grants.

You might also need to pay back grants if you withdraw early from a program in which the grant was awarded, or if you did not meet a service obligation, as is required for the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant , for example.


Scholarships are a great way to finance higher education, simply because there are thousands of available scholarships based on financial need or merit. That’s the main difference between scholarship and grant: Scholarships are often merit-based. Scholarships can come from a variety of sources and typically do not need to be repaid.

It can be easy to feel overwhelmed with the amount of time it takes to hunt for scholarships — here are a few tips to help you find scholarships to apply for:

•   Start by combing scholarship databases for any scholarship that may align with your interests or background. Don’t be afraid to tell people you know that you are looking for scholarships either — your best friend or neighbor may have heard of a scholarship you could be eligible for.

•   Take a look at your academic achievements. Have you maintained a certain GPA or did you make the Dean’s List? There could be a scholarship for that. List out your community involvements and start researching whether your softball league, for example, offers scholarships.

•   Make a list of all the things that make you who you are. List out your heritage and things that your family members have been involved with over time. Perhaps your grandmother belongs to the National Corvette Club or your grandfather was a veteran, both of which could present scholarship opportunities.

Once you have your list, it helps to stay organized by adhering to deadlines and application requirements. Stick to what feels doable so you can knock out several applications in a row. Scholarship application formats vary from essay writing to creating a video to simply filling out a form.

Important documents you might need when applying for scholarships include birth certificates, SAT/ACT scores, academic transcripts, certifications, or ID cards. Be sure you have those handy prior to hitting search engines and applying for the next available scholarship you find.

Grants vs Scholarships vs Loans

Now that you have a grasp on all three forms of financial aid, let’s examine the main difference between scholarship and grant and student loans.

What Is the Difference Between a Loan and a Grant?

Here’s what makes grants vs. loans different: A student loan—whether it is unsubsidized or subsidized, federal or private — must be repaid with interest. A grant typically does not need to be repaid as long as you maintain eligibility requirements.

What Is the Difference Between a Grant and a Scholarship?

When looking at grant vs. scholarship, the primary difference between the two is that a grant is typically need-based while a scholarship is usually merit-based. You might receive a scholarship for a number of things, such as high academic achievement, organization or club involvement, or ancestry. A grant is typically awarded based on financial need and can be specific to certain degrees, students, and programs.

How Is a Student Loan Different from a Scholarship?

A student loan is different from a scholarship primarily in that a student loan must be repaid and a scholarship does not need to be repaid. Scholarships can come from a variety of sources, including nonprofit organizations, private companies, universities and colleges, and professional and social organizations. Student loans may come from private lenders, federal or state governments, or colleges and universities.

Because student loans need to be repaid, you’ll want to make your payments as manageable as possible. If you have existing student loans, student loan refinancing may be a way to help you save money.

With refinancing, you replace your existing loan with a new loan that ideally has a lower interest rate. A student loan refinance calculator can help you determine how much you might save. Just be aware that when you refinance federal student loans, they become ineligible for federal protections and programs like income-driven repayment plans.

When should you refinance your student loans? If you can qualify for a lower interest rate or better terms, and you don’t need access to federal programs and protections, refinancing may be worth it for you.

Recommended: Student Loan Refinancing Guide

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The Takeaway

With a good understanding of scholarships vs. grants vs. student loans under your belt, you can better determine which form of financial aid is right for your situation. Remember that you don’t necessarily have to choose just one.

Once you’ve maximized the money you can get from grants or scholarships that you likely won’t have to pay back, you may consider bridging the remaining gap by taking out a student loan. And if you currently have student loans, you may be able to refinance them for more favorable rates and terms.

As you’re exploring student loan refinancing, consider SoFi. Our student loans have no fees, and you can see if you prequalify in a matter of minutes.

Find out if SoFi student loan refinancing is right for you.

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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.

SoFi Student Loan Refinance
If you are a federal student loan borrower, you should consider all of your repayment opportunities including the opportunity to refinance your student loan debt at a lower APR or to extend your term to achieve a lower monthly payment. Please note that once you refinance federal student loans you will no longer be eligible for current or future flexible payment options available to federal loan borrowers, including but not limited to income-based repayment plans or extended repayment plans.

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