Almost 20 million students entered the American higher education system this year. And most of them are faced with yearly expenses averaging nearly $26,000 for in-state public colleges and up to double that for private schools.
Tuition, books, supplies, room and board, fees, and transportation can all contribute to the final bill, and seeing that total for the first time can lead to some serious sticker shock. But it doesn’t mean you have to hand over cash in order to enroll. There are a number of ways to help pay for college. But what’s the difference between grants, scholarships, and loans? Here’s what you need to know.
Student Loans vs Scholarships
The biggest difference between student loans and scholarships is that loans do not reduce the cost of college, they just help you afford it upfront. Eventually, they need to be paid back. Scholarships , on the other hand, are need-based or merit-based awards that actually help make college more affordable because they go directly toward the cost of your education and you don’t need to pay them back. There are quite a few other differences between the two as well.
Getting the Money
If you take out a student loan, the total amount is divvied up by semester or year and that amount is typically disbursed to your school to cover your tuition.
The remaining money is often disbursed to you directly so you can cover costs like housing off campus, food, and school supplies.
Scholarships, on the other hand, are often paid straight from the college, or straight to the college in the case of third-party awards. Your scholarship money may go directly to your tuition or other school fees, or it may be sent to you directly (depending on the scholarship).
Restrictions and Qualifications
Both scholarships and student loans come with strings attached. Scholarships, whether merit-based or need-based, can come with GPA requirements or other academic qualifications. You can win scholarships from either the government, your school, or one of a large number of private organizations. (Here’s a giant scholarship database to aid your search.)
Even if you earn a scholarship that’s more lenient, it’s not the green light for a free for all. How you spend your scholarship money could affect everything from your taxes to your loan eligibility (definitely talk to a tax professional if you have any questions about that), so it’s important to ensure that scholarships are spent only on tuition or other school-related expenses.
Whether the student or the parents apply for federal loans, the process starts with a FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Even if you don’t think you’ll qualify for a student loan or other financial aid, it’s still a good idea to fill out the FAFSA, because some states and schools use it to determine their awards as well.
The minimum qualifications for federal student aid include (but are not limited to) U.S. citizenship or eligible non-citizenship, a high school diploma or GED, and acceptance into an eligible degree or certificate program.
Beyond that, the FAFSA determines eligibility based on your financial situation, the school you’ll be attending, and other factors. Student loans are widely used to help pay for college. In fact, Americans currently share a student loan burden that’s over $1.5 trillion (with a T).
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How Are Grants Different from Scholarships?
Like scholarships, grants help reduce the cost of higher education for the individual student because they don’t need to be repaid. They also have certain minimum requirements for maintaining your eligibility. The primary difference between the two is that grants are typically need-based, whereas scholarships are typically merit-based.
The largest provider of grants from the federal government is the Pell Grant program, which awards a fluctuating maximum (currently $6,095 for the 2018–19 award year) per year based on your financial circumstances. State governments may also fund grants for residents who attend in-state colleges or universities.
Can You Win a Scholarship and Still Take Out a Loan?
If you are awarded a grant or a scholarship, you can still apply for student loans. However, the money you receive from that grant or scholarship can affect your loan eligibility, sometimes in a big way.
For example, the schools or programs you applied to will use your completed FAFSA to determine your financial need , which is the difference between your total Cost of Attendance (COA) and your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) . Earning scholarships can reduce your costs, which in turn can leave you eligible for less financial aid—which includes both need-based and non need-based aid.
To complicate matters, some scholarships are awarded as “first-dollar ,” meaning they are made either according to set guidelines or without regard for any other aid you receive, and some are “last-dollar,” meaning they cover any remaining gaps after all your other aid has been applied. If you’re awarded several forms of student aid, be sure to do the overall math and determine if one is a better opportunity.
A Word About Work-Study
Another way some students choose to pay for college is the Federal Work-Study program , which provides part-time jobs for students while they are enrolled in classes. It’s available to students at all levels of higher education and aims to employ students in community service work or work related to their degree.
For students whose chosen career paths require lots of hands-on work, this can be an attractive option to not only help earn money for school, but gain real world experience at the same time. Check with your school’s financial aid office to see if they participate.
When the time comes, SoFi can help you refinance your student loans and potentially put more money back in your pocket.
Notice: SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income Based Repayment or Income Contingent Repayment or PAYE. SoFi always recommends that you consult a qualified financial advisor to discuss what is best for your unique situation.
This article provides general background information only and is not intended to serve as legal or tax advice or as a substitute for legal counsel. You should consult your own attorney and/or tax advisor if you have a question requiring legal or tax advice about bankruptcy.
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.