A Guide to Unclaimed Scholarships and Grants

By Sarah Brooks · July 06, 2023 · 6 minute read

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A Guide to Unclaimed Scholarships and Grants

It’s estimated that close to $100 million in scholarships go unclaimed each year and $2 billion in student grants go unclaimed. Typically, the money is not awarded due to lack of applicants. This is good news for students — as those that are willing to put in the time to search for scholarships and grants should be able to find at least a few to help pay their way through college.

The beauty of scholarships and grants is that you almost never need to pay them back. Who doesn’t love gifts? But acquiring them will take at least a little effort.

Key Points

•   Nearly $100 million in scholarships and $2 billion in student grants go unclaimed annually, often due to a lack of applicants.

•   Scholarships and grants do not typically require repayment, acting as financial gifts for education.

•   Various methods exist to find unclaimed scholarships, including using scholarship search engines, consulting with educational institutions, and checking with local businesses and organizations.

•   Financial aid can be either need-based, determined by the Student Aid Index, or merit-based, which considers academic or other achievements.

•   Unusual scholarships with specific criteria may go unclaimed due to a lack of eligible applicants.

Where Do You Find Unclaimed Scholarships?

You don’t have to be a 4.0 student or a star athlete to receive scholarships. In fact, the average high school student is eligible for 50-100 different types of scholarships each year. But, scholarships aren’t just going to come to you. You have to be the one to put in the work to find scholarships you qualify for and apply for them.

One of the best ways to find scholarships you are eligible for is through a scholarship search. Scholarship searches are offered by a variety of companies and allow you to filter the scholarships based on your specific qualifications, including your state, area of study, background, ethnicity, and more. Scholarship searches are one of the quickest ways to find quality scholarships throughout the country.

Other ways to find unclaimed scholarships include asking your specific college or university what they offer, using the library’s recommendation section, reaching out to businesses in your field of study, speaking to your high school counselor, and asking religious organizations if they offer scholarships.

Regardless of which methods you use to find scholarships nobody applies for, the reality is they are out there waiting for students to apply for and claim them.

Recommended: Search Grants and Scholarships by State

Two Types of Aid to Lay Claim To

Financial aid can be need-based or merit-based.

Need-Based Aid

Federal need-based aid is determined by the Student Aid Index, or SAI (formerly called the Expected Family Contribution, or EFC) as calculated by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®).

The Pell Grant, the Department of Education’s biggest grant program, is geared toward students who demonstrate significant financial need, but the total cost of attendance at a particular college also plays a role. The maximum Pell Grant amount for the 2023-2024 academic year is $7,395.

Any student who could use college financial aid has nothing to lose by filling out the FAFSA. And even if you are not eligible for federal aid, realize that most states and schools use FAFSA information to award nonfederal aid, too.

One way to find nonfederal financial aid is to fill out the CSS Profile, which determines eligibility for institutional awards and grants. The CSS Profile awards billions in nonfederal aid to college students each year and can be a great way to find unclaimed scholarships.

Recommended: How to Complete the FAFSA

Merit Aid

Merit scholarships are not based on financial need and are awarded by colleges, employers, individuals, businesses, nonprofits, states, religious groups, and professional and social organizations to academic or athletic achievers, as most of us are aware, but merit aid also may be determined by community involvement, level of dedication to a field of study, race, gender, teacher recommendations, and other criteria.

So who is the biggest source of “free money?” Colleges, according to a recent College Board Trends in Student Aid Report. The U.S. Department of Education awards $46 billion annually in scholarships, and thanks to competition to attract students, nearly every college and university in the country offers merit-based aid in some form.

To find unclaimed scholarships, you could start by thinking about all the ways you have, well, merit — making lists of opportunities and eligibility criteria, and pursuing only the scholarships you’re best qualified for.

Why Would Any Scholarships Go Unclaimed?

So is it true there are obscure scholarships left unclaimed? There is no database that can give precise answers, but it makes sense that when specific parameters exist around a particular scholarship, fewer students will qualify.

For example, scholarships exist for North Korean refugees who are permanently living in the United States. Applicants must have been born in North Korea or the child of someone born in North Korea.

Let’s say you don’t fit those parameters. Other unusual opportunities include the following:

•   If you dazzle your friends with your ability to make prom outfits using only duct tape, then you could win a $10,000 Stuck at Prom scholarship. Seriously.

•   Or maybe you have the best plan ever to survive the zombie apocalypse. If so, you could apply for the Zombie Apocalypse Scholarship offered by Unigo ($2,000).

•   If you live in the Phoenix area and you’re a tall graduating senior, you could be interviewed and measured for the chance to gain all of $250 through the CATS Tall Club program.

While you may not qualify for any of the above-mentioned scholarships, these are just examples of how many are actually out there. You may be surprised at what you find (and what you do actually qualify for!) when conducting your search.

Keeping an Eye Out for Scholarship Scams

Plenty of scholarship and grant money for college is out there waiting to be claimed. Unfortunately, though, there are also financial aid scams, including scholarships that aren’t legitimate. The Department of Education offers tips to protect yourself, including:

•   Know that you don’t need to pay to find scholarships or any other form of financial aid.

•   Check information about scholarship offers at a public library and/or online.

•   Talk to the financial aid department at your college of choice to verify legitimacy.

Also, before students begin a search, they may want to be aware of “scholarships” that are actually sweepstakes because their information may be sold to third parties.

The Takeaway

Finding unclaimed scholarships and grants is the ideal way to fund college because this money does not need to be repaid. To cover all the expenses of college, however, many students will then need to take out federal and/or private student loans.

Although private student loans do not carry the benefits and protections of federal student loans, they can fill gaps when you’ve considered all of your federal grant and loan options, but your expenses still exceed your means.

SoFi offers private student loans with competitive rates, flexible repayment options, and no fees. Loans do not need to be repaid while in school, and SoFi offers a six month grace period after graduation.

See if you prequalify for a private student loan with SoFi.

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-criteria 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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Non affiliation: SoFi isn’t affiliated with any of the companies highlighted in this article.

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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