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A Guide to Unclaimed Scholarships and Grants

October 12, 2021 · 4 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

A Guide to Unclaimed Scholarships and Grants

Maybe you’ve heard that billions of dollars’ worth of scholarships and grants go unclaimed every year. Unfortunately, some money is, yes, left on the table each year, but billions in merit- and need-based aid are claimed.

Of the federal government’s annual budget of $32 billion for student grants, $2 billion is unclaimed, according to researchers at EducationData.org.

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.

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 expected family contribution, 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.

It doesn’t get much better than grants for college, like snagging a Pell Grant as high as $6,495 for the 2021-2022 award year.

It has been estimated that more than $2 billion in annual Pell Grant money goes unclaimed, but applying for the Pell is simple: by filling out the FAFSA®. In fact, schools must determine a student’s Pell Grant eligibility before calculating eligibility for other federal student aid programs, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Any student who could use even a little 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 non-federal aid.

FAFSA information will also determine whether a student qualifies for federal work-study, when undergraduate and graduate students with financial need are given part-time jobs.

Some private colleges and universities will also want students to fill out the CSS Profile, which determines eligibility for institutional awards and grants.

Merit Aid

Merit scholarships 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.

The awards are not based on financial need.

The biggest source of “free money”? Colleges, according to a recent College Board Trends in Student Aid Report. Thanks to competition to attract students , nearly every college and university in the country offers merit-based aid in some form.

So it could be worth researching different schools’ merit aid offerings.

To sniff out unclaimed private scholarships like a truffle hunter, 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.

There are all kinds of scholarship search sites out there, from BigFuture to Unigo. (Be aware of sweepstakes on some sites that masquerade as scholarships.)

The Department of Education recommends the following tactics to find scholarships:

•   Talk to your high school counselor.

•   Use the Department of Labor’s scholarship search tool to sort more than 8,000 opportunities for student aid.

•   Inquire at the financial aid office at your college of choice.

•   See if your employer or your parents’ employers offer assistance.

•   Head to your local library’s reference section.

•   Look for scholarships offered by foundations, religious or community organizations, local businesses, or civic groups, as well as organizations (including professional associations) related to your field of interest.

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 ($2,000).

•   If you live in the Phoenix area, you’re a tall graduating senior, and, if you’re a finalist, you’re game for being interviewed and measured for the chance to gain all of $250, you could stand up to the challenge of the CATS Tall Club program.

Keeping an Eye Out for Scholarship Scams

Plenty of scholarship and grant money 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 — free money — is the ideal way to fund college. To cover all costs, many students will then need to take out federal student loans, and some will turn to 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.

It takes just three minutes to check your rate.


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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 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.

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.
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.
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