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What Is a Scholarship & How to Get One?

By Josephine Nesbit · March 09, 2022 · 10 minute read

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What Is a Scholarship & How to Get One?

Considering the average published college tuition according to The College Board ranges from $3,800 for a public two-year institution to $38,070 at private nonprofit four-year institutions, college students need all of the financial help that they can get.

One option is to use scholarships, which are a form of financial aid awarded to students to help pay for tuition and other education expenses. Unlike student loans, scholarships don’t need to be repaid.

Below, you’ll find the answers to “what is a scholarship?” as well as where to get a scholarship and the different types of scholarships that may be available to you.

What Is a Scholarship?

A scholarship is a form of financial aid that’s awarded to students to help pay for school. Over the last 10 years, the number of scholarships awarded has increased by 45%, according to the National Scholarship Providers Association (NSPA). Each year, there’s an estimated $46 billion in grants and scholarship money awarded by the U.S. Department of Education, colleges, and universities and an additional $7.4 billion awarded through private scholarships and fellowships.

Scholarships can be delivered in a lump-sum payment or the scholarship award can be broken up into multiple payments that are sent out each semester or school year. Depending on the scholarship, funds can either be sent directly to the student or sent to the school and the student would pay any additional money owed for tuition, fees, room, and board.

Scholarships are awarded based on a number of different criteria, including academic achievement, athletic achievement, community involvement, job experience, the field of study, financial need, and more.

Unlike student loans, scholarships don’t need to be repaid. Scholarships are generally considered gift aid.

What Is a Full-Ride Scholarship?

A full-ride scholarship is an award that covers everything — tuition, books, fees, room, board, and sometimes even living expenses. Full ride scholarships mean no other additional aid is needed to pay for school.

Full-ride scholarships are highly sought after and some may have strict guidelines and requirements.

Different Types of Scholarships for College Students

There are various forms of gift aid that students can use to pay for college. While there are differences between them, they’re similar in the fact that they do not need to be repaid. Here are different types of scholarships for college students.

Federal Grants

Federal grants are need based financial aid from the U.S. government to help students pay for college. The Department of Education offers a variety of grants to students attending four-year colleges or universities, community colleges, and career schools.

Most federal grants are awarded to students based on financial need, the cost of attendance, and enrollment status. Students can start by submitting a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form annually to determine eligibility. Once FAFSA is submitted, your school will let you know how much you may receive and when you may receive it.

Here are grant programs provided by the federal government:

•   Federal Pell Grants

•   Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG)

•   Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants

•   Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants

While grants don’t typically have to be repaid, there are circumstances that may require repayment, such as:

•   You withdrew from the program early

•   Your enrollment status changed that reduced your eligibility for the grant

•   You received outside scholarships or grants that reduced the need for federal student aid

•   You received a TEACH Grant but did not meet the requirements for the TEACH Grant service obligation

Recommended: Finding Free Money for College

State Grants and Scholarships

According to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), almost every state education agency has at least one grant or scholarship available to residents. Eligibility may be restricted to state residents attending an in-state college, but this isn’t always the case. Check what state financial aid programs may be available to you through your state education agency.

Scholarships and Grants From Schools

Institutional aid is awarded to students by the schools they plan to attend. Scholarships and grants from schools may be offered based on need or merit. For example, a student may be awarded a scholarship or grant through the school for strong academic or athletic performance.

It’s also important to read the requirements for scholarships and grants from schools. Some awards may demand that students maintain a minimum GPA throughout the year. Others may only be available for your freshman and sophomore years.

Private Scholarships

Private scholarships are financial aid awarded to students that are funded by foundations, civic groups, companies, religious groups, professional organizations, charities, and individuals. Most private scholarships have specific criteria required to qualify, according to the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority (MEFA) , and it may take some extra effort to research the availability of private scholarships.

Most private scholarships are only awarded for a single year. Check with the scholarship’s agency to find out if the scholarship is renewable and any criteria you may need to meet.

Main Sources of Scholarships and Grants

The main sources of scholarships and grants are from the four types of scholarships and grants listed above. Here are the major sources of scholarships and grants for college students and the percentage of total grants and/or scholarships that comes from each source:

•   Federal grants: 47%

•   State grants and scholarships: 8%

•   Scholarships and grants from schools: 35%

•   Private scholarships: 10%

Recommended: A Guide to Unclaimed Scholarships and Grants

Reasons to Be Awarded With a Scholarship

Scholarships aren’t only awarded to those with a 4.0 GPA. There are many reasons to be awarded a scholarship and students should consider their skills, areas of interest, and past achievements or awards.


Need-based scholarships are typically awarded to students based on their household income. The school’s financial aid office may also determine how much financial aid the student is able to receive.

Schools subtract your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) from your Cost of Attendance (COA) to determine your financial need and how much need-based aid you can receive. Your COA is the cost to attend the school and your EFC is the number that financial aid staff uses to determine how much financial aid you would receive. Information provided on your FAFSA is used to calculate your EFC.

Academic performance may also be taken into consideration when awarding need-based scholarships.

Academic Scholarships

Academic scholarships, also known as merit scholarships, are awarded to students based on their GPA and SAT/ACT admissions test scores. Award committees may also take other factors into consideration, such as extracurricular activities and leadership qualities.

Athletic Scholarships

Athletic scholarships are awarded to students who show exceptional athletic abilities while also taking academic performance into consideration. The National Collegiate Athletic Association, a nonprofit organization that regulates student-athletes, has provided more than $3.6 billion in athletics scholarships annually to more than 180,000 student-athletes. Athletic scholarships are not available at Division III colleges. Only about 1% to 2% of high school athletes are awarded athletics scholarships to compete in college.

Recommended: Balancing Being a Student Athlete & Academics in College

Community Service Scholarships

There are also scholarship opportunities for students who volunteer in their local communities. For example, the Equitable Excellence Scholarship awards students who have made a positive impact on their communities through volunteer service. The scholarship provides renewable awards of $5,000 to students for a total of $20,000 per recipient as well as one-time $2,500 scholarships.

Scholarships for Hobbies and Extracurriculars

Certain hobbies, interests, or extracurricular activities may also provide scholarships. For example, members of Starfleet, the International Star Trek Fan Association, can be awarded scholarships up to $1,000 in the categories including medicine, engineering, performing arts, international studies, business, science, education, writing, law enforcement, and general studies.

Scholarships based on Identity or Heritage

Some scholarship programs offer funds to help support traditionally underrepresented students. Outside of identity, many of these scholarships may require a minimum GPA, a need for financial assistance, leadership potential or participation in community activities.

There are also scholarships for mothers. When dealing with the costs of child care, many single mothers face unique obstacles to getting their college degrees.

Employer or Military Scholarships

Students may also be able to find opportunities through the employer of a family member. Eligibility and award amounts vary by employer. A variety of scholarships are also available to the children and spouses of active duty, reserve, National Guard, or retired members of the U.S. military.

How Can You Spend a Scholarship for Student?

How you can spend a scholarship for students depends on that specific program. Some programs may send the check directly to the college’s financial aid office to apply the funds to your tuition bill. Funds that are sent to the student may be used for education-related expenses deemed necessary by the school, like tuition, books, supplies, and housing.

Make sure to check with the scholarship program for rules regarding how you can spend your award.

How to Get a Scholarship for Student

There are several ways for students to find and apply for scholarships. Students can contact the financial aid office at the school they wish to attend or use other free resources. Some of these include:

•   Your high school counselor

•   The U.S. Department of Labor’s scholarship search tool

•   Federal agencies

•   Your state grant agency

•   Your library

•   Foundations, religious or community organizations, local businesses or civic groups

•   Organizations related to your field of interest

•   Identity-based organizations

•   Your employer or your parents’ employers

Check with each program to see how to apply and the requirements. Make sure you apply by the deadline.

Scholarship Requirements

Scholarship requirements vary by program. However, you may notice some common criteria, such as:

•   A GPA minimum

•   Age and grade requirements

•   College enrollment requirement

•   An essay requirement

•   Financial requirements

•   Location requirement

•   Test score requirements

Depending on the program, there may be some requirements related to your major, ethnicity, gender, disability or military service. In some cases, applicants may be required to complete an interview. If you’re applying for scholarships, check with each program to be sure you fully understand the application requirements and eligibility criteria.

Recommended: I Didn’t Get Enough Financial Aid: Now What?

Alternative Funding Options for College Students

Outside of scholarships and grants, there are other ways for students to pay for college.

One option is to get a part-time job and send extra income aside to put towards tuition or other school-related expenses. While this will likely not cover everything, it could make your costs more manageable. If you have a 529 college savings plan, you can tap this savings account to pay for qualified education expenses on a tax-free basis.

Students can also turn to the federal government to see if they qualify for federal work-study jobs, federal student loans, aid for military families, aid for international students or certain tax benefits. According to the Department of Education, outstanding federal student aid totals $1.61 trillion, representing 43.4 million students. These are typically awarded based on financial need and students can see what they qualify for by filling out FAFSA each year.

Another option is to use private student loans to pay for college. These are nonfederal loans made by a lender, such as a bank, credit union, state agency, university or other institution. Private student loans can be an option to consider after you’ve exhausted all other forms of aid.

Unlike most federal student loans, private loans require a credit check and the loan’s interest rate will depend on the borrower’s creditworthiness, among other factors. Private student loans are not required to offer the same borrower protections as federal student loans, things like deferment options or income-driven repayment plans.

You can even apply for scholarships and grants to pay off student loans after you’ve already graduated. You may also be able to have your student loans forgiven through state or federal programs.

The Takeaway

Before taking on student loans, scholarships and grants can be used to supplement other forms of financial aid. Before you start applying for scholarships, make sure you read the program’s requirements and turn in the application before the deadline.

If you’ve taken out federal or private student loans, there’s always the option to refinance. By refinancing your student loans, you could potentially qualify for a lower interest rate that could help you pay off the principal faster and/or decrease how much you pay each month. Note that decreasing your monthly payments is often the result of extending your loan term, which can ultimately increase the cost of borrowing over the life of the loan. Refinancing any federal loans will eliminate them from federal protections or programs such as the option to apply for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

You can refinance the student loan with SoFi. If a competitor offers a lower rate, SoFi will match it and give you $100 after funding the loan.

Check your rate and learn more about SoFi student loan refinancing today.

Photo credit: iStock/fizkes

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