College grants: What they are and where to find them

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What are college grants?

College grants for students are a form of free money that is generally never repaid. Grants often come from the federal government or a state government, but they can also be offered by colleges or third-party organizations.

The U.S. Department of Education in particular offers three basic types of grants:

  • Discretionary grants that are awarded to some based on a competitive process.
  • Formulaic grants that are awarded to all students who meet set criteria without an application process.
  • Grants based on financial need.

Each type of grant has its own requirements and application guidelines. When it comes to grants offered through the federal government, you’ll find out which options you are eligible for when you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

How are grants different from scholarships?

Both grants and scholarships are considered “gift” aid that does not need to be paid back, yet there are subtle differences between them.

Scholarships are usually merit-based, and they’re offered by a wide range of organizations and businesses, as well as colleges and universities. For example, an institution of higher education may offer a full-ride scholarship to applicants with exemplary academics or those who are in the highest levels of college sports. Businesses and organizations may also offer annual scholarship opportunities to students who meet their requirements or who have unique skills or hobbies.

Meanwhile, grants are typically awarded by the federal government and individual states, or by colleges and universities themselves. Grants are also more likely to be given out based on financial need, meaning you may not be eligible if your family income exceeds income caps.

Who are grants best for?

Because grants are typically based on financial need, they work best for people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford higher education. Unlike merit-based aid, grants prioritize people who fall below a certain income threshold. Grants are a better starting point than student loans, which students often wind up paying off for a decade or longer after graduation.

Where to find college grants

The FAFSA form is the best way to see which government-based programs you may be eligible for, including grants, work-study programs and federal student loans. The FAFSA opens on Oct. 1 of each year and remains open through June 30 of the school year you’re applying for. For the 2021-22 school year, you can fill out the FAFSA through June 30, 2022.

However, you should also check with your college or career school for grant opportunities, as well as with private and nonprofit organizations that may offer grants to students who meet specific criteria.

Biggest grants for college students

The biggest college grant programs are offered through the federal government, and they’re a great place to start as you search for college funding.

Pell Grants

Federal Pell Grants are geared toward undergraduate students who have demonstrated financial need but have not earned a degree yet, although students enrolled in a postbaccalaureate teacher certification or licensing program may also be eligible. Pell Grants do not need to be repaid, and the amount you’re eligible for can change every year.

Note that you cannot receive a Pell Grant for more than one school at a time, and you can receive this grant for a maximum of 12 school terms or six years of higher education.

Amount: Maximum of $6,495 for the 2021-22 school year.

Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG)

The Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) program is not offered by every school, yet schools that do participate award these grants via their financial aid offices. Generally speaking, these grants are awarded based on which students have the most financial need. Only undergraduates who have not yet earned a bachelor’s degree are eligible.

Amount: Between $100 and $4,000 per year depending on your financial need and how much funding your school has set aside.

Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants

Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants are available to students who are not eligible for a Pell Grant based on their Expected Family Contribution (EFC) but who meet other Pell Grant requirements. To qualify, students must also have had a parent or guardian who was a member of the military and who lost their life in military service in Iraq or Afghanistan after the events of 9/11. Eligible applicants must have also been under the age of 24 and enrolled in college at least part-time at the time of their parent’s or guardian’s death.

Amount: Maximum of $6,495 for the 2021-22 school year.

Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant

Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants are available to aspiring teachers who meet requirements for federal student aid and are enrolled as an undergraduate, postbaccalaureate or graduate student at a participating school. Those who apply must also meet academic achievement requirements — for instance, scoring above the 75th percentile on one or more portions of a college admissions test or having a GPA of 3.25 or above.

Applicants must also sign a TEACH Grant Agreement to Serve, in which they agree to serve in a high-need field or teach at an eligible school that serves low-income families. Applicants must serve for at least four complete academic years within eight years of completing the course of study for which the grant was awarded.

Amount: Maximum of $4,000 per year.

Next steps

Most grants for students are awarded after you fill out the FAFSA form. Since grants and other financial aid are often given out on a first-come, first-served basis, it makes sense to fill out this form for student aid as soon as you can for the academic year you’re planning to attend.

Even so, it doesn’t hurt to check for other sources that may offer grants for college students, including your college or university and professional organizations you are affiliated with. Grants for college are out there, and applying for as many opportunities as possible gives you the best chance at lowering your college costs.

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Written by
Holly D. Johnson
Author, Award-Winning Writer
Holly Johnson writes expert content on personal finance, credit cards, loyalty and insurance topics. In addition to writing for Bankrate and, Johnson does ongoing work for clients that include CNN, Forbes Advisor, LendingTree, Time Magazine and more.
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Student loans editor