Worried about the cost of higher education? Whether you want to enroll in college, graduate school, or career school, there are lots of ways to reduce education-related costs. From financial aid and proper budgeting, to tuition credits and tax credit programs, there are plenty of ways to pare down your costs before applying for federal and private student loans.
Scholarships, Grants, and Student Loans: What’s the Difference?
Scholarships are financial aid awards given to students who meet various criteria. Grants are funds disbursed by one party (like the government or a foundation) to a recipient (like a college or student) to help cover the costs related to a specific purpose (e.g. research or education).
Both are considered “gift aid” and do not need to be repaid. The main difference is that grants are often need-based while scholarships are merit-based. Both are great ways to reduce your out-of-pocket education costs.
Student loans may be the first thing that come to mind when thinking of ways to cover education costs, but save them for last. You’ll need to pay loans back, so make sure you research available grants and scholarships before taking on student loans.
Different Types of Grants Available to Students
Grants are available for all levels of student from high school and undergrads to graduate and doctoral students. You can find grants that are specific to your state, discipline, student type, major, heritage, and more – there are financial aid categories for nearly everyone. A great place to start is by exploring the federal grant programs.
Federal grants should be one of the first areas to explore for students looking for financial aid assistance. Funded by the government, federal grants are instrumental in helping students pay for their education.
While there are many different types of federal grants available, the Pell Grant is the most popular.
Pell Grants: Eligibility, What They Are, and How to Apply
Pell Grants are federal grants that do not need to be repaid, and the amount that’s awarded is based on financial need and a couple other qualifiers, noted below. The maximum award amount can change each year; the Federal Pell Grant maximum was $5,730 for the 2014-2015 award year and $5,775 for the 2015-2016 award year. For the 2016-2017 award year, the Federal Pell Grant maximum is $5,815.
Eligibility for the Pell Grant is determined by the federal government and based on financial need. Aside from that main qualifier, the applicant must be a high school graduate or have a GED and be an undergraduate student who hasn’t yet earned a bachelor’s degree (some exceptions do apply). The only way to apply for the Pell Grant is to complete the FAFSA application each year (see “A Simple Guide to Completing the FAFSA“). If the FAFSA is not filled out, that award year’s cash is unavailable.
Take a step back and consider that the average cost of textbooks and supplies in 2015-2016 for both private and public four- and two-year students was $1,302 (Collegeboard.org, 2015). Those are the types of costs federal aid like the Pell Grant is designed to cover. If new to the college application process, the FAFSA application and main website can be found at https://fafsa.ed.gov – you’ll want to bookmark it.
While the Pell Grant is the most recognized, there are other types of federal grants available. These are: Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), Teacher Assistance for College and Higher Education Grants (TEACH), and Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants.
Non-Federal Grant Options for Students
Non-federal grant programs and options take a little more work to find, but there are a few to explore. Some are research- and study-based, offered by application only. The Fulbright U.S. Student Grant is one prestigious example of this type of discretionary grant. More of these types of grants are available, but they are awarded using a competitive process.
Aside from federal grants, there are some private grants available to students by subject, degree level, minority, and student type, as well as grants for the disabled, military, and low-income (Collegescholarships.org). The key to finding the right grant options for your education is to search early and always fill out your FAFSA application (10 Common FAFSA Errors to Avoid). Once all the award letters have come in, you’ll have an amount to work with and can start planning your budget and assessing whether you need more financing, like student loans.
Remember, always fill out a FAFSA before pursuing loan options and explore the federal and private grant opportunities that are out there when planning for college, graduate school, or career school. There are plenty of options for reducing your education costs, and grants are just one of them.