Grants for College: How to Get Free Money for Tuition

Dori Zinn Published on September 30, 2019

grants for college

Getting free money to pay for college is your best way of ensuring you’ll graduate debt-free.

Free money comes in the form of scholarships and grants. Scholarships are merit-based, like academic and athletic scholarships. Grants are typically based on need, like financial need. Before hitting the road to getting grants, learn why they’re important and how you can find the best ones for you.

Why you should get grants for college

If your family will struggle to send you to college and otherwise can’t afford to foot the bill, either in full or partially, grants are a great way for you to get to school.

As of June 2019, graduates are facing more than $1.6 trillion in student loan debt, according to the Federal Reserve. To limit how much you need to borrow in the form of student loans — or to eliminate your need for loans completely — free money is your best bet. That’s why grants and scholarships are so important.

Grants and scholarships don’t need to be repaid. That means when you graduate, you don’t owe money to the federal government or private lenders. You can concentrate on building up your career in the field of your choice without the stress of repaying student loans.

Where to find college grants

Grants are available everywhere, but you need to know where to look. For starters, you’ll need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This allows your potential college or university to determine how much financial aid you need, including grants.

Grants and scholarships are given out on a first-come, first-served basis. The sooner you fill out the FAFSA, the more free money you could receive if you’re eligible.

Aside from government-issued grants through FAFSA, you can apply to specific grants that will award you based on a separate application process.

Federal grants

In your financial aid package, you may receive federal grants. The Pell Grant is one of the largest federal grants awarded.

The maximum Federal Pell Grant available is $6,195 per year for the 2019-2020 school year, but how much you receive is based on your expected family contribution, the cost of attendance, and your status as a student (full-time or part-time).

There’s also the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) available for undergraduates. Not all schools participate so you’ll need to check with your financial aid office to see if you’re eligible.

Amounts range from $100 to $4,000 and how much you’re awarded is based on your financial need.

Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants are available to students who parents or guardian died from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These grants aren’t needs-based, but there are special requirements to qualify, including:

  • You aren’t eligible for the Federal Pell Grant based on your family’s expected family contribution.
  • You do meet the rest of the Federal Pell Grant criteria.
  • Your parent or guardian died in Iraq or Afghanistan as part of the U.S. armed forces after 9/11.
  • You were younger than 24 years old or enrolled in college at least part-time at the time of your parent or guardian’s death.

TEACH grants are specifically available for students who are planning to become teachers in a low-income area in a high-need field. You’ll complete the FAFSA and you must be enrolled in a school that has a TEACH Grant program.

You can receive up to $4,000 a year through the program, but there are a few major caveats of the grant, like:

  • You must teach in a high-need field after graduation;
  • You need to teach at an elementary or secondary school or educational service agency that services low-income families;
  • Must teach for at least four years within eight years of completing your degree.

If you don’t meet all of these requirements, your grant turns into a Direct Unsubsidized Loan, which means you’ll end up repaying the loan — including interest — after you graduate.

There are a couple other federal grants you may qualify for, including:

Academic Competitiveness Grant: open to first- and second-year students based on the challenging courses you took in high school. First-year students can receive up to $750 and second-year students can get up to $1,300, as long as they have a 3.0 GPA or higher. Different states have different definitions of what “challenging courses” are, so you’ll want to check with your school’s financial aid office to see if you qualify.

National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent (SMART) Grants: open to third-, fourth-, and fifth-year students in undergraduate studies. You’ll need to be majoring in a technical field or critical language program, as well as have a 3.0 GPA in all classes to qualify. You can receive up to $4,000 each year you qualify.

State grants

You have the opportunity to earn state-sponsored grants if you qualify. Most state grants request a completed FAFSA and determine eligibility based on the financial aid you’re already receiving. But you can see what your state’s grants are by searching for your state’s grant agency.

Many state grants go through the college you’re attending, and you may have additional requirements to meet depending on the school you’re going to.

Local grants

It might be a bit more work, but you have a better chance of winning grants at the local level since those are less in demand compared to federal grants. You can search for grants from a few different local spots, including:

  • Nonprofits
  • Professional organizations
  • Private businesses
  • For-profit institutions
  • Private citizens, celebrities, and philanthropists

Some grants at the local level don’t require a FAFSA completion but rather, a separate application process. This is helpful in case you need extra funds outside of tuition and fees, like cost of books, supplies, and travel. Search grants in your area to see if you match with those available. Pay attention to those who have grants based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or your potential major and field of study.

And don’t leave out grants from your school. Check with your school’s financial aid office to see if you qualify for additional grants that weren’t in your award letter.