The Ultimate Guide to College Grants: How to Find and Apply

05/06/202317 minute read
The Ultimate Guide to College Grants: How to Find and Apply

College grants and need-based scholarships are types of need-based financial aid that can help students pay for their higher education. Unlike loans, grants and scholarships do not need to be repaid and come from sources such as federal and state governments, or the educational institution itself. Here we provide a guide to college grant eligibility, including how to apply, plus we will provide examples of and highlight the differences between grants, loans, and scholarships, both need- and merit-based.

What are college grants?

College grants are a valuable form of financial aid that can help eligible students pay for their higher education without accumulating a large amount of debt. Grants are considered free money that students can receive from different sources, such as federal or state governments, or from universities directly. Typically, grants are need-based, so they are awarded based on a student's financial need as determined by either the federal or institutional applications for need-based financial aid. The federal application we are referencing here is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the main institutional application is the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile through The College Board.

What is the difference between grants, loans and scholarships?

Grants, loans, and scholarships are all forms of financial aid that students can use to help pay for their education.

However, there are some key differences between them.

Unlike grants, which are free money, loans are borrowed funds that must be repaid, most often with interest; however there are loans sponsored by certain universities that have zero percent interest, which we’ll cover later.

Loans are available to all students as long as they meet the loan eligibility criteria, and they are especially helpful in delaying the immediate costs of education for those who may not qualify for need-based grants or scholarships. Loans can come from federal or private lenders, and repayment periods vary, however there are two main timeframes in which students can enter the federal loan repayment period, and those depend on the type of loan the student borrows. 

Types of Financial Aid
Type of AwardSourceEligibility CriteriaGeneral RequirementsExamples
Need-based grantFederal or state governmentDemonstrated financial need, US citizenship, Green Card, or state residencyFree Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), state agency applicationPell Grant, FSEOG, CalGrant, MASSGrant, NY Tuition Assistance Program
Need-based grantColleges and universitiesDemonstrated financial needCollege Scholarship Service (CSS) ProfileNamed donor grants, academic dept. grants, specific college grant fund based on region, major, high school, etc.
Need-based scholarshipColleges and universitiesDemonstrated financial needCollege Scholarship Service (CSS) ProfileNamed donor scholarships, National Merit Scholarship for specific colleges, study abroad scholarships.
Merit-based ScholarshipColleges and universities, or outside foundations/organizationsAcademic or extracurricular achievement, special talent(s).Application for admission, sometimes a supplemental essay or two, maybe the CSS Profile.President’s Scholars Programs, Trustee scholarships, Vanderbilt Signature Scholarships, etc.
Career track-specific grants and scholarshipsGovernment, private, or professional organizationsFinancial need, academic achievement, promise in the chosen field of studyDepends on scholarship or grant requirements.NHS Corps Service Scholarship program, SMART Scholarships, CyberCorps Scholarships
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Loans and Eligibility Requirements

  • Federal student loans are only available to US citizens and Green Card holders.
  • Similarly, Federal Parent PLUS loans are only available to parents who are US citizens or Green Card holders.
  • Depending on the university’s lending policy, international students, Green Card holders, and US citizens can be considered for institutional loans through the university.
  • Private loans that come from US banks or other US lenders are usually only available to US citizens. Green Card holders may also be eligible, but likely on a case-by-case basis.
  • International students usually need a co-signer or guarantor to borrow private loans in the US. Even if a co-signer is not required, the interest rates for international borrowers are often much higher than they would be for US residents.

Loan Interest and Repayment Information

Depending on which type of federal loan a student or parent borrows, interest is either deferred, or begins accruing as soon as the loan is disbursed in the student’s university account:

  • The federal direct subsidized loan for students automatically defers the interest until the student graduates. The student also gets a 6 month grace period before starting repayment, as long as they maintain full-time enrollment throughout their 4 years in undergraduate school. If they dip below full-time at any point, the grace period can begin as soon as that dip in enrollment is reported by the Registrar, so be sure to keep in touch with the Financial Aid Office at the school!
  • The federal direct unsubsidized loan begins accruing interest as soon as it’s disbursed, but students still have a 6 month grace period prior to entering repayment, as long as they maintain full-time enrollment throughout their 4 years in undergraduate school. Again, if a dip in enrollment happens during your time in college, keep in touch with the Financial Aid Office so they can properly advise you.
  • The Parent PLUS loan (or direct PLUS as it’s sometimes called) has an option which allows the parent borrower to either pay the interest as they go along, or defer the interest and allow it to capitalize once their student graduates. Just like the federal subsidized student loan, payments can be deferred, however it’s not automatic; the parent must request this in writing.

Scholarships: Types and Eligibility

Another type of free money is the scholarship, which can be need-based or merit-based and does not need to be repaid. There are two overall types of scholarship providers: universities, and external organizations. Universities provide two types of scholarships:

  1. University need-based scholarships are similar to grants: they are based upon a student’s financial need as determined by the federal government and/or the school’s financial aid policy. Eg., the National Merit Scholarship for specific colleges.
  2. University merit-based scholarships are awarded to students based on their academic achievement, talent, or other criteria set by the Admission Office at the individual university. Eg., President’s Scholars Program, Trustee scholarship, Vanderbilt Signature Scholarship, etc.
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How to Access College Grants

  1. Apply for need-based financial aid via the FAFSA and/or CSS Profile, depending on your citizenship and other eligibility requirements. Eg., of need-based grants provided by the federal government include the Pell Grant, FSEOG, CalGrant, MASSGrant, and NY Tuition Assistance Program. Further, colleges and universities also offer named donor grants, academic department grants, or specific college grant fund based on region, major, high school, etc.
  2. Note the amount of each source of funding, and any eligibility criteria.
    The amount of money you can receive from a need-based college grant or scholarship can vary from year to year. The amount of funding available depends on student enrollment, whether the student continues to meet all eligibility requirements or only some, and whether donors continue to contribute each year. 
    For example, let’s say a student qualifies for the maximum amount of Pell during their first year of college, but then the following year her parents’ financial situation changes, and they no longer meet the income threshold for maximum Pell. The student’s Pell would therefore be reduced to match the level of funding the student is eligible for.
  3. The disbursement of college grant and scholarship funds can vary depending on the college or university you are attending. They are typically disbursed at the beginning of each semester or academic term in a variety of ways, including direct deposit into your student account, or a paper check addressed to you or to the school. Grant and scholarship funds are most often applied directly to your college expenses, such as tuition, fees, and room and board charges. If the amount exceeds the total cost of your attendance, you may receive a refund for the remaining balance.
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Tips for Maximizing College Grant Opportunities

1. Apply Early

Some grants and scholarships have limited funding and award funding on a first-come, first-served basis. Applying early increases your chances of being considered before the funding runs out. In addition, many state grants have application deadlines that are different from university admission and financial aid deadlines, so applying early can help ensure you have enough time to complete the application and gather all required materials before the deadline.

2. Submit a Strong Application

If a separate application is required, be sure you have ample time to craft it, and make yours stand out! A strong application requires careful planning, attention to detail, and a focus on your strengths and experiences. To stand out, it is important to follow the instructions carefully, tailor your application to the specific grant or scholarship, use clear and concise language, and proofread your application for errors.

3. Maintain Good Grades and Consistent Progress Toward your Degree

Many need-based grants and scholarships have eligibility requirements based on academic performance and a minimum enrollment status. For example, some grants may require a minimum GPA or require that you maintain satisfactory academic progress. Maintaining good grades can also allow you to be eligible for merit-based scholarship opportunities as you move up in grade level at university.

4. Research Scholarship Opportunities from Outside University

Begin your research as early as possible to give yourself enough time to identify and apply for all relevant scholarships. There are many online resources that can help you identify grant programs, such as the U.S. Department of Education's Federal Student Aid website, scholarship search engines, and online databases of grant opportunities. If you are a Crimson student, you also have access to our vetted internal resources through your Crimson App’s Resource Center. 

If you’re struggling to find funding outside university, you should check with your school's financial aid office, or on their financial aid website. Your school’s financial aid office can be a valuable resource for identifying scholarships that may be available to you, given your major and areas of interest. 

5. Follow Up with Your Application

After submitting your application, it is recommended that you wait for a reasonable amount of time before following up. Then, send a polite email or make a phone call to the grant provider to inquire about the status of your application. You can ask if they have received your application, when the review process will begin, and when you can expect to hear back. Following up shows that you are interested and committed to the grant opportunity and can help you understand where you stand in the process. Remember to be polite, professional, and respectful in your communication.

Understanding Renewal Requirements for Grants and Scholarships

Whether a scholarship or grant you earned is renewable is an important consideration for students receiving financial aid. 

Many merit-based scholarships are automatically renewable, however need-based scholarships and grants have certain requirements students must maintain in order to be eligible each year. We touched on this a little earlier, but typically the requirements are: at least ½ time enrollment, a minimum GPA, consistent degree progress per departmental guidance, and a similar level of financial need as you had when you received the scholarship or grant. 

Further, for need-based funding opportunities, students must typically reapply each year to continue receiving the grant. For returning students at private universities, this is usually around late February or early March.
It's important for students to plan ahead and understand the renewal requirements for each scholarship or grant to ensure that they are able to continue receiving all of their financial aid and minimize their debt after graduation. 

What Makes Crimson Different

Final Thoughts

College grants and need-based scholarships are valuable resources for students seeking financial aid to fund their higher education. Loans, on the other hand, are borrowed funds that must be repaid, often with interest. Scholarships can be need-based or merit-based and also do not require repayment. Understanding the differences between these forms of financial aid is essential for you and your family.

Maximizing grant and scholarship opportunities can be achieved by applying early, crafting strong applications, maintaining good grades, and researching external scholarship opportunities.

Students should also be aware of renewal requirements for grants and scholarships, as some may have eligibility criteria and application processes that need to be repeated annually. It's crucial to plan ahead and understand these requirements to ensure continued financial aid and minimize debt upon graduation. By properly leveraging college grants, loans, merit- and need-based scholarships, students can alleviate the financial burden of higher education and pursue their academic goals.

Speak to one of our strategists to understand how you can maximize your financial aid package!