Every year, both federal and state governments provide billions of dollars in the form of education grants to help students attend college. As opposed to student education loans, grants require no repayment as long as the recipient fulfills all of the educational obligations required by the grant guidelines. They are non-taxable and accumulate no interest. Generally, the monies can be used to support all types of educational expenses like tuition, housing and books. As long as someone is a U.S. citizen or qualified non-resident, they are eligible to receive a student education grant.
The types of education grants available to students is as wide and varied as the federal and state agencies that award them. They can range in the amounts of money provided from a few hundred to over $30,000 per year. While many grants are available to almost all students, some are targeted only to specific categories like minorities or those seeking to enter a high-needs field like health care. Most have very specific qualifications and application processes that must be fulfilled before a grant is awarded. Some grants require work that contributes to the programs of the awarding agency. Most state grants usually have residency requirements or are only targeted to specific geographic areas. In almost all cases, the amount of education grants awarded by both federal and state entities varies greatly from year to year.
Due to the large numbers of education grants awarded each year and the varied qualifications specific to each one, the process for seeking, applying for and being awarded a grant can often seem like a daunting task. However, by better understanding the two basic categories of grant types and how they are structured on both federal and state levels can help make the process much easier.
Formula grants are awarded based upon qualifications as outlined by the specific formulas as defined in the legislation governing the grant program. These types of grants include formulas that define elements like income levels, race, geographic locations and other qualifications that can be measured against broad social statistics. As long as an applicant falls within the parameters of the grant formula, they are usually awarded the grant without other qualifications being required.
Discretionary, also referred to as competitive, grants are awarded at the discretion of the governing body overseeing the grant program. These types of grants usually involve a competitive application process. As opposed to formula grants, a discretionary process involves a review and selection of grant awards based upon a comparison of all applications. This comparison process is usually conducted within established guidelines that ranks applications from lowest to highest in how well the applications meet the grant guidelines and intended outcomes. These grants normally require applicants to submit more information than a formula grant and can, in some cases, include a personal interview during the selection process.
The largest provider of student education grants in the United States is the federal government. Most of these grants are overseen and awarded by the U.S. Department of Education. However, almost all other federal departments offer some form of student education grants each year. These federal grants include both formula and discretionary/competitive processes and range from simple to very complex applications. Regardless of the which department awards the grants, all student applicants must meet some basic eligibility requirements to qualify for a federal grant.
To apply for any type of federal student aid, all applicants must first fill out and submit to the U.S. Department of Education a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form, which can be easily found and submitted online, must be completed annually by both prospective and current college students at all levels of study. The information provided on this form determines the applicant's eligibility for both federal and state financial aid. Applications are accepted beginning January 1st of each year for the coming academic year. Each application period is 18 months, and any pertinent information changes must be updated yearly.
The FAFSA form requires providing a large amount of information about a student's and their family's incomes, assets and dependence status. The information provided is used to determine the eligibility for financial aid based upon a family's expected contribution towards a college education. Unless someone is totally independent from a guardian, all applicants submitting the FAFSA must provide their parent's detailed financial information. Once the information has been reviewed, the student will be mailed a Student Aid Report detailing the amount of federal student aid they are qualified to receive.
Anyone seeking to obtain federal student aid must also meet the basic eligibility standards. These standards include:
- having a valid Social Security number;
- being a U.S. citizen, a U.S. national or an eligible non-resident;
- having a high school diploma or GED;
- being registered with the Selective Service (if applicable);
- not owing refunds on, or having defaulted on, any federal grants or loans;
- not being found guilty of an illegal drug charge while student aid was being received.
The largest amount of student aid provided each year by the federal government is through Pell Grants. Enacted in 1965 and overseen by the U.S. Department of Education, this grant program provides student aid based upon a financial needs formula. To qualify, applicants for a Pell Grant must prove their financial need as determined through the FAFSA process. The Pell Grant program is geared towards students from low-income families, so to receive the highest amount of money possible a provable financial need must be clearly demonstrated. The maximum amount that can be awarded for these grants in the 2011-2012 school year is $5,550 per person.
These grants do not have to be repaid and can be received each year a student is enrolled in college for up to eighteen semesters or the equivalent. They are usually awarded to only undergraduate students, but some exceptions are made for those who are seeking advanced degrees in high-needs fields like teaching and health care. Schools can apply Pell Grant funds directly to a student's education costs, pay the student directly or use a combination of these methods. All schools must disburse these funds at least once per term.
One of the strongest benefits of a Pell Grant is that the amount of money a student receives cannot be reduced regardless of other types of financial aid they are awarded. The packaging of college financial aid begins, and is built upon, a Pell Grant award. It is other types of financial aid like loans, state or private sources that can be reduced so that the total amount of financial aid does not add up to more than the a student's total educational expenses for attending college.
The Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) program is designed to supplement other sources of financial aid for very low-income, undergraduate students. Priority is given to those showing "exceptional need" as determined through the FAFSA process. Most recipients of these grants are students who are expected to receive the lowest amount of expected family contributions towards their education.
To be eligible for a FSEOG award, a student must also be eligible to receive a Pell Grant. Although eligibility guidelines for FSEOG grants are primarily formula based as determined by family income levels, they are also partly discretionary in that each college has broad flexibility in determining which students, and how much financial support, each participant is provided.
Not all schools participate in the FSEOG program. In order for these funds to be available to them, the schools must contribute one dollar for every three dollars they receive from the federal government. Currently, there are about 4,000 schools that participate in the program. Because of this matching requirement, the amounts awarded to eligible students by participating schools can vary widely each year. The amount of FSEOG support a student receives is also determined by other amounts of financial support. These grant awards generally range from $100 to $4,000 a year. The monies can be applied directly to school costs, paid directly to a student or a combination of both.
The Academic Competitiveness Grant (ACG) program is designed to provide financial support for first and second year undergraduate students who are also eligible to receive a Pell Grant and have successfully completed a rigorous high school academic program as defined by the Department of Education. Students must be enrolled in at least a two-year academic program that provides full credit towards a bachelor's degree, or enrolled in a graduate program that includes three years of undergraduate education.
An ACG awards $750 for the first year and $1,300 for the second year of study to qualified students who are enrolled full-time. In order to receive the second year of funding under this program, a student must maintain at least a 3.0 grade point average during their freshman year. The amount of an ACG award may not exceed a student's total education cost when combined with a Pell Grant. The ACG payments are mailed directly to a student unless they are a non-resident. For non-resident students, the award is credited directly to their tuition account.
The National Science & Mathematics Access to Retain Talent Grant (National SMART Grant) was established to provide financial assistance for third and forth year undergraduate students who are majoring in the physical sciences, life sciences, computer sciences, mathematics, engineering, technology, a critical foreign language or other qualified programs. To receive a SMART grant, a student must also qualify for a Pell Grant, be enrolled at least half-time and have maintained at least a 3.0 grade point average during their first two years of undergraduate study.
A SMART grant provides up to $4,000 for each of the third and forth years of undergraduate study. The amount of these grants is determined by a student's total financial package. A SMART grant, when combined with a Pell Grant, cannot exceed the total amount of a student's educational expenses. These awards are mailed directly to recipients if they are U.S. citizens or applied directly to tuition expenses for non-residents.
In addition to the major grant programs described above, the Federal government provides hundreds of other student education grants through its various departments and agencies. A few examples include grants to undergraduate Native Americans provided through the Department of the Interior, grants for health care majors provided through the Department of Health and Human Services and grants provided through the Department of Agriculture to support students majoring in the agricultural sciences. The types and amounts of the these other federal is as wide and varied as the department and agencies themselves.
Most of the non-major federal grants are open to both undergraduate and graduate students who qualify within very specific guidelines. Most are discretionary/competitive in structure and require an extensive application process that is evaluated more on academic performance than financial need. A vast majority of these grants are awarded only once because they are established solely upon a department's or agency's annual budget, which can fluctuate greatly from year to year. Due to the sheer number of these types of federal grants, it is best for a student to inquire about them through their school's financial aid office. Most aid offices have the technology necessary to quickly access and determine a student's eligibility for these specialize federal grant categories.
More information about the many federal student education grants available and how to apply for them can be found through the following resources:
State Student Education Grants
Each year, all fifty states dedicate some level of funding for grants to students attending state colleges. The level of grant support varies widely from state to state, but all combined this educational support represents billions of dollars per year available to students. In recent years, a large portion of these grant monies have been generated through state lotteries. In most cases, these grants do have to be repaid and are non-taxable. All states provide some form of grants to both undergraduate and graduate students.
Most state grants are available only to students attending a college within their state of residence. A few states do have reciprocity agreements with neighboring states to help non-residency students pursue an education, but the highest grant awards are normally given to residents. State student education grants are generally awarded under either a needs or merit based structure.
Need based grants are generally targeted towards low-income individuals, minorities and students majoring in high-needs fields such as health care and teaching. In some cases, state grants targeted to high-needs field do require an agreement for mutual assistance after graduation. In example, someone receiving a state education grant in the health care profession may be required to serve a number of years in a medically under-served community. Unless they fulfill these obligations after graduation, a student will be required to repay the total amount of grant monies they were awarded.
Merit based grants are awarded to students based upon academic achievement, low incomes or a combination of both. Normally, students applying for a state merit grant must show adequate college preparatory work, a solid grade point average and a history of involvement in extra-curricular activities. Most of these grants are awarded on a discretionary/competitive basis that requires an extensive application process and proof of financial need.
Almost all states use the Federal FAFSA application results for determining a student's grant eligibility at the state level. However, most state grant applications must be submitted individually from other financial aid applications along with a FAFSA report.
One of the lesser known sources of student education grants at state levels arise from endowments gifted to individual schools by private citizens. These endowments are generally overseen by the school they were awarded to and governed by guidelines as specified by the donor. Most grants that arise from these endowments are very specific in their qualifications and are discretionary/competitive in their application structures. The best way to gain information about these lesser known grants is to inquire about their availability through a school's financial aid office.
Due to the large number and widely-varied state education grants available, it is best to discuss these with a school's financial aid office or by accessing a State's Department of Education website. More information on state grants is available on a by state basis.
Applying for Government Student Education Grants
Like almost every worthy endeavor in life, applying and obtaining a government student grant takes planning, hard work and persistence. While there are billions of dollars at both federal and state levels for education grants each year, there are also hundreds of thousands of students applying for these funds. Every applicant, regardless of income level or grade point average, should keep the following in mind when they are pursuing a government student education grant.
Provide All Information Required on the FAFSA Application: Almost all college financial aid awarded on both federal and state levels now hinge on the eligibility report generated from the FAFSA application. This form requires extensive information about a student's family income levels and their expected contribution towards a college education. It is extremely important to have all necessary documents at hand when competing the form and to provide in-depth, accurate information. Even the slightest error can mean the difference between receiving a full or partial grant award. Double check all figures before submitting and be sure the form is submitted on time.
Consult a Financial Aid Office: Financial aid officers are professionals at knowing what government grants are available and how they can fit into a student's financial aid package. They can help determine the best grants to apply for given a student's background and assist students through an application process. In many cases, they will have knowledge of available grants that may not be of common knowledge to the general public.
Contact an Academic Department: If a student has been accepted to a school and has chosen a major, the academic department for that major may have information about grants designated for students in their field of study. Some grant programs are highly specific to a given field of study and applicants must be referred by an instructor in the department for consideration.
Don't Assume: Never believe that low income levels or high grade point averages are the only determining factors in government grant awards. There are large variety of grants available to very specific niches; especially on state levels. For example, there are grants available for only left handed people, those who are descendents of Revolutionary War soldiers and people who reside only on U.S. Pacific Island territories. It is always best to seek out and apply for any available grant a student is qualified to receive.
Write Essays Well: Many grant applications require a written essay as part of the application package. This is especially true for discretionary/competitive grants. Be sure that a submitted essay is well written, error free and focuses upon the specific topic requested in the application guidelines. In many cases, the essay is the determining factor used by those who are in charge of deciding which applicants are worthy of receiving a grant award.
Apply Early: When it comes to government grant applications, it is best to apply as early as possible. Many grant programs work on a first-come, first-served basis. It is not always necessary to be accepted to a college before applying for grants. Submitting a grant application as early as possible is the best way to help assure the highest award possible.
Research Local Grant Sources: In addition to federal and state grant programs, many cities and towns also offer educational grants to qualified students. In most cases, they require that recipients reside within the municipality. Although they are not as well-known and offer smaller award amounts, these grants can help students build a broader financial aid package.
Beware of Scams
The billions of grant dollars offered by government entities has, unfortunately, brought an increase in the number of scam businesses offering "free" access to education grants. Most of these scam offers are found on the Internet or are show up as junk e-mail. The worst thing anyone can do is to fall for one of these scams. They not only waste time and money, but also provide rampant opportunities for identity theft.
These grant scam sites mask themselves well. They usually appear to be a legitimate education assistance program that is affiliated with federal and/or state governments. They have become very adept at being placed at the top of search lists when someone enters phrases like "government education grants" or "education grants assistance" into a search engine. Fortunately, there are easy ways to spot these scam offers.
Most of them will promote that they can send out a computer CD for very little money that will provide all the information needed for finding and applying for government grants. However, hidden in the fine print are clauses that allow the company to charge additional monthly fees to a credit card or bank account for services like a 24-hour help center or e-mail alerts for new education grant opportunities. The scam sights always ask for a credit card or bank account number up-front as well as other personal information like e-mail addresses, social security numbers or personal phone numbers. In reality, all these scam offers are doing is gathering personal information that they can then resell to other companies.
The simple fact is that the information and application forms for all government education grants on all levels are always provided free to anyone at any time. Given a little research on the Internet and visits to financial aid offices, there is no reason to pay for anyone to pay for assistance in obtaining a government student education grant.