College is one of the greatest opportunities available to American students. In many families, it is just expected that kid will graduate from high school and head off to college in order to learn a marketable skill, earn a degree and land a well-paying job that will enable them to be productive members of society. For other families, college is a dream to reach and strive for, not an assumed right. These students see college as their ticket to a better life and a way out of a tough situation.
For anyone, college or career school can be a huge benefit. Education is one of the most valuable assets you can acquire, and it is worth doing everything in your power to make it happen. The biggest hurdle for most students is financial – college simply costs a lot of money. The average total cost to attend a public four-year college (such as a state university) is about $20,000 per academic year. If you want to attend a private school, bump that number up to a minimum of about $30,000 per academic year.
While many families have saved for years for college, most families clearly do not have $100,000 or more just sitting in a savings account waiting to be transferred to the school you or your child chooses. Thus, most college students end up paying for their schooling by cobbling together funding from a mix of sources: college savings accounts, monthly or yearly family contributions, grants, scholarships and loans.
Loans should be the last resort for college students because loans must be paid back, with interest. Graduating college with thousands of dollars in student loan debt hanging over your head is no way to start a career. So, grants and scholarships should make up the bulk of your funding efforts.
A grant is money that is given based on your financial need with no obligation for repayment. (If you take a grant and then withdraw from school, you may be expected to pay the money back. Assuming you stay in school, you do not repay a grant.) A scholarship is also money that you do not have to repay, but it is generally based on merit – that is, on how you have earned it through good grades, athletic achievement and more.
Grants and scholarships can come from many sources, including colleges themselves, philanthropic foundations that give money away, professional associations, and both state and federal government. In fact, the federal government is the largest single supplier of college grant money in the United States.
So how do you go about finding access to these government grants for college? The process is not easy – in fact, it can be pretty confusing – but it’s also not as hard as you might think. The major key is persistence. Plenty of government grant money is available, if you know where to look and if you are patient enough to keep looking until you find just what you need.
One note: the financial aid office at the college you are interested in can be a huge resource to help you obtain government grants. These people are the experts because they live in the financial aid world every day. They want to help you, so make use of their knowledge. Ask them questions. Be persistent – they appreciate students who follow their advice and work hard.
Eligibility for Government Grants
The first step to obtaining any government grants is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA for short. You will not get government help if you do not fill this form out. Make this your first and biggest priority when you start looking for government grants, and do it early in the process. Many grants go to those who apply first, so you don’t want to wait until the last minute. More on the FAFSA is below.
First, you must determine your eligibility for obtaining federal aid. A few requirements:
- Be a citizen of the United States and have a valid Social Security Number
- Have a high school diploma or General Education Development (GED) certificate
- Be enrolling in an eligible program seeking a degree
- Keep satisfactory academic progress
- Not be in default on a student loan
- Register with the Selective Service
- Not be convicted of possession or sale of illegal drugs while you received federal student aid
- Other requirements may apply depending on the aid you are applying for
Types of Government Grants and Aid
The United States Department of Education awards about $150 billion every year to help millions of students attend college who otherwise could not go because of financial needs. This money is paid out in several ways, including grants, work-study funds and low-interest loans.
As mentioned above, grants are awarded on the basis of need and do not have to be repaid. There are four types of federal government grants for students attending college:
- Federal Pell Grants – usually awarded to undergraduate students who have not yet earned a bachelor’s degree. The maximum Federal Pell Grant award for the 2015-2016 academic year is $5,775. The final amount a student receives depends on his or her need, the cost of the college and more. Students can receive Federal Pell Grants for up to 12 semesters.
- Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) – awarded to undergrads with exceptional financial need. The amount is determined by the college’s financial aid office and depends on how much funding the college has.
- Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants – awarded to students who plan to teach in a school that serves students from low-income families. If the student later decides not to do so, the grant turns into a loan.
- Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants – awarded to students who parents were members of the U.S. Armed Forces and died as a result of military service in Iraq or Afghanistan after September 11, 2001. To qualify, a student must have been under 24 or enrolled in college when his or her parent died.
Federal Work Study programs are set up to help students earn money during the school year by working part-time for the college, often in career-related jobs.
Federal Loans offer money that the student borrows to help pay for college. After graduation the student must repay the loan with interest. There are two basic federal loan programs – the Federal Perkins Loan Program (to undergraduate and graduate students, based on financial need, other aid and availability of funds) and the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program (enables students to borrow money at low interest rates from the federal government). Some of these loans are subsidized (the government pays the interest) and others are not.
State government aid is also usually available for residents of that state. For more information, students should contact their state’s higher education agency.
Myths About Government Grants
Many students think they shouln’t bother filling out the FAFSA for various reasons. Those reasons are usually not valid, though. Here are a few of them and the rationale why they don’t hold water.
Myth: “My parents make too much money, so I won’t qualify for aid.”
Reality: There is no income cut-off to qualify for federal student aid. Other factors are taken into account, such as family size, age of your parents and more. Officials determine your eligibility based on a mathematical formula, not solely on your parents’ income.
Myth: “Only students with good grades get financial aid.”
Reality: A high grade point average certainly helps with many scholarships, but most federal aid programs – including government grants – do not take it into account. As long as you keep up satisfactory academic progress, you can get government aid.
Myth: “I’m too old to get financial aid.”
Reality: Awards are based on financial need, not age. Many adults attending college receive government grants in addition to those students just graduating from high school.
Myth: “The FAFSA is too hard to fill out.”
Reality: You can easily fill the form out online. Detailed instructions walk you through the form step by step, asking only the questions that pertain to you. You also have access to private online chat with counselors or you can call their toll-free number for help. Your high school guidance counselors can help, as can the financial aid office of the college you are interested in.
Go to www.fafsa.gov to fill out the application. When you fill out the FAFSA, you are also automatically applying to your state and often your college for funds too. In fact, many colleges will not even consider you for aid unless you fill out the FAFSA – so fill it out!
More FAFSA Info
Because different colleges have different deadlines for applications and financial aid, the government recommends that you fill out the FAFSA as soon as you can after January 1. This will help you gain access to any available financial aid – with many funding sources, when the funds are gone, they’re gone, so you want to get in early. Check with the colleges you are interested in if you have specific questions.
Make sure your family does their taxes as soon as possible because you will need this information for the FAFSA. You can complete the FAFSA with estimates based on the previous year’s returns, but you will need to return later to make any necessary corrections.
Because your eligibility for student aid changes from year to year (based on family income, number of students in college, etc.), you will have to fill out the FAFSA every year you plan to be a student. Make sure you do this as soon as possible each year.
Here are a few more tips to follow as you look for government grants that can support your dream of attending college. This advice will give you a great shot at achieving your goals.
- Submit your FAFSA on time. We mentioned this before, but it cannot be emphasized enough. To do it the fastest, use the online process.
- Submit state applications on time, and make sure you send them to the correct agencies.
- Make sure you leave time for corrections and clarification on your application. Again, it’s important to be early – if you wait until the last minute and then have to clarify several things, it could be too late.
- This deserves to be re-emphasized as well: be friendly with the financial aid office at the college you are applying to. Regulations are always changing and these professionals stay up-to-date. You may even need a recommendation from them, so it pays to be friendly.
- Keep up your eligibility requirements – don’t let your grade point average slide.
- Take advantage of your uniqueness. Now is not the time to blend in. Scour all government grant programs for grants targeted at people with your race, talents, interests, vocation, etc.
- Keep proper documentation on hand. Make sure you have everything you need – academic transcripts, proof of residency, letters of recommendation and more.
Government Grant Resources
While the world of government grants and financial aid can be dizzying, many resources are available to help. Here are a few:
- The Federal Student Aid YouTube page
- Download the free publication, Funding Your Education: The Guide to Federal Student Aid by visiting studentaid.ed.gov/resources
Going to college is the biggest goal in the lives of many young people. Help in securing government grants to attend college is available if you know where to look. Take advantage of the resources listed here and you will be off to a good start on your hunt for government grants. College is often the launching pad for a great career, but you have to get there first. Government grants are one big way to make that happen, and millions of students take advantage of these grants every year. Take a little time to manage the process correctly, and you could be among them as well. Stay persistent and keep your head up as you plow through the myriad of details – it will all be worth it in the end. Happy College Searching!