If you’re hoping to limit your student loan debt by finding free money for college, you’re in luck. Of course, no money is really “free” — you’ll still need to work for it — but with the scholarships and grants, you can win money for school that you generally won’t have to pay back, unlike student loans.
Plenty of scholarships and grants are out there. College students received a total of $135.6 billion in grant money during the 2018-19 academic year, according to the College Board. The key is to start early and research all opportunities. To get a jump-start on the search process, check out these 18 sources for scholarships and grants recommended by experts.
Again, although these awards are offered for free, there are situations where you would be expected to return some or all of the money. In the case of government awards, for example, if you drop out of school or switch to part-time, then you may need to give back a portion of the funds. As a result, make sure to review any possible claw-backs when you receive any of these grants or scholarships.
Free money for college: Government
Uncle Sam is a leading source of grants for college students. Here are some options for government funding to help subsidize your education.
1. Federal grants
During the 2018-19 school year, students received $41.3 billion in federal grant aid to help pay for college.
The Pell Grant program is the largest federal college grant program for undergraduates. These grants are need-based, so you’ll need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). In the 2018-19 school year, 31% of students received Pell Grants.
Other options include:
- Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG)
- Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) grants
- Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants
To apply for these grants, you must first complete the FAFSA.
2. State grants
State grant aid rose 7% from 2016-17 to 2017-18. In 12 states, full-time students received an average of more than $1,000 in state grants.
While not all states offer the same amount of state-based aid, many are working to expand their grant programs. For example, New York’s Excelsior Scholarship program offers eligible students up to $5,500 per year toward college tuition.
If you’re curious about what type of state-based financial aid is available to you, you can get your state education agency’s contact information through the U.S. Department of Education.
Free money for college: Local
A great way to find free money for college is to look where you live.
“I recommend students start in their own community, school or family to really get to know themselves, their family history, memberships, involvement and employment so that they have the facts about possible scholarship connections,” said Kim Stezala, known as The Scholarship Lady.
Here are some resources to look at for local scholarship opportunities.
People don’t often apply for local employer-based scholarship programs, said Jolyn Brand, founder of Brand College Consulting.
However, they can be a great source of scholarship funds. In fact, 7% of grant money in 2018-19 came from private and employer grants, according to College Board.
To avoid missing out on opportunities, Brand suggested both parents and grandparents ask at work about scholarships for dependents. Students who are working can also take advantage of scholarships through their own employers.
Of note, 85% of employers offer educational benefits such as tuition reimbursement, according to a report by WorldatWork.
4. Volunteer organizations
Brand said to look to volunteer organizations where you may be a member to find scholarship opportunities.
For example, the Peace Corps offers tuition assistance for graduate students at more than 90 participating universities and colleges. AmeriCorps provides the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award for members who complete service within a 12-month window. Hundreds of higher education institutions may match the AmeriCorps award, which is worth up to $6,195 in 2019-20.
Churches are a great scholarship source, said Ronald Ramsdell, founder of College Aid Consulting Services. The United Methodist Church offers financial assistance through more than 40 scholarship programs.
The Episcopal Church offers young students a variety of grants and scholarships, ranging from $5,000 to $25,000. Likewise, the United Church of Christ offers various grants and scholarships.
6. Labor unions and professional associations
The Union Plus Scholarship Program is for students whose parents or spouse is an active or retired member of a union. It has awarded $4.5 million in scholarships since 1991. Students are allowed to reapply each year for additional opportunities.
The National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association provides scholarships to union members’ children or grandchildren. Eligible applicants can receive between $3,000 and $12,000 in scholarship funds.
Free money for college: National
While local groups are a great place to find money for college, don’t limit yourself just to your neck of the woods. According to Ramsdell, big banks and large corporations offer scholarships to students across the U.S. Here are some sources of national scholarships.
7. Fortune 500 companies
Scholarships by private groups fall within the broader category of private and employer grants, which — as we noted — account for 7% of grant money provided to students in 2018-19.
Google, Walmart and Coca-Cola Co. are among the big businesses offering college assistance.
Coca-Cola offers multiple scholarships each year to help high-achieving high school seniors pay for college. Each year, the company selects 150 students to receive $20,000 each. Eligible students should have top-tier grades and a knack for leadership.
8. Banks and credit unions
Ramsdell recommended checking with financial institutions. Bank of America, SunTrust and Citigroup are among the major financial institutions offering scholarships.
SunTrust offers a unique opportunity where students can enter a sweepstakes for a chance to win $500 in scholarship money. For the 2018-19 school year, 27 students were awarded the scholarship.
Brand said students should also check with credit unions, especially ones their parents may have a relationship with.
9. Philanthropic institutions
According to the National Philanthropic Trust, 14% of all charitable donations went to support education. A significant portion of philanthropic funding for education is used for grants and scholarships.
10. Advocacy groups
There are myriad advocacy groups offering opportunities for free money for college funding to facilitate enrollments by people with certain demographic traits.
For example, there are scholarships for LGBTQ individuals, women, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients and others. Check to see if there is an advocacy group that can provide help with college funding.
11. Health organizations
If you have had health problems, institutions aimed at helping to educate people about your condition could prove to be a source of scholarship funds.
The Diabetes Scholars Foundation, for example, helps students with Type 1 diabetes by providing education scholarship opportunities and awarding $5,000 to help pay for college.
Free money for college: Internet
Look online for sources of money for your college tuition.
“I always encourage students to sign up for two scholarship search engines and fill out a profile,” Stezala said. “While the websites may have nearly the same pool of scholarships in their databases, you may still find different scholarships in each one because they use different methods in the matching process.”
So, where should you look?
12. Online scholarship websites
Scholarships.com, Fastweb, BigFuture and MoolahSPOT were among the websites recommended by the experts.
There are many different online tools to find scholarships, but the key is to make sure you’re only looking at legitimate sites.
“Never, never pay a fee under any circumstances,” Ramsdell warned, even if the site offers you a guarantee. Often, families pay these fees and are denied when they try to get their money back under the guarantee because they don’t receive scholarship money.
Free money for college: Military
Military members and their families may be entitled to a variety of scholarships and aid to support their education. In fact, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) distributed more than $11 million in education benefits in 2018. Scholarships and educational funding may be available.
There are a variety of ROTC scholarships available. In addition to ROTC scholarships, active service members can access education funds up to $4,500 to help curb the cost of school.
Students can check them out on the Federal Student Aid office website. ROTC scholarships are available through the Army, Air Force and Navy.
There are several programs providing educational benefits to veterans. These included the:
- Post 9/11 GI Bill
- All-Volunteer Force Educational Assistance Program
- Educational Assistance for Members of the Selected Reserve
- Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance
- Post-Vietnam Veterans’ Educational Assistance Program
- Reserve Educational Assistance Program
15. Veterans service organizations
Various organizations that serve veterans offer scholarship funds.
These include the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Paralyzed Veterans of America. In 2019, the American Legion has awarded $130,000 in scholarships.
Free money for college: Skills and academics
If you have special skills or academic prowess, you can often turn your talents into college cash.
16. College scholarship programs
Around 35% of scholarships and grants come directly from colleges.
Stezala recommended Cappex to students looking to maximize the chances of receiving a scholarship from a college.
“They have an admissions calculator that shows you your chance of being admitted to a college,” she said. “It is a good way to see how you rank compared to other students. If you rank highly and apply to that college, the college itself may offer you a scholarship to attend.”
17. Athletic scholarships
More than 150,000 student-athletes attending NCAA Division I and II schools receive over $2.9 billion annually in athletic scholarships, according to the NCAA.
While you must be an elite athlete to obtain one of these scholarships — only around 2% of high school athletes are provided with funding — Brand recommended looking to local sports organizations you are part of to see if they offer any scholarship opportunities.
18. College career organizations
If you know which major you’d like to pursue in college, it can be a good idea to join career-related associations and start networking early. By joining a club whose interests are similar to yours, you’ll be able to meet with relevant people in the industry, know what’s going on in the field and major, and be privy to scholarship opportunities that may be available.
If you’re pursuing a degree in communications or public relations, for example, you may consider joining the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA). The PRSSA awards more than $30,000 annually to students who excel in public relations.
It should be noted that membership in a certain organization is sometimes preferred or required to be eligible.
Now you know how to get free money for college
All these resources should help you find money for college. The key is to start early and be thorough in your search efforts.
According to Ramsdell, most students who start in their junior year of high school should be able to get at least some money if they exhaust their options for funding.
“It’s like the lottery,” Ramsdell said. “If you don’t play, you’re not going to win.”
Sage Singleton Evans contributed to this report