Free Money for College - Grants and Scholarships

When looking for the best-fit college for a student, families and counselors alike have always focused on schools where you can get in and get a great education. In other words, finding a good academic and social fit.

With the rising cost of education, finding a good financial fit has to be a part of this equation in the 21st century. The college process should be focused on creating the best possible outcomes for students and families. This means graduating on time (4 years) with manageable student loan debt without robbing your retirement.

In general terms, the money to pay for college is coming from a few different places--from the government, from the college, from private entities, from loans, and of course from your pocket.

So where can you find “free money”?

  • Need Based Aid
  • Government Grants
  • Institutional Grants and Scholarships
  • Private Grants and Scholarships

Your family’s financial situation determines if you qualify for need-based aid. Your student’s academic prowess determines if they qualify for merit scholarship.

Need-Based Aid

Today we are focusing on the “free money” available to pay for college, but you also need to be aware of a number of “financial aid” programs that are not actually “free money” awarded in the form of loans and work-study. These programs are extremely valuable and necessary for many families, but they are certainly not free money. 

For families with a low Expected Family Contribution (EFC), they may be eligible for need-based aid. The EFC is determined by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Need-based aid is awarded in two ways:  

  1. Gift Aid - does not need to be paid back so is a form of “free money"
  2. Self Help – Either a loan that you must repay in the future or “work-study”

The government has set formulas to determine how much a family can “afford” to pay. I put “afford” in quotes because when you see that number you may laugh at the thought that this large figure is what you are supposed to be able to afford from your income and assets!

Government Grants

If you are a need-based aid candidate, students may be eligible for free money from the government. These programs include Pell Grants, programs for teachers, and programs for children of those who died serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. These grants aren’t available to everyone, but if you can take advantage of this free money, great!

The good news is that if you fill out your FAFSA every year the university should facilitate getting you the funds you deserve when you receive your financial aid package for the year. HOWEVER, on numerous occasions we have found that students had to ask the financial aid office about the TEACH Grant. So don’t assume anything!  

College Gift Aid - Grants and Scholarships

Colleges award “free money” in two ways--based on need and based on merit. How much money you need is determined by this formula:

Cost of Attendance (COA) -  Expected Family Contribution (EFC) =

Demonstrated Financial Need

If a school costs $30,000 to attend and your family’s EFC was $10,000, your Demonstrated Financial Need is $20,000. 

Not every school will make up that missing $20,000. However, some do. In 2015-2016, 66 colleges claimed to have met 100% of student need. Other colleges will meet a portion of that need. Those 66 colleges and universities are some of the hardest academically to get into, but if your student can be accepted and you financially qualify, you will receive some great free money. If you are a need-based aid candidate, you should seek out schools that meet at or near 100% of your demonstrated financial need. 

Colleges also award free money in the form of scholarships based on merit to talented students. Some merit scholarships are automatic and some are competitive. Some colleges like the University of Alabama will award set amounts of free money to every incoming student who has a certain GPA and ACT score. Other schools like The Ohio State University will award scholarships based on talent but only to a select group determined competitively. 

This free money is awarded without regard to financial need so those families whose earnings are too high for need-based aid want to search out those colleges with a high percentage of merit awards to students like theirs.

When schools determine who is eligible for merit aid, they often look at the top 25% of their incoming class as the eligible students. They want to attract the most talented students. Colleges like the University of Alabama award $3,500 per year for four years in merit money to all incoming out-of-state students who in 2016 had an ACT score of 27 and a GPA of 3.5. They tier their awards so higher scores and grades receive more free money. However, the 27 and the 3.5 represent the beginning of the top 25% of their incoming class.  

Knowing the deadlines, the qualifications, and having a target for test scores not only for admissions but for scholarships is critical. Take a look below. Improving your score just one point from a 28 to a 29 would mean an additional $36,000 over 4 years! WOW! You also need to know the deadline to qualify. At Alabama the deadline is December 15th this year. If you apply on December 16th, you would receive $0 even if you had a 35 on the ACT!  So, how much is test prep worth? I guess as much as $36,000 in this scenario!

ACT Score (+3.5 GPA) Per year award 4 Year Award
27 $3,500 $14,000
28 $4,000 $16,000
29 $13,000 $52,000
30-31 $17,976 $71,904
32-36 $26,950 $107,800

If you are applying to a college that awards free money scholarships competitively, you’ll want to be in their top 25% to have the best shot of receiving an award. It is not guaranteed, but your chances are better. can help you figure out the top 25% mark for test scores. Look up Ohio State University, and you will see that the middle 50% of the incoming class scored anywhere from 27 on the low end to 31 on the high end. So, 25% of students scored over 31 on the ACT.

Scoring a 31 won’t guarantee you free money from OSU because merit money is awarded competitively, but at least you’ll know you have a high probability of receiving an award. Be aware that many competitive scholarships are awarded not only for academics and test scores but the full body of work of the students that are desirable to the institution. Things like leadership and volunteerism are extremely important to the fabric of a university, and the schools want and need those types of students just as much as the high academic achiever. 

Private Scholarships

Another source of free money is from private entities in the form of scholarships from sources like a parent’s employer or local community groups. You can also look at scholarships from associations in the major and career you are working towards. For example, the local Financial Planning Association that I am a member of has an annual scholarship of $2,500 for someone in a financial planning related area of study! 

Also remember, your number one resource for community scholarships is your high school’s guidance office.

In our “Scholarship Mythbusters” blog, we ask if you could earn $50 per hour, wouldn’t you?! Yes, finding private scholarships takes work and effort on your part, but the rewards can add up.   

For national searches, the College Board hosts one of the largest data bases, and they won’t spam you with a bunch of advertisements. For those in Ohio, check out the Columbus Foundation for scholarship opportunities! 

If someone “promises” they can find you scholarship money RUN! The old cliché “If it sounds to good to be true, it probably is” applies here. You do not need to pay someone to search for scholarships in the age of the internet.

In my experience, the hardest part about searching for private scholarships is motivating a high school senior that just submitted 10 college applications and essays to do MORE applications and essays. But it can pay off big. 

I would recommend applying to 6 to 10 scholarships that match your profile. Deadlines are often as early as December, and some are open for applications through April of the student’s senior year. 

Keep your expectations realistic and understand that over 80% of the scholarships awarded are from the colleges and universities themselves. 

Something you may not know…

If you are a need-based candidate, your private scholarships can have an impact on the amount of financial aid you receive from your college. Private scholarships will reduce your need-based aid from the institution. Sometimes the gift aid or grant amount is reduced by the amount of the private scholarship, and sometimes the school will reduce your work study and/or need-based federal loans. It depends on the school. Reducing your loan amount is the ideal situation because you are replacing free money with money that you would need to pay back!

Report all private scholarships to your financial aid office to avoid having to pay money back to the institution later.

What to take away from all this?

Being an informed consumer of higher education, means understanding the ways to make college affordable for your family. Will you qualify for need-based aid? What schools meet that need? How does your student compare academically to other students for a particular college in order to win free scholarship money? And how do all these pieces of your personal puzzle fit together?