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What's the Difference Between Scholarships and Grants?

Unlike loans, scholarships and grants are types of aid that you don't have to pay back. Learn more about these options for paying for college now.

Sara Lindberg

Sara Lindberg
Freelance Writer
Former High School Counselor 
How often do you think about paying for college? If you’re like most high school seniors (and parents), the answer is likely “all the time.” That’s why learning about the different ways to fund your education is so important.  Two methods of aid that need to be on the top of your list include scholarships and grants. While both are considered “gift aid” (money you don’t have to pay back), they differ in how you apply and how you receive the funds. If you have demonstrated financial need, you may be eligible for one of the grants awarded by the federal government, such as the Federal Pell Grant. This form of aid is called “need based,” since the money is awarded to students with the greatest financial need. To qualify for a federal grant, you must file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) on or after October 1. Your state government or college you plan to attend may also have grants available based on need or merit.

Scholarships, on the other hand, are typically merit based or affiliated with an organization or private donor. Students are eligible for scholarships based on a variety of qualifications such as academic achievement, athletics, or extracurricular activities. You can also qualify for scholarships based on your affiliation with religious or community organizations, businesses, and alumni associations. You can find scholarship opportunities and applications at the colleges you’re applying to, online at scholarship search sites, with private organizations, and in your local community.

Anna SerioAnna Serio
Certified Commercial Loan Officer and Senior Writer
Scholarships and grants are types of aid that you don’t have to pay back. That's why financial aid advisors encourage students to apply for both before considering student loans. Traditionally, scholarships are awarded based on academic merit or talent. You often have to meet high school GPA or SAT score requirements or demonstrate some kind of athletic or artistic talent to qualify. Some organizations also offer scholarships to students who demonstrate strong leadership skills.  

Grants are traditionally based on financial need, but it’s common for both scholarship and grant programs to have academic and financial need requirements. For example, the Gates Millennium Scholarship requires you to meet a GPA minimum and be eligible for need-based aid. That’s why it’s important to check that you meet a scholarship or grant program’s requirements before you apply. In many cases, you’ll have to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or the College Scholarship Services (CSS) Profile to find out if you’re eligible. Submit both of those forms as soon as you can to avoid missing out on an opportunity for free aid! You should also talk to your high school counselor or your college's financial aid office about available scholarships and grants.

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