Planning for college expenses is one of the biggest financial projects that a family can undertake. Four years of college can cost tens of thousands of dollars -- the average annual cost (tuition plus room and board) at private U.S. colleges is now $35,636 -- and it's increasingly easy to break into the six-figure range, especially for advanced degrees [source: Lewin]. Parents, you've probably wondered just how you'll afford to send your child to the college or university that he or she has dreamed about and earned the right to attend.
Many grant programs are dedicated to the needs of students pursuing specific degrees, and with specific career goals. Typically, these programs are designed to encourage and support those students who are pursuing professional careers in high need fields such as science, mathematics, healthcare, and education. These subject specific grants are sponsored by a variety of sources, including Federal and state governments, corporations and professional associations.
Grants for non-traditional students are sponsored by variety of different sources, including state and local governments, corporations, advocacy groups and professional associations. These programs provide vital financial assistance to those non-traditional students who are looking to improve their lives, and the lives of their families, through higher education.
College grants are primarily awards of free money, that do not require any repayment on the part of the recipient. They can be directed toward specific educational expenses, specific types of students, or general purpose. Unlike scholarships, which are typically awarded on the basis of academic achievement or athletic, artistic or extracurricular performance, grants are awarded according to financial need. This is not to say that academic merit will not be considered, only that financial need is given greater weight in the final decision making process.
All college-bound students face enormous challenges when it comes to financing their education. Students who are fighting, or have survived, a serious disease face an additional emotional challenge as they plan for their college education. Many charitable organizations provide much needed financial support for students with severe medical conditions, helping them achieve their dreams of a higher education.
Private student loans: Financing from private lenders might also be listed in your financial award letter, or you can find it on your own. Using federal student loans first is often the best move, Randolph said. However, “if you still need money to bridge the gap between financial aid and the cost of attendance, you’ll have to look at private student loans.”
Few college-bound students have the financial resources to pay for their post-secondary education entirely out of pocket. Even students with substantial college savings plans typically find that they are left with sizable amounts of unmet need. The average total cost of attending a public four-year college is more than $20,000 per academic year. Students planning to attend a private college or university can expect to spend more than $30,000 per academic year. A college education is a costly proposition, and all indications are that those costs are only going to increase.
Grants for doctoral candidates and graduate students are highly competitive, and focus on the financial needs of students engaged in research to complete their high level degrees. These grants are often referred to as fellowships, and are typically sponsored by colleges and universities as a way of bringing the best and brightest graduate students to their campuses. Unlike the more traditional undergraduate grants, these programs place a great amount of weight on academic achievement. Financial need is a secondary consideration. Grants for graduate and doctoral students are typically high dollar awards, and will include funds for research related travel and stipends for living expenses.
There is currently a national push to encourage students to pursue degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The United States is currently falling behind in the number of students graduating with professional degrees in the STEM fields. Consequently, grants have become more abundant for students pursuing studies in these fields. These grant programs are typically sponsored by Federal agencies, state governments and professional associations.
You could get more non-federal aid: “Schools and states have a limited amount of aid, and a bunch of states have a FAFSA deadline of ‘as soon as possible after October 1,’ (meaning they actually could run out of financial aid) so it’s good to be at the front of the line!” according to a post on the Department of Education blog. If you apply early, you’ll have a better chance to qualify for these non-federal financial aid programs.
The majority of students applying and receiving college grants are low income students, also called need-based grants. Need based college grants are to give everyone a fair opportunity to get an education. Some common need-based grants are the Pell Grant, a Scholarship for Disadvantaged Students, and several others. The first place you should apply is called the FAFSA.
The National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent (SMART) Grant picks up where the Academic Competitiveness Grant leaves off—providing funding for low-income third and fourth year college students. Eligible students must be Pell Grant recipients, academically talented and majoring in STEM fields or high need foreign languages. SMART Grant annual maximums are up to $4000 per qualified student.
Some college grant programs are open to all students regardless of background or field of study. These are considered General Grants, and typically are decided according to financial need and academic performance. A great number of college grants, however, are designed to target specific portions of the population or students pursuing particular degrees or career paths. These can be broken down into the following categories.
Federal grant programs are driven by the congressional funding that fills the coffers. As a result, maximum grant awards and general availability change every year. Currently, annual Pell Grant award maximums hover around $5000 per student. Some government grants, like FSEOG are distributed on a first-come first-served rotation that continues until funding is exhausted, so time is of the essence. To maximize your access to federal grant dollars, it is essential that you file your FAFSA as early as possible.
Completing a FAFSA can be a time-consuming process that some students or parents might be tempted to skip. “On one end of the spectrum, you have students that don’t think they qualify for aid so they don’t [apply],” Randolph said. “On the other end, you have students that are so confused by the application, verbiage, and choices, that they struggle, perhaps even to the point of not finishing the FAFSA.”
Hispanics are now the fastest growing minority population in the United States. Unfortunately, the rise in population numbers is not yet adequately reflected in the number of college-bound Hispanic students. This is beginning to change, however, and the availability of dedicated college grants for Hispanic students is on the rise. Grants for Hispanic students are supported by charitable foundations and advocacy groups, as well as by corporations and professional associations dedicated to diversifying the American workforce. Hispanic students will find a large number of grants designed to encourage them to pursue specific career paths, with an emphasis on science, mathematics and technology.
Asian-Americans are one of the fastest growing ethnic populations in the United States. While Asian immigrants have been part of the American workforce for more than a hundred years, they have been historically under-represented in mainstream colleges and universities. That is beginning to change, and more Asian-American students are headed to college than ever before. For many, they may be the first in their family to pursue a college education. Grants for Asian-American students are supported by a variety of charitable foundations, corporations and private endowments. Like many grants dedicated to the financial needs of minority students, many grants for Asian-Americans place a particular emphasis on specific career paths, including science, technology, education and journalism.
Students ineligible for federal aid but who meet state financial aid program and residency requirements should complete the Washington Application for State Financial Aid at readysetgrad.org/wasfa instead of the FAFSA form. Contact the Washington Student Achievement Council (readysetgrad.org/wasfa) or your financial aid administrator for more information.