Understanding the Difference Between Grants and Scholarships

By Trevor Onions , last updated November 1, 2011

Scholarships and grants are both excellent sources of free money for financing an education, but understanding the differences between the two of them is useful for planning your financial aid. Free sources of money cover a tremendous swath of territory that needs evaluation to carve out as many funds as possible for your education. Pay close attention to these details when you're trying to decide whether to focus your efforts on grants or scholarships.

About Grants

Grants are primarily distinguished by their issuance from non-profit organizations. Governments, tax exempt organizations, and similar foundations are common places that offer grants. The Federal government, however, is the number one provider of most grants in the United States.

For instance, Pell Grants are a widespread method of subsidizing college costs using public money drawn from the tax system. Pell Grants are also a good illustration of how the average grant works. Students simply apply using forms like the FAFSA, which examines the student's financial affairs and that of their family, if they are under dependent status. Pell Grants, like many others, are awarded on the basis of financial need. Students from the lowest income backgrounds have the best chance of obtaining these awards.

The main drawback to grants is that the amount of money you're awarded is often extremely low. In an environment where higher education's tuition prices are through the stratosphere, you'll probably fall short, if you try to fund your education solely through government grants. The difference, then, must be made up with scholarships or loans.

Understanding Scholarships

Scholarships are much more free and varied than grants. Their origins lay in the private sector, where think tanks, corporations, religious entities, and many other groups can collect money and disburse it to worthy students. While students often receive grants based purely on financial need, scholarships require extra effort to receive.

Many scholarships require students to meet a special professional or academic status or complete a competition to have a chance at winning a financial award. Local businesses may award money to candidates who have proven early successes in a business program. Meanwhile, a historical foundation might hold an annual essay competition, awarding the winner with a scholarship and a chance at having their paper published in a prestigious journal. While scholarships raise the standards, their benefits are frequently better than the perks provided by grants.

Finally, the amount of money presented by scholarships varies greatly, depending upon the size and scope of the issuer. Some national scholarships pay for an entire four years of education, if a successful candidate can defeat stiff competition. Less competitive scholarships hand out awards ranging from several hundred to several thousand dollars, funding everything from books to room and board. Alternative scholarships are designed to give students a boost with special products, such as research abroad opportunities for graduate students.

With the immense distinctions between scholarships and grants in mind, you can decide how to allot your time when pursing financial awards. Going after either grants or scholarships is well worth it. Anything you can do to minimize your debt and pay as you go will only set you on a more stable footing after graduation.

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