How to Get Grants for College

Much like online college scholarships, grants can be hugely helpful if you need help paying for college. Receiving money that you don't have to repay can be a huge boost, since factoring in the cost of repaying those student loans can be discouraging to any prospective students. Our OnlineColleges.com Ultimate Guide to Grants covers the major themes of this type of financial aid and aims to help students figure out whether they can pursue grants as a possible way to pay for school. These topics include:

  • Federal Grants
  • State Grants
  • Private and university-funded grants
  • Are grants taxable?
  • Where to find more information

While there are caveats for certain grants, most don't have any requirements that you must meet to avoid your grant turning into a loan. You most likely need to demonstrate financial need or certain career goals, or meet specific criteria to qualify, but once you receive the money, it's typically yours to use for your education, no strings attached.

The first step toward qualifying for any federal or state grants, as well as grants from individual colleges and some private organizations, is to fill out a FAFSA. As it covers loans, grants and some scholarships from multiple sources, there is no step more important when it comes to paying for college than this one.

Once you get going on the process, you'll likely notice that there's not a lot of consistency when it comes to differentiating grants from scholarships. Different schools or organizations may label the awards in different ways, but for the purposes of the Ultimate Guide, we'll define grants as awards based on financial need and scholarships as merit-based awards.

Federal Grants

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The Department of Education offers four main types of grants, plus another couple of complementary ones. Much like its loans, excluding the Unsubsidized Direct Loans, two of the federal grants are based on demonstrated financial need; the other two are based on a specific career path and family military ties. These grants are:

Federal Pell Grants

These grants are awarded to undergraduate students who don't already have a degree (with a few exceptions), and the amount of money varies. For the 2014-15 school year, the maximum grant is $5,730 per student, but it might be less, depending on a student's specific financial need and on how much their school costs to attend.

Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants

The FSEOG program is funded by the federal government, but it's administered by the financial aid offices of individual colleges, and not every school in the country participates. The grant is meant for undergraduate students with "exceptional financial need," according to StudentAid.gov, and the award varies between $100 and $4,000 per student. Schools have a limited amount of money available in their FSEOG funds, so this is another reason to fill out the FAFSA as early as possible if you think you might qualify for one of these.

Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grants

The cleverly named TEACH Grant provides eligible students with up to $4,000 a year for students who are intending to become teachers. In order to get the money, recipients have to sign an agreement promising to teach in a high-need field, in a low-income area and for a period of at least four years, within eight years of graduation. If they don't meet their obligations, the TEACH Grant turns into a Direct Unsubsidized Loan and must be paid back.

Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants

To be eligible for this grant, students must have a parent or guardian who died as a result of military service in Iraq or Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001. At the time of their parent or guardian's death, they must also have been either a part-time college student or less than 24 years old. Students must also meet all of the requirements to receive a Pell Grant, with the exception of the demonstrated financial need.

Academic Competitiveness Grant & National Science and Math Access to Retain Talent (SMART) Grant 

Both the Competitiveness Grant and the catchier SMART Grant were created in 2005 by the Department of Education to complement the Pell Grants. Both are need-based, but they require at least a 3.0 GPA to qualify. The ACG is for first- and second-year undergraduates, and the SMART Grant is for third-, fourth- and fifth-year students.

State Grants

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In addition to grants from the federal government, individual states also have student grants, though the funding amounts and eligibility vary by state. On the plus side, far more state financial aid offices have grants available than have loans, beyond what the Department of Education offers. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) has a map that takes users to the individual websites for each state's department of higher education or financial aid. You can also check with your individual college to find out which state grants you might be eligible for and, of those, which can be applied to online education.

In many cases, these financial aid options are listed under the name "scholarship," but because they are primarily need-based and not distributed based on merit, for this guide, they'll be found in the following list of grants. As an example of some of the types of grants out there, here are awards offered by 10 different states:


There are multiple grants offered within the states, but these are just a few examples. Among the grants in Alabama, a lot have very specific qualifications students must meet to be eligible, so be sure to research carefully if you're applying for anything here.

  • The Alabama Student Assistance Program offers $300-$5,000 per year for financially needy Alabama residents who are enrolled at least half time as undergraduates at eligible schools.
  • The Alabama Scholarships for Dependents of Blind Parents/Textbook Benefits for Dependents of Blind Parents is renewable for up to four years, but to qualify for this grant, students must be an Alabama resident from a family in which the head of household is blind and whose income is at or below 1.3 times the current poverty level.
  • The CollegeCounts Scholarship awards up to $4,000 for four-year college students and $2,000 for two-year students, but to be eligible, students must be enrolling in an eligible in-state school, meet certain academic requirements and demonstrate financial need.


The Golden State has a wide range of grants available to students, and they come in two types: Entitlement and Competitive. (See Online Colleges in California)

  • The Cal Grant system can cover tuition and fees for students of the University of California or California State University systems. The Entitlement grants are based on financial need, but the Competitive grants are not limited to low-income students.
  • The Child Development Grant Program is a need-based grant for students planning to enter the child care field, but to qualify for it, they must promise to provide a year of full-time service in a licensed children's center for each year they get the grant money.
  • The Chafee Grant for Foster Youth is designed for students who were or are in the foster care system but who also have financial need. In addition to filling out the grant application, they must also have filed a FAFSA to be considered.


There are four need-based grants offered from the state department of education:

  • The Scholarship Incentive Program is for full-time undergraduate students who have financial need, but there is a minimum GPA requirement of 2.5 as well.
  • Educational Benefits for Children of Deceased Veterans and Others are need-based, but not from a financial standpoint. To qualify, students must have lost a parent who was serving in the military or who was a state police officer or state Transportation Department employee who died on the job.
  • Governor's Education Grant for Working Adults aims to help under-employed students who want to acquire new skills. It covers vocational and technical schools, in addition to traditional colleges, but the institution must not be a for-profit one. Similarly, the Governor's Education Grant for Unemployed Adults helps adults who want to get new skills that will help them rejoin the workforce.
  • There are also a few subject-specific grants, which are need-based but also require students to be pursuing a certain course of study or have ties to a specific industry. These include the Delaware Solid Waste Authority John P. "Pat" Healy Scholarship and the Port of Wilmington Maritime Society's Dennis Latina Scholarship.


The Sunshine State offers several different need-based grants for students. (See Online Colleges in Florida)

  • The Access to Better Learning and Education (ABLE) Grant, which is for full-time students who meet the eligibility requirements for state financial aid and who are attending eligible in-state schools.
  • The First Generation Matching Grant Program aims to help degree-seeking undergraduate students with substantial financial need whose parents do not hold college or advanced degrees. They must meet the eligibility requirements laid out by the state for financial need, and they also must have a FAFSA on file.
  • The William L. Boyd IV Florida Resident Access Grant helps students attending private, nonprofit Florida colleges and universities, and there are minimum GPA requirements, in addition to the rule that students must meet Florida's eligibility requirements for state aid.
  • The Florida Student Assistance Grant program is need-based and available to degree-seeking undergraduates who are enrolled at eligible schools in the state, but this list includes both public and private institutions. They must be enrolled at least half-time.
  • The José Martí Scholarship Challenge Grant Fund is both need- and merit-based, offering aid to students of Hispanic descent who are attending public or private schools in the state. They must meet minimum GPA requirements, as well as having a FAFSA on file.
  • Scholarships for Children and Spouses of Deceased or Disabled Veterans require students to meet minimum Florida financial aid requirements, but more specifically, they also must have a parent or spouse who died due to service-related injuries or who has "100% permanent and total disabilities," according to the state's Office of Student Financial Assistance.


In addition to other state financial aid programs, Indiana offers two need-based grants, both of which require a FAFSA to be filed.

  • The Frank O'Bannon Grant Program is for Indiana residents who are full-time students pursuing an associate or bachelor's degree at an eligible in-state school. The amount varies from year to year, based on funds and on the winners' financial needs.
  • The Minority Teachers Scholarship is for black or Hispanic students in Indiana who are in college and planning to become teachers upon graduation. They must have a FAFSA on file to be considered, in addition to meeting criteria laid out by the Commission of Higher Education.


The need-based grant programs here include:

  • The Minnesota State Grant helps students who demonstrate financial need and are attending in-state schools only.
  • The Postsecondary Child Care Grant Program specifically helps low-income students who have young children to attend college by funding their child care costs.
  • The Minnesota Indian Scholarship can be awarded to graduate or undergraduate students with financial need, and it can be used at vocational schools as well as colleges in the state. Students must have one-fourth or more American Indian ancestry to qualify.

North Carolina

There are need-based grants for students attending both public and private schools in the state, and with one exception, all awards require students to be residents of North Carolina.

  • The North Carolina Need-Based Scholarship is intended for students attending private schools in the state who demonstrate a certain level of financial need, based on their FAFSA.
  • The North Carolina Education Lottery Scholarship varies in the size of awards it gives, based on students' financial need. Students must be enrolled at an eligible college in the state; this list includes the University of North Carolina campuses and the state's community colleges.
  • The North Carolina Community College Grant Program requires students to be eligible for the Federal Pell Grant, and they must maintain certain academic progress while in school to qualify.
  • The University of North Carolina Need-Based Grant doesn't require recipients to be residents of the state, but they must demonstrate financial need and be enrolled at once of the 16 UNC campuses.


There are two primary need-based grants for students in Oklahoma, and both require a FAFSA to be on file to be considered.

  • The Oklahoma Tuition Aid Grant is for undergraduate students attending approved universities, colleges and career centers in the state, and because awards are given out until funding is exhausted, the state encourages students to apply as early as possible if they think they might be eligible.
  • The Oklahoma Tuition Equalization Grant is given to qualifying students who are attending certain private or independent not-for-profit schools in the state of Oklahoma and who have unmet financial need, as determined by the campus aid office at their school.


Here are two examples of the need-based financial aid available to students:

  • The Virginia Commonwealth Award requires students to demonstrate financial need, but they must also be attending a public two- or four-year college in the state to qualify as an undergraduate, or an approved degree program at a public university to qualify as a graduate student.
  • The Tuition Assistance Grant Program aims to help state residents who are attending private, nonprofit colleges in Virginia; there is a list of 31 approved schools available on the state Council of Higher Education website. It's available to undergrads and graduate students, but the latter must be pursuing health-related programs to be eligible.


The State Need Grant is intended to help low-income undergraduates pursue their degrees in-state. To qualify, a student's family income can't be more than 70 percent of the state's median income, and the amount of money awarded depends on the type of school attended. In addition to the public four-year schools in the state, this grant also can be used at community and technical colleges, four-year private or for-profit schools, and two-year proprietary institutions.

School & Private Grants

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Individual institutions might also have grants that you can take advantage of, and when considering which online college makes the most sense to attend, it's well worth checking out which schools have grants offered, especially if you're hesitant to take out loans. Also public online schools, such as Penn State, often have need-based grants in addition to what the federal government offers.

The tricky part is that grant offerings can vary wildly from school to school, so the question of what grants you might be eligible for is difficult to answer until you know which online college you plan to attend, or at least which schools you plan to apply to. From that list, the next step should be to contact the individual offices of financial aid to determine what a school's offerings are, whether you might qualify and, if so, what information you might need to submit to be considered for the awards.

Much like scholarships, the number of grants available from private organizations can be astonishing, but in many cases, scholarship database searches can be used to locate grants as well. The College Board has an option on its scholarship search to select only awards that are based on demonstrated financial need -- in other words, grants.

In addition, searching for grants that specifically target your demographic can be a helpful way to narrow down the list. Aside from demonstrating financial need, students can potentially qualify for grants that are targeted toward a specific group, such as one of these:

  • Ethnic minorities
  • Immigrants
  • Single parents
  • Returning students
  • Students pursuing a specific course of study, such as nursing or teaching
  • First-generation college students
  • Veterans

These aren't the only possibilities, however, so if you think you might qualify for a college grant based on your personal history, contact your school's office of financial aid, or check out the funding opportunities offered by the state department of higher education. As always, make sure before you apply that the grants you're interested in can be used for distance learning.

Are Grants Taxable?

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As with scholarships, the answer to this question is entirely dependent on how the grant is used, not where it came from. Even federal financial aid, such as Pell Grants, can be subject to taxes if it's not used for qualified educational expenses. Again, the two conditions that need to be satisfied are:

  • Students must be pursuing a degree at an accredited school
  • The grant must be used for tuition and fees, or for fees, books or required supplies and equipment -- not for incidental expenses like room and board.

When in doubt, ask the organization that provided the grant or ask your college's financial aid office if the way you used your funds maintains their tax-exempt status. But if your grant money went straight to your university to pay your tuition and fees, you should be in the clear.

Additional Resources

If you need more information beyond what's provided in this guide, there are several great financial resources that can be used to find out more about loans, scholarships and grants. These include:

  • The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators
  • The Federal Student Aid website, StudentAid.gov, run by the Department of Education. It also has specific booklets to help students, including guides to financial aid for adult students and an overall comprehensive guide to federal financial aid.
  • Individual states' higher education agencies, a list of which can be found on the Department of Education website
  • FinAid.org, a free, independent guide to student financial aid
  • FAFSA on the Web
  • The National Student Loan Data System
  • Professional organizations in your area of study, such as the American Association of Colleges of Nursing or the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs

Federal Sources:

1. Academic Competitiveness Grants & National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent Grants, U.S. Department of Education, http://www2.ed.gov/programs/smart/index.html
2. Free Application for Federal Student Aid, U.S. Department of Education, https://fafsa.ed.gov/
3. Grants and Scholarships, Federal Student Aid, U.S. Department of Education, http://studentaid.ed.gov/types/grants-scholarships
4. Information on College Preparation and the Federal Student Aid Programs, Federal Student Aid, U.S. Department of Education,
5. National Student Loan Data System, U.S. Department of Education, https://www.nslds.ed.gov/nslds_SA/
6. Organizations By Type: State Higher Education Agency, U.S. Department of Education, http://wdcrobcolp01.ed.gov/Programs/EROD/org_list.cfm?category_ID=SHE

State Sources:

1. Fact Sheet: Tuition Assistance Grant Program, State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, http://www.schev.edu/students/factsheetVTAG.asp
2. Financial Aid Programs, California Student Aid Commission, http://www.csac.ca.gov/doc.asp?id=33
3. Grants and Scholarships, College Foundation of North Carolina, http://www.cfnc.org/paying/schol/info_schol.jsp
4. How to Apply for State Aid, State of Delaware, http://www.doe.k12.de.us/infosuites/students_family/dheo/how_to_apply/financial_aid/default.shtml
5. Information About State of Indiana Awards, Indiana Division of Student Financial Aid, http://www.in.gov/sfa/2390.htm
6. Oklahoma Tuition Equalization Grant, OKCollegeStart.org, https://secure.okcollegestart.org/Financial_Aid_Planning/Oklahoma_Grants/Oklahoma_Tuition_Equalization_Grant.aspx
7. Programs Offered, Florida Student Scholarship & Grant Programs, http://www.floridastudentfinancialaid.org/SSFAD/home/ProgramsOffered.htm
8. Paying for College, Minnesota Department of Higher Education, http://www.ohe.state.mn.us/mPg.cfm?pageID=888
9. State Financial Aid, Alabama Higher Education, http://www.alstudentaid.com/pdf/pubs/al/ahe/ahestate.pdf
10. State Grant Programs: Oklahoma Tuition Aid Grant, OKCollegeStart.org, https://secure.okcollegestart.org/Financial_Aid_Planning/Oklahoma_Grants/Oklahoma_Tuition_Aid_Grant.aspx
11. State Need Grant, Washington Student Achievement Council, http://www.wsac.wa.gov/state-need-grant

Other Sources:

1. Financial Aid, American Association of Colleges of Nursing, http://www.aacn.nche.edu/students/financial-aid
2. Financial Aid Resources for Teacher Education Students, The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, http://www.ncate.org/Public/CurrentFutureTeachers/FinancialAidResources/tabid/351/Default.aspx
3. Financial Aid Resources on the Internet, FinAid: The SmartStudent Guide to Financial Aid, http://www.finaid.org/educators/netresources.phtml
4. Scholarship Search, BigFuture, The College Board, https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/scholarship-search#!typeofaward
5. Scholarships for World Campus Students, Pennsylvania State University, http://student.worldcampus.psu.edu/paying-for-your-education/scholarships-available-for-penn-state-world-campus-students?status=undergraduate
6. State Financial Aid Programs, National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, http://www.nasfaa.org/students/State_Financial_Aid_Programs.aspx