How to Get Scholarships for College
For many online college students, scholarships are a huge part of paying for college. Unlike loans, they don't have to be paid back, and unlike some of the loan forgiveness-style grants, for instance, there often aren't any strings attached, beyond the requirement that you using the scholarship money for educational expenses.
Grants are a similarly great source of money for online college students who can get them, offering a way to finance school without having to worry about paying back the money after graduation. But what's the difference between scholarships and grants?
Unfortunately, that isn't always clear. The terms are often used interchangeably, and the definition of a scholarship or a grant might differ among schools or organizations. For the Ultimate Guide to Scholarships, we're focusing on the different way recipients are typically chosen, not on whether the money comes with any restrictions. For our purposes, scholarships are merit-based and grants are need-based.
Students who want financial aid should still fill out a FAFSA, regardless of whether they intend to take out student loans. Even for merit-based scholarships, some schools consider financial need when deciding whom to give the awards to. And with no FAFSA on file, students who might otherwise be considered are essentially ineligible.
When it comes to scholarships, there are essentially three categories, though both include a lot of options:
In the Ultimate Guide, we'll explain these three types of awards, as well as answer questions about the awards in general, including:
Finding scholarships that are offered by their college of choice is often the first step for students. "Students should always apply for any scholarship that the college/university they are attending offers," says Karen LaQuey, Director of Financial aid at Wayland Baptist University.
You might think that most of the scholarship money out there is designated for traditional students only, but that's not actually the case. Online college scholarships are actually relatively common in the world of financial aid, and as online education grows, so do the possibilities for funding it.
For instance, if you look at five of the U.S. News & World Report's top 10 online bachelor's programs, all of them have scholarships available (and not just for their undergrads). These include:
Central Michigan University
This college has 15 scholarships offered on to online students of its Global Campus. The awards vary in amount and application requirements, often based on area of study. Some of them are even renewable.
State University of New York College of Technology-Delhi
SUNY Delhi offers merit-based scholarships that average $1,000 per student, as well as 30 other scholarships that are based on geography, subject or other qualifications.
Pace offers more than 10 scholarships for its full-time undergraduate students.
Pennsylvania State University
Penn State has a handful of scholarships specifically for students on its World Campus, as the online programs are called, as well as the Trustee Scholarship Program, which has several additional award options.
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
Embry-Riddle Worldwide has two different paths for possible scholarships. There are awards that are designated solely for online students, and there are university-wide scholarships, which both online and traditional students can apply for.
The key thing all these schools have in common is that they're all brick-and-mortar schools with online components. Land-grant universities, other public institutions and private colleges often have endowments, which frequently help fund their financial aid packages.
However, online-only and for-profit colleges, even if they don't have endowments, might still have scholarships available. For example, Western Governors University, which is an online college co-founded by the governors of 19 U.S. states, offers scholarships that are financed by private organizations and government funding.
In the for-profit sphere, Walden University, for instance, has more than $1,000,000 in scholarship money available to qualified students.
These are just a few of many examples Different colleges have their own scholarship programs, and checking out the websites or contacting the financial aid offices of schools that interest you is typically the best way to find out about what options are available -- and whether you need to file a FAFSA or separate scholarship application and what the deadlines are. You might be surprised at what's out there.
Although the federal government doesn't offer scholarships in the same way that it provides grants and loans, some states do have merit-based financial aid, in addition to the need-based grants. The application deadlines vary, and in some cases, there is a finite amount of funds available. If you think you might qualify for one or more of these, check early with your school's financial aid office or visit the website for your state's department of higher education.
As an example, here are nine states and some of the scholarships they offer. More information can be found through the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) or individual state departments of education.
- The Alabama Student Grant is a student aid program for undergraduate Alabama residents who are enrolled in a secular course of study (in other words, not theology or divinity) in an eligible in-state school. Students can receive up to $1,200 per year, but only if sufficient funds are available.
- For the Alabama Indiana Affairs Commission Scholarship, students must be part of a state or federally recognized tribe, be an Alabama resident and possible meet tribal requirements. Special consideration is given to students pursuing nursing, medical, veterinary and pharmacy programs.
Some of the Cal Grants are merit-based, though a number are set aside for students with demonstrated financial need. Cal Grants A and C both have merit-based awards, but the Cal Grant B is reserved for low-income students.
The Minority Teacher Incentive Grant/Weisman Teacher Scholarship offers both grants and loan reimbursement, but the catch is students can't apply -- they must be juniors or seniors in a teacher preparation program and be nominated by a dean at their school.
There are numerous merit-based awards for Florida students, though not all can be used at all schools. You should be sure to check with their office of financial aid to find out if any of these awards are eligible for use there. These include:
- The Florida Bright Futures Scholarship Program, which includes three separate awards. Submitting a FAFSA isn't required, but students must fill out a Florida financial aid application to be considered, and they must meet minimum requirements for GPA, test scores and/or credit hours.
- Minority Teacher Education Scholarships are for ethnic minority students who are training to be teachers, and special consideration is given to students at public colleges. There is a minimum GPA requirement, but no financial need is necessary.
There are several merit-based awards, the most prominent of which is the HOPE Scholarship. This is based on academic achievement, but it's only offered for certain universities and technical colleges in the state. In addition, Georgia offers the following scholarships, among others:
- The Zell Miller Scholarship Program helps in-state students who are attending a HOPE-eligible school, and they must meet minimum GPA and test score requirements to qualify.
- The Charles McDaniel Teacher Scholarship is for juniors and seniors pursuing teaching degrees at in-state public schools; they must be full-time students as well.
- The Georgia Tuition Equalization Grant Program aims to encourage students to attend certain private colleges in Georgia. The grant isn't need-based, but a students' school must be on the approved list, and the award is only for undergraduates.
A common theme in the state scholarship opportunities here is teaching. There are three merit-based scholarship opportunities that encourage students who are pursuing teaching careers, particularly in areas with teacher shortages. They all require a teaching commitment after graduation, however. These scholarships are:
- The Minority Teachers of Illinois Scholarship Program
- The Illinois Special Education Teacher Tuition Waiver Program
- The Golden Apple Scholars of Illinois
In addition to a solid list of need-based awards, there are several merit-based scholarship programs that students can apply for. These include:
- The Bridge Scholarship covers tuition and fees at eligible institutions, but students must have graduated from a high school in New Mexico to be considered. Applications are submitted through individual universities' financial aid offices, so students who want to apply should contact their college.
- The Competitive Scholarship is unusual among state merit awards in that it's intended for out-of-state students -- not in-staters. This award aims to attract talented students from outside New Mexico or outside the U.S. to the state's public four-year universities.
- The Graduate Scholarship gives priority to New Mexico students who are from groups that are underrepresented in graduate-level education, but the only requirement is that applicants be U.S. citizens.
The Oregon Student Access Commission has a uniquely simple system set up for students. They fill out an application, and they will be considered for whatever awards they are eligible for; this list includes merit-based scholarships as well as need-based. More than $15 million is given out annually, and the website includes a list of all the scholarships, if you want to get an idea of the types of awards distributed by the state.
LaQuey says the state of Texas provides numerous forms of assistance to residents. "Most of the aid is for students attending public colleges/universities with a couple of programs available to private colleges/universities. The State of Texas has been very supportive of higher education for US citizens and non US citizens," she says.
When it comes to applying for scholarship money, finding out about the opportunities at your school of choice is the easy part. The other primary category of scholarship money is that which comes from outside organizations, and the list of possibilities might seem overwhelmingly long -- these might include foundations, nonprofits, corporations and even websites.
A good way to narrow down a search for scholarships is consider what specific types of scholarships you might be eligible for. These can include:
- Community service scholarships
- Military or veterans scholarships
- Scholarships for academic excellence
- Scholarships for minority students or first-in-family college students
- Scholarships for nontraditional students, such as single parents or returning students
- Geographic scholarships
The Internet has some great resources for online college students seeking scholarships. The U.S. Department of Labor -- not the Department of Education -- actually has a Scholarship Search database of more than 7,000 awards that students might qualify for. It also includes other types of financial aid, such as fellowships, grants and prizes, but scholarships are by far the largest listing.
To start your search, you select the type of scholarship, where you live, what degree (if any) you're pursuing and whether you have certain affiliations, such as a specific ethnic, religious or military background. (These designations can often open up additional scholarship opportunities.) There is also an option to search by keyword, which can help you find national awards or other scholarships that you might qualify for, in addition to what the database turns up on its own.
Aside from the government database, there are private websites that include scholarship databases. Both The College Board and Fastweb have their own scholarship matching systems. The College Board has no registration system, so you simply select from several different criteria -- such as the military status, ethnic background and major -- and the database will generate a list of results. With Fastweb, you need to register in order to use the tool, but registration is free, and their extensive list might help you find more awards to investigate. When it comes to finding online college scholarships, the more things you can apply for, the better your chances of winning.
One thing to remember is that, in some cases, private scholarships can count against financial aid packages. If you're receiving financial aid awards from your school, you most likely need to inform the financial aid office there if you get any outside awards. In some cases, schools will count outside financial aid as part of the existing package -- not as separate awards to be added to the total amount of money you'll receive for the year.
In addition to using the government or private databases to search for scholarships on the Internet, prospective students are likely to find listings for scholarships run by private -- and, in many cases, seemingly random -- websites. So how do you tell if they're legit?
For starters, any scholarship that asks you to pay to apply is something to be wary of. Other red flags for scholarship scams include:
- Asking for personal financial information, such as bank account or credit card numbers
- Informing you that you've won a scholarship you didn't apply for
- Requiring that you purchase something or attend an event to be considered
- Guaranteeing that you'll win
The Federal Trade Commission has a webpage devoted to common scholarship and financial aid scams that prospective students should be aware of. If you don't find the information you need there, however, there are also ways that you can try to independently verify the existence of a scholarship.
One option is finding out whether the organization the award comes from is a real one and, if so, can you call the group to ask about the award. No phone number anywhere on a scholarship's website is another red flag. Searching the Internet for details about past winners is another possibility; if there's nothing out there about this scholarship having existed in the past, it may be right to be wary.
If a scholarship seems suspicious -- even if it doesn't have one of the obvious red flags -- it's probably best to steer clear. Unfortunately, it's not always possible to figure out whether an award is genuine, and when it doubt, be cautious.
To be clear, just because a scholarship doesn't require you to write an essay doesn't mean it's not a legit option. There are several reputable options for "no essay" scholarships. The key is that this type of scholarship competition -- which is essentially a drawing -- is something students choose to enter, not something they find out that they've won out of the blue, and that they aren't asked for any private information in order to be considered.
The answer to this question is a very firm and clear "maybe." For awards coming directly from a school as part of a financial aid package offered to you, most likely there is no tax on the award, though you can always verify that with your school's financial aid office if there's any concern.
According to the Internal Revenue Service, scholarships are tax-free if they satisfy these two conditions:
- The student receiving the money is a candidate for a degree at an accredited institution.
- The money is used for tuition and fees, or the money is used for fees, books, supplies and equipment that are required for courses at that institution.
Even if you win a scholarship from a third-party provider, and not from your school or home state, that award can be tax-free if you use it to pay your tuition or buy your books, for instance.
So when do you have to pay taxes? The two important factors on the IRS' list are whether you're pursuing a degree and whether you're using the money for required expenses. If you're an online college student who isn't seeking a degree but is just taking courses because you want to learn more about a certain subject, your scholarships can be taxed.
In addition, using the scholarship money for expenses that aren't explicitly required by your institution -- even if they're still a part of the total cost of attending college -- means it can be taxed. This means school-related travel, research, room and board, or nonrequired equipment, for instance, are among the group that isn't tax-exempt.
The best way to guarantee that you know whether to include a scholarship on your income tax return, if you're not using it for tuition and fees, is to ask the scholarship provider or ask the financial aid office at your school.
1. "9 Signs of College Scholarship Scams," Scholarship America, The Scholarship Coach on U.S. News & World Report, April 7, 2011,
2. AIAC Scholarship Information, Alabama Indian Affairs Commission, http://www.aiac.alabama.gov/Prog_Scholarships.aspx
3. Consumer Information: Scholarship and Financial Aid Scams, Federal Trade Commission, https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0082-scholarship-and-financial-aid-scams
4. CT Minority Teacher Incentive Grant/Weisman Teacher Scholarship, Connecticut Office of Higher Education, http://www.ctohe.org/sfa/sfa.shtml#Governor
5. Financial Aid Programs, California Student Aid Commission, http://www.csac.ca.gov/doc.asp?id=33
6. Finding and Applying for Scholarships, Federal Student Aid, U.S. Department of Education, https://studentaid.ed.gov/types/grants-scholarships/finding-scholarships#what-kinds-of-scholarships-are-available
7. Florida Student Scholarship & Grant Programs Offered, Florida Department of Education, http://www.floridastudentfinancialaid.org/SSFAD/home/ProgramsOffered.htm
8. Georgia-Specific Financial Aid Programs, GACollege411, Georgia Student Finance Commission, https://secure.gacollege411.org/Financial_Aid_Planning/Financial_Aid_101/Other_GA_Specific_Financial_Aid_Programs.aspx
9. Grants and Scholarships, Federal Student Aid, U.S. Department of Education, http://studentaid.ed.gov/types/grants-scholarships
10. Illinois Scholarship Programs, Illinois Student Assistance Commission, http://www.isac.org/students/during-college/types-of-financial-aid/scholarships/index.html
11. "Is Your Scholarship Taxable? Find Out Now," Roxana Hadad, Fastweb, March 18, 2014, http://www.fastweb.com/college-scholarships/articles/35-is-your-scholarship-taxable-find-out-now
12. Karen LaQuey, Director of Financial aid at Wayland Baptist University, interview March 2015
13. OSAC Scholarship Catalog, Oregon Student Access Commission, https://app.oregonstudentaid.gov/listScholarships.aspx
14. Publication 970 (2013): Tax Benefits for Education, Internal Revenue Service, http://www.irs.gov/publications/p970/index.html
15. Scholarships, Central Michigan University Global Campus, https://global.cmich.edu/financial-aid/scholarships.aspx
16. Scholarships, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide, http://worldwide.erau.edu/finance/financial-aid/scholarships/index.html
17. Scholarships, State University of New York – Delhi, http://www.delhi.edu/prospective_students/financial_aid/scholarships/index.php
18. Scholarships, Walden University, http://www.waldenu.edu/financial-aid/types/scholarships
19. Scholarships & Grants, Pace University Financial Aid, http://www.pace.edu/financial-aid/content/scholarships-and-grants
20. Scholarships for World Campus Students, Pennsylvania State University World Campus, http://student.worldcampus.psu.edu/paying-for-your-education/scholarships-available-for-penn-state-world-campus-students?status=undergraduate
21. State Financial Aid Programs, National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, http://www.nasfaa.org/students/State_Financial_Aid_Programs.aspx
22. Students and Parents Overview, New Mexico Higher Education Department, http://www.hed.state.nm.us/students/
23. Topic 421 – Scholarship and Fellowship Grants, Tax Topics, Internal Revenue Service, http://www.irs.gov/taxtopics/tc421.html
24. WGU Scholarships, Western Governors University, http://www.wgu.edu/tuition_financial_aid/scholarships