If you're a single parent looking to attain a college degree, you may feel you're in a Catch-22: A degree may help you earn a better-paying job, but you already need such a job to pay for the degree program and afford child care at the same time. Luckily there are financial aid options, such as scholarships and grants, that can help alleviate the burden on single parents. Grants in particular are designed to help students who have financial need still achieve their college dream. Grants are "gift aid," meaning that they do not have to be repaid like student loans; therefore, even small grants can make a big difference.

There are many college grants, both general ones and those that are specifically earmarked for hardworking single parents and nontraditional students who need some financial assistance to pursue their educational endeavors. You just have to know where to find them and how to apply. It's worth noting that some scholarships are need-based just like grants, so sometimes, the terms are used interchangeably. When seeking ways to fund your education, your goal should be to find awards -- grants and/or scholarships -- for which you meet the eligibility criteria, and apply for them.

And how can somebody learn how to do that? If you'd like to learn, then you've come to the right place.

How to Apply

When it comes to any need-based aid, the first thing you should do is fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Not only is it used to determine if you're eligible for aid from the federal government, but many state grant and institutional grant programs require it as well.

Your eligibility for financial aid is based on several factors, including your income, your expenses, your dependents and other important information found in your tax returns. All of this information is what you'll be reporting on your FAFSA.

After you have filed, some grant applications like the federal Pell grant will be processed automatically. However, you may have to apply for other types of grants separately. The key is to pay close attention to detail. Filling out applications on time and without errors is usually the best way to ensure that your paperwork is in order. It's also important that the information you provide on your FAFSA is accurate, since grants will look at your financial situation based on the data you include.

Once you locate potential college grants, take note of their deadlines, application requirements, and qualifications. For example, most grants are only be available to students who are enrolled or accepted into an accredited program of study. For students seeking online degree programs, it's important to be sure that you choose a program that is accredited -- not only so you can qualify for financial aid, but also so that you know your degree will have value.

Be sure to include any additional materials that are requested, since some grants may also use other factors beyond need to narrow down the applicant pool. For instance, a grant for single parents might ask you to write a short essay about your educational goals, while an institutional grant might have an academic component. Other college grant programs may only apply to students who attend school full-time, live in a certain state, or meet a specific income requirement. In short, every grant program is unique, so be sure to read the requirements of each grant carefully to see if you meet the criteria to apply.

It's important to take the initiative to ask questions about a particular grant if you're unsure of something. For institutional grants, you can contact the school's financial aid office. For private grants, use the contact page on the organization's website to find ways to get in touch.

Where to Find Grants

Government Grants

Federal grants should be the first place to look for grant funding. Unfortunately, some students assume they won't qualify and don't bother applying, thereby missing out on grants they could have earned. In other words, even if you have your doubts, apply and fill out the FAFSA!

Here's a look at the two main federal grant programs:

The Federal Pell Grant

The Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG)

Organizational Grants

Some grants are offered by private organizations. Usually, these are geared toward students with specific affiliations or backgrounds, or those interested in a particular area of study. Because they are grants, they are also need-based, and therefore require either FAFSA paperwork, or some alternate proof of financial need.

As a single parent, it can be a good idea to do a search to find "grants for single parents" or some variation of that. Here are two examples of organizational grants for single parents that are available:

State-Specific Grants

States may also offer grants based on need, and some could be specifically reserved for single parents or other nontraditional students. In some cases, such grants are available via state university systems. However, these grants tend to be fluid in nature and change frequently, making it difficult to provide a set list from year to year. Instead, you should do some research yourself regarding your own state and school year in order to find grants that can be of use to you.

A good way to begin your research is to check out your state's higher education agency. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) has a map that can connect you with the websites for each state's department of higher education or financial aid. You may also want to connect with an individual state college to ask if they can recommend any state grants.

School-Specific Grants

Several schools and universities have grants available for certain demographics of their student body. It's definitely worth asking at your school's financial aid office and/or nontraditional student office to see what grants, if any, might be available for you. Single moms might also be able to find guidance at the women's center of their school.

Here are some examples of school-specific grants:

After You've Applied

Grants are a very appealing kind of financial aid to earn. They do not need to be repaid, like loans do, and unlike some scholarships, there are typically no strings attached, such as having to maintain a minimum GPA. However, when you've finished applying for all the grants you can find, don't sit on your laurels! There are many other types of financial aid that can help to offset the cost of education, including scholarships, tax credits, and subsidized student loans. By doing some research and reaching out to financial aid administrators, you just may learn that your college dreams are more attainable than you thought.