Paying for college is a big financial commitment, and it's no wonder why many families get "sticker shock" when they research tuition prices. However, the good news is the majority of students do not pay full price, because they earn some form of financial aid. The best kind of aid, of course, is funding that you don't have to pay back, and that includes grants and scholarships. While grants are need-based awards that are only provided to students who can demonstrate financial need, scholarships are usually based on a number of factors and, in some cases, are open to all students.
In fact, there are all kinds of scholarships for college students. They may be awarded based on academic excellence, community service or extracurricular and athletic talents, or perhaps for personal attributes like being part of an ethnicity or minority group, an organization or affiliation, and more.
When scholarships are part of the equation, it enables families to borrow less in student loans or pay less out of pocket.
According to 2018 data from Sallie Mae's report, "How America Pays for College," scholarship awards paid for nearly 17 percent of all college costs in the academic year 2017-18, with the average award being $7,760. In fact, 57 percent of families took advantage of scholarships during that school year from various sources: 37 percent of scholarships came from the state students lived in, 79 percent were provided by colleges, and 43 percent of scholarships were awarded by community sources like nonprofit organizations and charities.
When scholarships are part of the equation, families are able to borrow less in student loans and/or pay less out of pocket. This is especially helpful to households that fall into the "middle income" category who might not benefit from need-based grants. Sallie Mae says that students from middle-income families were the group most likely to use scholarships (60 percent) versus students from low- or high-income families (51 percent and 56 percent, respectively).
While only a small percentage of students end up with a full scholarship -- in which scholarships pay for all of their college costs -- every earned scholarship can help families get one step closer to affording a college degree.
The Difference Between Scholarships and Grants
For this Ultimate Guide to Scholarships, we're breaking down scholarships based on the different way recipients are typically chosen. Although there is sometimes overlap between what is a scholarship and what is a grant, for the purposes of this guide, scholarships have some sort of a merit-based component, whereas grants are need-based.
When doing your own research, keep in mind that some organizations may use the terms interchangeably. Be sure to read the details regarding eligibility to determine if an award application is worth your time and energy.
Finally, some scholarships may also have some stipulations, especially if they are renewable throughout all four years of college. For instance, recipients may be expected to maintain a minimum GPA. Other awards might be earmarked for particular majors or institutions. Also, people attending online colleges should be sure to also inquire as to whether their program of study qualifies. In most cases, as long as you are attending an accredited college or university, there is no distinction made between online and campus-based programs. However, it's best to double-check, just in case.
Also known as institutional scholarships, most schools have a few awards that are offered to enrolling and current 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. As online education is offered at more and more institutions, foundations and donators are taking notice and working to offer online students more opportunities to afford an education.
For instance, if you look at some of the top online bachelor's programs, you'll find that a wide range of scholarships are available (and not just for undergrads). Here is a sampling to give you an idea of what institutional scholarships are out there.
- Pennsylvania State University
Pennsylvania State has a handful of scholarships specifically for students on its World Campus -- the portal for the school's online programs. There is also the Trustee Scholarship Program, which has several additional award options.
- Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
The online platform Embry-Riddle Worldwide offers awards that both online and traditional students can apply for.
- Western Kentucky University
Western Kentucky University encourages its online students to use its TopDollar Scholarship resource, which presents a complete list of the scholarship opportunities that are available for WKU students.
- Colorado State University - Global Campus
The online college scholarships at Colorado State University-Global are awarded every trimester based on academic excellence. They are for students who are pursuing career advancement, display leadership and exhibit other desirable qualities.
- Walden University
Walden University, which is an online school, offers scholarships for current college students on the undergraduate and graduate level. Scholarships are available to students enrolled in a variety of degree programs, including business management, social work, public policy and nursing.
A scholarship doesn't have to be specific to online students to be attainable by an online student, however. In many cases, online students can benefit from the same endowments that help fund brick-and-mortar financial aid packages. 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, as well as 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 scholarships, check early through your school's financial aid office or the website for your state's department of higher education.
Aside from state governments, some private organizations also offer state-specific scholarships. Because of this, it's a good idea to look for scholarships available to residents in your state.
Below, we examine a few examples of the scholarships offered by various states, including scholarships for women and scholarships for particular ethnicities. We also advise students to check out our state pages, which include financial aid information and lists of state-specific scholarships.
Scholarships in Alabama
The state of Alabama awards merit-based scholarships, including the CollegeCounts Scholarship and the Two-Year College Institutional Scholarship Program. Women in Alabama may also want to look into applying to the Linly Heflin Scholarship.
Learn more about these scholarships, as well as other forms of financial aid available in the state, by reading about financial aid in Alabama.
Scholarships in Arizona
Scholarships for Arizona residents include Flinn Foundation Scholarships for academically high-achieving students, as well as the not-so-serious Arizona Milk Producers Scholarship, which requires students to send in a picture of themselves with at milk mustache. For women, the Arizona Business and Professional Women's Foundation Scholarships offer several scholarship opportunities.
Learn more about these scholarships, as well as other forms of financial aid available in the state, by reading about financial aid in Arizona.
Scholarships in California
California awards Cal Grants, some of which are merit-based. Also many scholarships in California are offered to students based on their residency. For example, the San Diego Foundation's Community Scholarship Program awards scholarships to students in San Diego County, while the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF) provides scholarships to residents in San Mateo, Santa Clara and San Francisco counties. The Community Foundation Sonoma County has scholarship opportunities for those in Sonoma County.
Learn more about these scholarships, as well as other forms of financial aid available in the state, by reading about financial aid in California.
Scholarships in Florida
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 the office of financial aid at your college to find out if any of these awards are eligible for use there. These include the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship Program, the Minority Teacher Education Scholarships and the Benacquisto Scholarship Program. The Dunkin' Donuts South/Southwest Florida Scholarship Program offers scholarships to students living in certain Florida counties.
Learn more about these scholarships, as well as other forms of financial aid available in the state, by reading about financial aid in Florida.
Scholarships in Georgia
The state of Georgia offers two very prominent scholarships for academically accomplished students: the HOPE Scholarship and the Zell Miller Scholarship. However, these scholarships can only be used at certain universities and technical colleges in the state. Women living in Georgia may be able to earn the Emerge Scholarship.
Learn more about these scholarships, as well as other forms of financial aid available in the state, by reading about financial aid in Georgia.
Scholarships in Illinois
A common theme in the state scholarship opportunities in Illinois 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 following:
- The Minority Teachers of Illinois Scholarship Program
- The Illinois Special Education Teacher Tuition Waiver Program
- The Golden Apple Scholars of Illinois
Learn more about Illinois scholarships, as well as other forms of financial aid available in the state, by reading about financial aid in Illinois.
Scholarships in Maryland
Maryland students may contact their senators and state delegates for the opportunity to apply for the Maryland Delegate Scholarship and the Maryland Senatorial Scholarship. Nursing students in the state may be interested in the Hal and Jo Cohen Graduate Nursing Faculty Scholarship.
Learn more about these scholarships, as well as other forms of financial aid available in the state, by reading about financial aid in Maryland.
Scholarships in Michigan
Michigan's Student Scholarship and Grants (SSG) awards several scholarships and grants. Among those offerings are the following scholarships: the Michigan Competitive Scholarship and the Talent for Tomorrow Scholarship.
Learn more about these scholarships, as well as other forms of financial aid available in the state, by reading about financial aid in Michigan.
Scholarships in New Mexico
There are several merit-based scholarship programs that New Mexico students can apply for. These include the following:
- 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.
Scholarships in New York
NYS Scholarships for Academic Excellence and New York State Achievement and Investment in Merit Scholarship (NY-AIMS) are both scholarships designed to aid New York students who excel in their studies. The NYS Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Incentive Program is specifically geared towards students pursuing a STEM major.
Learn more about these scholarships, as well as other forms of financial aid available in the state, by reading about financial aid in New York.
Scholarships in Ohio
The Choose Ohio First Scholarship Program awards scholarships to students earning a degree in science, technology, engineering, mathematics or medicine. On the other hand, the Ohio EPA Scholarship is for students working toward a degree in environmental sciences or environmental engineering. The Ohio War Orphans Scholarship Program aids children of deceased or disabled veterans in Ohio.
Learn more about these scholarships, as well as other forms of financial aid available in the state, by reading about financial aid in Ohio.
Scholarships in Oregon
The Oregon Student Access Commission has a uniquely simple system set up for students. Students 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 $16 million is given out annually. The website includes a list of all the scholarships, in case you want to get an idea of the types of awards distributed by the state.
Scholarships in Pennsylvania
The Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency and the Pennsylvania Department of Education provide the Ready to Succeed Scholarship (RTS) for Pennsylvania residents. Students from Pittsburg are eligible for the Pittsburgh Promise Scholarship. Woman scholars from some Pennsylvania counties may be able to win the Martha M Dohner Memorial Scholarship.
Learn more about these scholarships, as well as other forms of financial aid available in the state, by reading about financial aid in Pennsylvania.
Scholarships in South Carolina
The Foundation for the Carolinas has created scholarships specifically for South Carolina college students. The Watson-Brown Foundation Scholarships are available to those from the Savannah River Valley. Also, the South Carolina Teaching Fellows provide scholarships to future teachers who want to teach in South Carolina.
Learn more about these scholarships, as well as other forms of financial aid available in the state, by reading about financial aid in South Carolina.
Scholarships in Tennessee
The Tennessee HOPE scholarship, the Aspire Award and the General Assembly Merit Scholarship are all prominent scholarships available to residents in Tennessee.
Learn more about these scholarships, as well as other forms of financial aid available in the state, by reading about financial aid in Tennessee.
Scholarships in Texas
Although some of the scholarships in Texas are specific to an intended course of study, such as the Broden & Mickelson Scholarship Award for students studying law in Texas, other scholarships are dedicated to top achieving students. For example, the Top Ten Percent Scholarship Program is for high students who graduated in the top ten percent of their class and plan to attend college in Texas. The Texas Armed Services Scholarship Program is geared towards students in the ROTC.
Learn more about these scholarships, as well as other forms of financial aid available in the state, by reading about financial aid in Texas.
Scholarships in Virginia
Two notable scholarships in Virginia require essays on political or historical figures: the Lee-Jackson Foundation Scholarship and My Political Hero Essay Contest. Also, the Granville P. Meade Scholarship is designed for academically achieving students who also need financial assistance to attend college.
Learn more about these scholarships, as well as other forms of financial aid available in the state, by reading about financial aid in Virginia.
When it comes to applying for scholarship money, finding opportunities at your school of choice is the easy part. The other primary category of scholarship money comes from outside organizations, and the list of possibilities might seem overwhelmingly long. These might include foundations, nonprofits, corporations and even websites. The good news is that the more scholarships that are offered, the more award money you may be able to find. Here is some advice on places to start looking:
- Some private scholarships offered by corporations are designated for students who are the children of employees. If parents work for a big corporation, it pays to inquire if that business offers any scholarship opportunities.
- Other private awards are based on affiliations, such as being a member of a community organization or a local chapter of a national group. Some professional organizations offer awards to students who are aspiring for careers in that industry.
- Still other awards are open to all students who meet the eligibility requirements. For instance, as of December 2018 the Elks Foundation offers 500 four-year scholarships via its "Most Valuable Student" scholarship contest, which is open to any high school senior who is a U.S. citizen.
What this all boils down to is that students should be diligent and do plenty of research, even asking around to their personal networks, to see if there are any scholarships that they might be qualified for.
Scholarships for Graduate Students
Once you've earned a bachelor's degree, you'll be considered a graduate student if you decide to continue your education. The only exceptions might be if you are returning to school to earn a teaching certificate or enroll in certain joint programs that combine undergraduate and graduate studies.
When it comes to scholarships for grad school, you want to take the same approach as you did at the undergraduate level. You'll start by filling out the FAFSA although you won't need to include your parents' financial information this time around.
While the federal government doesn't award scholarships through the FAFSA, it can make you eligible for graduate financial aid programs such as Direct PLUS Loans. What's more, information from the FAFSA is forwarded to schools who may use it to award their scholarships for grad students.
Other scholarships for graduate school are offered by private organizations. These are often targeted toward specific populations of students or those pursuing a certain career. Examples include the American Association on Health and Disability Frederick J. Krause Scholarship, which is awarded to students with a disability, and the Center for Cyber Safety and Education graduate scholarship, which is available to those enrolling in a cybersecurity program.
How to Find Scholarships
Finding scholarships is a two-fold process. The first step is to start with yourself. You should list out all of your accomplishments, affiliations and attributes, and ask yourself the following questions:
- What specific challenges have I overcome in pursuit of a higher education (family commitments, lack of opportunities in my community, etc)?
- What do I plan to study?
- In what ways do I hope to use my degree to make a positive impact?
- Once on my career path, what communities do I plan to touch?
Once you have a good sense of what makes you unique and scholarship-worthy, you can begin your hunt for college dollars. The best way to embark on that part of your research is to know types of scholarships.
Here are the major categories of scholarships that exist. Think about which ones apply to you:
- 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
At this point, you should be ready to do some sleuthing. Try these tactics:
- Contact the financial aid offices of your prospective schools. Many online colleges have awards and scholarships that you may not even know exist. Advisers may also point you toward other scholarship opportunities.
- The U.S. Department of Labor — not the Department of Education — actually has a Scholarship Search database via its CareerOneStop portal. The database has more than 7,500 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.
- Explore well-known online scholarship databases, such as FastWeb, The College Board, Scholarships.com and Unigo.com. 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.
- Contact professional organizations in your chosen field of study to find discipline-specific scholarships. Think: The American Psychological Association or the Health Resources and Services Administration.
- Find out if your (or your parents') employers or member organizations offer any scholarship opportunities.
- Target scholarship funds designed for nontraditional students, like minority students, seniors or single parents.
Scholarship Application Tips
Once you find scholarships that seem like a good fit for you, it's time to get to work. Here are some strategies to help you stand out from the competition (in a good way!):
- Get the application in on time. If you find a great scholarship but the deadline is tomorrow, that's probably not enough time to apply. That being said, start looking as early as possible so you have ample time to gather materials and not rush through the process.
- Grammar matters. Submitting a sloppy application full of typos will likely take you out of the running. It's also important to show that you can follow directions, so make sure the application is complete and error-free.
- Take your time with essays. If there's a writing component, that's your chance to really show the scholarship judges who you are and what you're all about. Be yourself, make sure you answer the question that is asked and proofread to catch any mistakes.
- Get glowing recommendations. Some awards ask for reference letters, so choose your recommenders wisely. Give them time to complete their letters or forms, and offer some bullet points about your accomplishments to make it easier for them and refresh their memories. Once they're complete, be sure to send a thank you note, whether you win the scholarship or not.
- Be polite. If you have any correspondence with the scholarship coordinator, always be extra courteous and professional.
Scholarship Application Tips from College Financial Aid Experts
When it comes to scholarship advice, what better place to turn than to the experts? We reached out to four professionals working in financial aid and enrollment offices at major universities for their best scholarship strategies and tips. Take a look:
Delisa F. Falks
Executive Director of Scholarships and Financial Aid
Texas A&M University
“Apply for any and all scholarships that you believe you meet eligibility requirements for. Ensure you complete the entire scholarship application and include all the activities you have been involved with. Don't skip on completing a scholarship application just because they want an essay written. Take the time to write a short and concise essay that answers the question of the essay the scholarship provider is asking.”
Billie Jo Hamilton
Director of University Scholarships & Financial Aid Services
University of South Florida
“There are three places we recommend students look: High school counselors - they often know of scholarships offered by local organizations; the website of the schools you want to attend for opportunities they offer; and free national scholarship searches like Fastweb.”
Ryan C. Williams
Associate Vice President of Enrollment Management
“When applying for scholarships student should commit to put in the time to search for awards and continue the search throughout their college career. Searching through free online scholarship search engines is a great way to filter out scholarship opportunities specific to the student's area of study, grade point average, associations and interest.”
Terry M. Micks
Loan Programs Coordinator
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse
“Set up a plan to apply for a set number of scholarships each week, even as few as 2 to 3 a week would make a difference. It won't seem like such a daunting task as it would if you planned to apply for 100 scholarships. Search through lists of scholarships for any that you apply for and then do it. Don't limit yourself to scholarships offered by your university. There are so many more external scholarships out there just waiting for students to apply.”
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 real or a scam?
For starters, any scholarship that asks you to pay to apply is usually not legitimate. Other red flags for scholarship scams include the following:
- 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. 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.
An important process to be aware of is "scholarship displacement," a revelation that can come as quite a shock to students. Because colleges can lose federal funding if they "overaward" students (by handing out more aid than students need), some colleges may reduce the amount of grants or loans they offer to a student who has earned a private scholarship. From the perspective of the college and the government, this prevents overawarding and allows grants and loans to go to scholarship-less students who may need it more. From the perspective of the student who earned the scholarship, their hard work to make their college education more affordable has been invalidated and their total expenses (not accounting for loan interest) are remaining the same.
Opinions on this practice are mixed, to say the least, but as long as it exists, it's an important factor to be aware of. Not all colleges practice scholarship displacement, but if yours does, you may want to consider "deferring" or "banking" your scholarship award for another semester or year. (Some scholarships even allow you to save your scholarship award until after you graduate, then use the award to pay back a chunk of your student loans.) Colleges are required to make their policy on private scholarships public knowledge, so log on to your college's website or call their financial aid office and find out how they approach the matter.
In 2017, Maryland became the first state to outlaw scholarship displacement, and more changes to the process may be incoming across the U.S. With so many questions around this process and its future, the best advice we can give is: make sure you do the research so you can understand what to expect from your own personal situation.
Are Scholarships Taxed?
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 subject to tax.
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 non-required 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.
Additional Scholarship Resources
As you can see, there are a multitude of college scholarship opportunities out there for students of all types, in all situations and who are pursuing all types of programs. The key is to find ones that fit your personal situation and put your best foot forward on the application. By using the resources in this guide as a starting point, you'll hopefully be well on your way toward funding your college degree.
As you set out to look for scholarships in earnest, here are some other helpful resources that may be good places to start your search:
- Schools.com's scholarship database, which features an easily searchable list of over 22,000 scholarships
- OnlineCollege.com’s list of scholarships for Hispanic students
- OnlineCollege.com’s list of scholarships for women
- College Board's Scholarship Search
- Unigo’s Scholarship Search
- FinAid's Scholarship Page
- U.S. News & World Report's scholarship articles
For information on grants and student loans -- two other common sources of financial aid -- be sure to check out our other Ultimate Guides: