How to Get Free Money for College

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Jeff White, CEPF

By Jeff White, CEPF

January 19, 2023

Many of us take out student loans to cover our college education: an estimated 42+ million Americans have student loan debt. However, these kinds of loans come at a huge cost because you won’t just need to pay back the amount you originally borrowed, but also huge amounts of fees and interest, which can significantly increase the size of your loan over its life. To reduce borrowing, here are ways to get free money to go to school.

One of the best ways to fund your education is by opening a 529 plan and making consistent contributions to your account. This allows your money to grow tax-free if you use the funds for qualified educational expenses. Find the best 529 plans for you.

What It Means to Get Free Money for College

There are various types of free money for college students available, including scholarships, grants, and gift aid for college. Free money for college is a much better alternative, as you’ll avoid the heavy debt burden of student loans, though you will need to meet specific requirements. What Does “Free Money” Mean When Funding College?

Free money for students is essentially any funds that you can use to pay for college tuition and expenses that you don’t need to pay back, or don’t come with any extra associated costs. There is a range of ways you can access free money for schooling that can cover a significant proportion of your college costs, and you may even be able to go to college for free.

However, “free” doesn’t mean that you can access as much cash as you want, or that you’ll necessarily be able to access it at all. You’ll need to meet and demonstrate certain requirements, such as financial need in the case of grants, and specific types of merit for scholarships.

Additionally, some “free money” comes with certain conditions attached, whether needing to maintain at least half-time study, or remain with your employer for a certain amount of time after taking advantage of employer tuition assistance.

Free Money Options for College

Free money options for college students in 2023 include grants and scholarships. These sources of free college money are available in varying amounts, can be relatively easy or very difficult to secure, and you won’t need to pay them back!

1. Grants

One way to get free money for school is through grants. As opposed to scholarships, which are generally awarded based on merit, grants are typically need-based. The federal government and educational institutions use the information you submit in the FAFSA to determine your level of financial need, and so decide how much money to offer you in grants, if any. For some grants, you’ll also need to submit the CSS profile.

Although most grants represent free money for college students, there are some limited circumstances where you may need to pay back these funds. For example, if you’re awarded the TEACH grant and don’t end up satisfying the teaching requirements, it will be retroactively converted to a loan and you’ll be required to pay interest.

2. Scholarships

Another way to access free money for college students is by applying for scholarships. Scholarships are awarded to deserving students, typically based on academic, sports, or artistic merit, and you won’t need to ever pay back the funds. They’re also usually tax-free, but can be subject to tax in some cases, especially if you use them to pay for housing and other education-related expenses other than tuition, fees, and books.

To give yourself the best chance of being awarded a scholarship, it’s important to apply for as many scholarships as possible. Check out our free scholarship search tool to help you find the right scholarship. You can also ask your high school counselor or college financial aid office to give you more options. Be sure to start preparing early in order to put in the strongest application possible with the best chance of success!

3. Employer Tuition Assistance

A third way to get free money for college is by accessing tuition assistance from your employer. Many organizations offer this benefit in order to encourage their employees to get a college education, as this can be highly beneficial to the company by expanding their own pool of knowledge and skills. However, this money may come with strings attached, such as requiring you to study a specific major or at a certain school, or committing you to stay with your employer for a set period of time.

4. Work Study

Working at your college part-time is another great option, though it is often a less direct form of free money for college. Schools will often offer their employees, and sometimes even the children of employees, free or discounted tuition. This can make a huge difference in funding your college education, though you may need to work for the school for a set period of time before being able to access this benefit.

5. Tax Benefits

Though it won’t fully cover your college costs, accessing tax benefits can help to reduce the overall amount you’ll pay for college. For example, by using a tax-advantaged 529 savings plan, you’ll reduce your overall tax bill and be able to put this money towards college tuition and expenses instead.

Types of Grants Available for College

Grants are one of the most common ways people find free money that they can use for their education. There is a range of different types of scholarships and grants available that offer free money for college, including:

  • Federal grants: These grants are offered by the federal government via the Department of Education to support needy students and include the Pell Grant program, Teach Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) grants, Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), and Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants.
  • State grants: A number of states also offer needs-based grants through each state’s education agency, though the amounts offered can vary from state to state.
  • Professional associations: Many professional associations and labor unions run scholarship programs for their members, as well as members’ children and spouses.
  • College scholarships: Most schools offer scholarships and grants, often through their own foundations, including athletics, music, and academic scholarships.
  • Employer scholarships: Some organizations offer scholarships to sponsor their employees or their children’s college education.
  • Military scholarships: Past and active serving members of the US military can assess substantial funding to support their university education, including ROTC scholarships for active service members and a range of education assistance programs for veterans.
  • Volunteer and philanthropic organizations: A number of charitable, philanthropic, and volunteer organizations offer scholarships, including the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps.
  • Religious organizations: Many churches also have scholarship programs, as well as offering grants of various sizes.
  • Financial institutions: Banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions issue scholarships to support promising students in the general community.

How to Find and Apply for Grants

With so many options available, it can be challenging to identify suitable grants, determine if you meet the eligibility requirements, and put in your application, especially for first-time undergraduate students. The step-by-step guide below details how to get free money for college by applying for grants.

Step 1: Fill out the FAFSA

Submitting the FAFSA is the first step to securing money for college that you don’t need to pay back. Colleges and the federal government use the information you submit on your FAFSA form to assess your financial need, and then offer you grants based on this.

It’s important to submit the FAFSA as early as possible via the federal student aid website or by post (it opens annually on October 1st for the following academic year), as many grants are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

Step 2: Submit the CSS Profile

Although most schools use the FAFSA as the basis for offering grants, around 200 colleges also require you to submit a CSS profile in order to qualify for their grants. This is a similar online form to the FAFSA, but note that you’ll need to submit both these forms for the schools that also require the CSS.

Step 3: Research Other Funding

Although submitting the FAFSA and CSS will allow you to qualify for a range of grants from the federal government as well as educational institutions, there are many other funding opportunities that exist outside this system. To be considered for many other grants and scholarships, you’ll need to submit separate applications to prove you meet the criteria and convince the selection committee that you’re the best candidate.

Get in touch with your school’s financial aid office to learn about more funding opportunities, and do your own research online to find other possibilities.

Things to Watch Out for in Getting Free Money for College

While there are many fantastic scholarships, grants, and other sources of free funds to help pay for your college education, there can also be drawbacks and risks associated with free money for college.

Here’s how to get money for college while avoiding these risks:

  • Understand the tax rules: Some scholarships and grants are subject to tax or may be subject to tax if you spend the funds on certain things. Therefore, it’s important to be aware of the tax rules surrounding your grant in order to avoid paying unnecessary tax.
  • Be wary of scams: With so many students struggling to pay for college, this, unfortunately, means that there’s also a large number of scammers seeking to take advantage of them. Always be careful when you’re offered free money for college, and be skeptical of any deal that seems too good to be true.
  • Submit the FAFSA and CSS as early as you can: Some of the grants available through the FAFSA and CSS are offered on a first-come basis with open deadlines, so don’t delay in submitting these forms or you may miss out!

The Bottom Line

It’s possible to get free money for college and avoid racking up crushing student debt. In fact, there is a wide range of funding sources for college expenses that you won’t ever need to pay back, from grants and employer assistance programs to a wide range of scholarships.

Keep in mind that you’ll need to meet certain conditions in order to access most of these funds, and some can be highly competitive, so be sure to be prepared and submit as many applications as you can as early as possible!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How can I get free money as a college student?

There is a range of ways to get free money to help pay for college, including applying for grants through the FAFSA and CSS, submitting scholarship applications to programs run by educational, financial, religious, and professional organizations, inquiring about work-study options at your school, and asking your employer about assistance programs.

Is FAFSA free money for college?

There are a variety of ways to get money for college, but many of the best ones start with submitting the FAFSA. The federal government and most colleges offer grants to students based on need, which is assessed through the FAFSA. In most cases, you can use this money to pay for college without needing to pay it back, so it is essentially free money.

What is the free money you get from FAFSA called?

After submitting the FAFSA, you may be eligible for a number of grants offered by the federal government and/or higher education institutions. Federal college grants are given through a number of different programs, including the Pell Grant program, Teach Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) grants, Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), and Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants.

Are scholarships really free money for college students?

In most cases, scholarships offered to outstanding college students don’t need to be paid back. However, this may not be the case if you fail to fulfill certain requirements associated with your studies. You may also need to pay tax on scholarship money, depending on the type of scholarship and what you use it for.

A good place to start:

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