Figuring out how to finance higher education for your child or children can be a daunting task. While there are many options to explore, looking into scholarships and grants (also known as gift aid) is a great place to start. Unlike student loans, scholarships and grants don’t need to be paid back and can significantly decrease the amount you’ll need to pay out of pocket.

While they’re both essentially “free money” and some use these terms interchangeably, scholarships and grants are not the same thing. Understanding their differences can help you tremendously to secure them.


A scholarship is usually merit-based, meaning they are based upon a person’s achievements, academic or not. These achievements don’t necessarily need to be from the classroom, but can come from one’s hobbies or interests. They’re usually awarded for academic, athletic, artistic or musical talent. They can also be awarded to students who are going into a certain field of study or for their family background.

There’s vast amount of scholarships out there, and there’s no limit to the amount a student can apply for, and in most cases, use. It’s always important to check the terms and conditions before accepting a scholarship, but most of the time you can accept as many as you’d like. Some academic and athletic scholarships are “full rides” which mean they cover the entirety of a student’s expenses. In this case, you’d only have to accept one!


Unlike scholarships, grants are given based upon a student’s financial needs and economic status. There are four main types of grants: federal, private, state and institutional.

Federal Grants

These grants are given by the federal government to those attending a community college, four-year university or other career programs. Federal grants are broken down into four programs: Federal Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants and Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants.

Private Grants

These grants come from private companies and nonprofits. Private grants are usually given to low-income students or those who belong to a certain ethnic or racial group.

Institutional Grants

These grants are given by the institution that a student plans to attend. They often use the information from your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) to determine if you qualify for any grants. Many colleges and universities provide grants to help students attend their school.

State Grants

These grants are awarded by the state, oftentimes to encourage students to attend college. To receive a state grant, you typically must fill out the FAFSA, be a resident of and plan on attending college in that state.

How to Apply

The application process for scholarships and grants have some similarities, as well as some differences. One major similarity is that you can find and apply for a vast amount of them online. It’s as easy as typing in terms that match the description of a scholarship or grant you’re interested in on a search engine, and you’ll be met with a plethora of options.

It’s helpful to ask your friends, family and others in your local community if there are any opportunities they’re aware of. Another excellent resource is your child’s school. Their guidance counselor will most likely be a great asset in helping you find the best match for your child’s wants, needs and talents.

One thing that makes grants different from scholarships is that a student is automatically considered for federal and institutional grants when they submit their FAFSA. They usually don’t require any extra work or searching.

Tips for Applying for Scholarships and Grants

Stay organized.

If your student plans on applying for multiple scholarships and/or grants, it’s in their best interest to keep a list of the ones they’re interested in and which they’ve applied for. It may be helpful to create a spreadsheet that outlines the various requirements and deadlines or each grant/scholarship.

Be aware of potential scams.

There are scams designed to steal your personal information and/or take your money. Make sure the website you’re searching from and any offer your student receives is legitimate.

Follow instructions very carefully.

If you don’t follow instructions or miss a deadline, your application could be thrown out. As mentioned above, staying organized and using a spreadsheet will help ensure no deadlines are missed and that all requirements are met.

Don’t wait to apply.

Many think that they can only start applying for scholarships and grants their senior year of high school. This is false! In most cases, students can apply much earlier. As some opportunities are first come, first served, it’s important to apply as early as possible.

While there are many ways to pay for a student’s education, grants and scholarships are an excellent place to start. Receiving even one grant or scholarship can help chip away at a hefty price tag and reduce the amount of student loans that need to be taken out.

Even after receiving gift aid, sometimes there is still a considerable amount of money to be paid. Through careful planning and expert guidance, you can avoid going into debt or leaving your child with a large amount of student debt. SimplyAdvised has trusted and vetted experts who can help you find the best route possible to finance your child’s education.