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Grants for Online College: How to Get Paid to Go to School

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If you have been putting off a formal education due to financial obstacles, now is the time to research and apply for online college grants!  Prices are always inflating, and just like traditional on-campus degrees, online programs accept funding to ease the sting of breaking off a hefty price tag.

An online college grant is a one-time award of money, based on merit or financial need. Unlike online student loans, grants represent free money that generally will not need to be paid back.  You can get free grants from the federal government, state government, your college, and a variety of private sources, such as trade and professional associations.

The online education experts at GetEducated outline some of the most popular college grant options available to online students. Use the following article to explore the best online degree grant programs available from the government and private sources to boost your online school financial aid portfolio.

Types of Grants for Online College

1. Need-Based

Usually offered by the federal government, need-based grants provide either full or partial tuition coverage based on financial need. The gap between expected family contribution (EFC) and total cost of attendance will determine whether you qualify for these grants. Your first step to applying for need-based grants for online college is to fill out the FAFSA application.

2. Merit-Based

Contrary to popular opinion, merit-based grants are not only for straight-A students with a dizzying array of extracurricular activities and awards. Do you volunteer and take on leadership roles for your hobby? Do you routinely take on projects reflecting an interest in a field? Your motivation and passion may qualify for a merit-based scholarship. Balance is also key: Being captain of a sports team while working a part-time job and maintaining a B average, could convince the selection committee that you have what it takes to juggle a demanding college curriculum. The selection committee will take both achievement and income into account. Common examples of merit-based financial aid:

  • Athletic merit scholarships: For example, the Foot Locker Scholar-Athletes program awards 20 high school, college-bound seniors, in the maximum amount of $20,000.
  • Artistic and literary merit scholarships: A quick search for these scholarships will generate a treasure trove of awards available to the artistically inclined. For example, the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers provides a variety of awards to both students and educators.
  • Tuition waivers: Mostly available to in-state residents as well as those with military affiliations, tuition waivers exempt a qualifying student from paying for a portion of the tuition due. To find out more about tuition waiver policies, visit the website of the school you are interested in.

3. Academic Departmental

If you already have a solid idea of which major or academic discipline you want to commit to, you may have access to a specific trove of financial aid sources: Departmental grants are tailored towards students majoring in a specific field. Looking within the department at your college can help narrow down your options (as well as keep the competition limited to your peers). For example, if you plan on majoring in accounting, you may want to check to see if there are any grants available within the department by contacting the secretary of the school or your professor.

4. Corporate

Whether or not you’re currently working, you may qualify for grants from companies. More common amongst large companies, these grants are usually available to (but not always limited to) employees, spouses/partners, as well as children of employees.

To check for corporate grants first look for major corporations with a foundation or endowment in its business structure (these can usually be used towards causes like grants for online classes). Check with all the major corporations located or headquartered in your state. Even smaller local businesses might have scholarships or grants for online education. If you’re still in high school, ask your guidance counselor, as they usually keep on top of all college related information, including funding for needy or talented students. Examples of corporate grants include:

  • Burger King Scholar Program for a high school senior, BURGER KING® employee, spouse/domestic partner or child of an employee. Scholarships range from $1,000 to $50,000 and the application window is open from October to December each year.
  • SIGMA, America’s Leading Fuel Marketers offers a Pay It Forward Scholarship for employees, spouses, grandchildren and employee dependents of up to $2,500.

5. Professional Association

In addition to professional development workshops, networking, and mentorships, professional associations often have an annual budget geared towards grants or scholarships. To find a professional association directory relevant to your career path, search for your field (such as “nursing”) and add the term “professional association”. Then go into associations’ direct websites and dig around for keywords like “student resources” or “member education.” There are many databases in which to search for professional associations, such as Career One Stop (sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor).

Where Do Grants Come From?

Understanding funding sources will help you navigate and find relevant grants more efficiently. Scholarships.com, CollegeGrant.net, and FastWeb.com are all reliable starting points to finding grants that come from all kinds of sources, and available to students from all walks of life. First, let’s break down the different types of grants:

1. Federal / Public 

The U.S. Department of Education is a huge source of grants and financial aid nationally. Annually, it awards approximately $150 billion in grants, work-study funds, and loans to more than 15 million students. Grants.gov is a great starting point to find and apply for federal grants. The following are examples of public/federal grants:

  • Pell Grants: The big kahunas of university grants are Pell Grants, created by former Rhode Island senator Claiborne Pell. When you fill out your federal financial aid form— the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid)— you are automatically entered into consideration for a Pell Grant, as well as other federal grants. Pell Grants can pay from $976 to $6,495, depending on need (average amount given: $2,494). 
  • Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant: If you qualify for a Pell Grant, you may be eligible for an Opportunity Grant as well. The government will consider you for it when your FAFSA is evaluated. The Supplemental Education Opportunity grant (FSEOG) goes to students with “exceptional” financial need. It is for undergraduates only and ranges from $100 to $4,000 annually.
  • Academic Competitiveness Grant: This grant is given to students with both financial need and academic achievement, and can pay up to $750 the first year and $1,300 the second year. Students must be eligible for Pell Grants and must meet academic guidelines: if they are applying for their freshman year of college, they must show they undertook a “rigorous program of study” in high school. If students are applying for their sophomore year of college, they must have a 3.0 GPA from their freshman year.
  • SMART (Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent) Grant: This grant is designed to encourage college students to pursue science and math degrees. It pays up to $4,000. Students must be eligible for a Pell Grant and must be in their third, fourth or fifth year of college. They must be majoring in physical, life, or computer sciences; engineering; technology; mathematics; or a critical-need foreign language, and must have at least a 3.0 GPA.
  • TEACH (Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education) Grant: This university grant provides up to $4,000 annually for students who plan to teach “high need” subjects in elementary or secondary schools that serve low-income students. “High need” fields include bilingual education and English language acquisition; foreign language; math; reading; science; special education. Students don’t need to demonstrate financial need for this grant, which is open to undergraduates and graduate students who meet academic achievement requirements. In return for the grant, students must agree to teach at low-income schools for at least four academic years.

2. State

Besides federal grants, don’t forget to seek out state grants. State educational grants tend to be based more on merit than need. Requirements vary state by state, so check with your state’s official website to find out whether you might be eligible and how to apply.

3. Private

Less common and plentiful than public grants or institutional grants, it’s nevertheless worth your while to do a quick search for relevant private grants. Luckily, the strategy for finding private grants via the Web is not much different from finding scholarships: Use search terms related to your personal characteristics (such as gender, ethnicity, and career interest). By starting with a database that lists updated grants, you might be able to scope out a few private grants.

Find private grants for online college by searching the websites for any group to which you may belong. Also search the web for professional organizations for the profession you plan to pursue. Look for associations or other groups that represent your ethnicity, religious affiliation, hobbies or other interests. For example, theSTEM Diversity offers Graduate Fellowship Grants as a way to draw more minorities and women into STEM fields. Additionally, the Jacob Javits Fellowship Program provides grants up to $30,000 to graduate and post-graduate art students and scholars.

4. Institutional

If the source of financial aid is directly from the college or university, it is usually called Institutional Aid. This is especially common at private colleges, where endowments for institutional grants make up a significant portion of financial aid packages. Unlike federal and state aid, institutional aid amounts vary greatly from one college to the next.  This should be one of the first questions you ask an enrollment counselor, or go directly to a college or university’s website. Navigate to a page about tuition and fees, followed by information such as “scholarships and sponsors” or “financial aid and costs.” For example, Capella University scholarships offer 30 different awards based on major or other non-traditional student categories like military service. Award amounts range from $600 to $20,000.

How to Get Paid to Go to School

Do I Need to be Enrolled Full-Time?

Every grant differs in its eligibility requirements. As more and more students don’t fit in the traditional mode, by definition many require scheduling flexibility that goes beyond the usual 15-credit semester. Look for grants that expressly state “part-time” or “part-time basis.” In some cases, the amount of such grants may not be much less than for an equivalent grant for full-time students.

For example: The Government Finance Professional Development Scholarship supports the studies of part-time students with a career interest in state and local government finance. There is an equivalent award for full-time students, but both the part-time and full-time awards are the same amount.

How Much Can I Expect from Grants for Online Students?

Grants for online college or traditional college vary widely in their amounts. It may also depend on the type of aid: merit, need-based, or departmental. 

Average merit-based grant awards range from $1,000 (usually at state schools), to full rides at private schools of up to $35,000. But for the purpose of an estimate, the average merit-based award is around $5,000. 

Because need-based aid depends entirely on the financial need demonstrated on your FAFSA, the average need-based scholarship amount received depends from person to person. As a rule, your need-based aid cannot exceed the amount of your financial need. That said, types of need-based aid vary in their maximum awards. For example, the Federal Pell Grant is generally $5,775, while the FSEOG is between $100-$4,000 annually.

How Hard is it to Get a Grant?

One of the most misunderstood things about grants for online college is that the probability of winning one (or a few) is so small that it isn’t worth the effort to apply. In reality, it is this belief, as well as lesser-known grants, that leads to a large number of grants being unclaimed every year. In spite of the rising cost of college, millions and millions of award dollars go untouched. Nearly $3 billion in federal grant money went unclaimed in the 2014 academic year, according to a higher education study.

How to Find Grants for Online College

While searching online, it helps to enter keywords like “Adult Skills,” “Non-Traditional,” or “Continuing Education”. Other scholarships will require reading of the description to identify them as non-traditional. For instance, many memorial grants are named after a person, but do not include other specifics in their title. You can also tailor your search based on personal characteristics. Here are some examples to filter your search by:

  • Minority grants: Look up whether you qualify for ethnic minority grants, which offer assistance based on cultural heritage, or non-ethnic minority grants, which focus on students with disabilities.
  • Grants for online college for single mothers: Raising children as a single parent presents a tremendous challenge for many, and as such, many grants are available to help alleviate the burden, which includes the cost of childcare.
  • Grants for gender: In an effort to help recruit women into male-dominated fields such as STEM, many scholarships and grants are available for women.

When is the Optimal Time to Apply for Grants?

“Apply early, and often” is the general rule when it comes to any kind of financial aid. But grants for online college students differ from loans, so you can approach the timing differently. There are a variety of opinions on the right time to apply for a grant. Timing-wise, here are different approaches students take:

  1. Start today. There are some times of the year where more are available, but that would be when most of the people are looking. Start by searching the web and talking to the college counselor at your high school. Whatever you find, apply.
  2. Depending on how much tuition help you need, set application goals: two to four hours a day filling out applications, and 10-20 applications a week. Start at least three to six months before you start school. You need time to submit all the forms. If you wait too late you may have to pay for your tuition upfront and then pay back yourself IF the grants/scholarships/loans are approved. The later you wait into the school year, the less money available on grants.
  3. Start so that you can submit by a deadline (usually the first quarter of the year). Also most scholarships have a fee and a deadline each year so you need to get all the information on those specific ones. Their deadlines are usually the first quarter of the year so you need to get on those immediately!

Make the Most of an Online College Grant

With grants for online college, nontraditional, working, and adult students are all given the chance to save some money in pursuit of an education.  With numerous options available, all it takes is some determination and research to find the online college grant that suits your situation, and helps you earn a degree and take another step forward in your life and career.  Don’t hesitate, as we said, the best time to start applying for grants for school online is TODAY!