Four types of grants
First, the major types of grants:
The best money is free money, especially when it comes to paying for a college education. And the biggest sources of free money these days are federal and state grants.
While scholarships make up less than 2% of student aid, grants make up about 40%, with loans filling in the rest.
Federal Pell Grants. By far the largest grant program, Pell grants range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. These grants are based solely on need, as determined by the student's college of choice using federally approved guidelines. Eligible colleges receive a fixed amount of Pell money each year; once it's gone, it's gone, which is why it can pay to apply for aid early. Students receiving Pell grants who are math, science or social sciences majors may also be eligible for the Academic Competitiveness Grant (up to $750 for the first year of study and $1,300 for the second). Math and science students may also be eligible for the National SMART Grant (up to $4,000 a year for the third and fourth years of study). Both were introduced in 2006.
Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants.These grants of $100 to $4,000 are reserved for the neediest of students. As with Pell grants, students apply through their colleges' financial aid offices.
Institutional grants. These grants come from the colleges themselves, and they are handed out when federal and state aid isn't enough -- or when the school is trying to discount its sticker price enough to attract a desirable candidate. Sometimes, colleges will substitute grants for loans to sweeten the deal for a sought-after student. Typically, you don't apply for these grants. But students can increase their chances for an attractive financial aid package by targeting schools that are likely to want them, rather than fighting to be admitted to a school that has plenty of other choices.
State grants. Most states have some kind of free-money program -- again, often based on need, although some programs are also targeted to encourage study in certain areas. California encourages future teachers, for example, by assuming up to $19,000 of loans if the student teaches in a low-income area, particularly subjects where there's a shortage. Meanwhile, Ohio's main grant program targets its lowest-income residents; once your family's income exceeds $75,000, your eligibility for the grants disappears. The maximum available is $2,496 for public schools and $4,992 for private ones. To find grants such as these and learn how to apply, check the Web site for your state's student-aid or higher-education commission.
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