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Grants: Free Money for Higher Education

By Karen E. Spaeder

The U.S. government gives away billions of dollars in free grants every year, including dollars for higher education. In 2009-2010, undergraduate students received an average of $6,041 per full-time equivalent student, and for graduate students, an average of $6,371. Unlike loans, this money never has to be repaid. Below, you’ll find some of the most common federally funded grants and their eligibility requirements.

Federal Pell Grant
Pell Grants aided 7.7 million students in 2009-2010, compared with 6.2 million in the preceding year—and more than twice the 3.8 million recipients in 1999-2000. These grants are awarded typically only to undergraduates without a bachelor’s or a professional degree, but some students enrolled in a post-baccalaureate teacher certification program may qualify. In 2009-2010, the average award was $3,646. However, you may receive up to two consecutive Pell Grants in a given award year to accelerate your time toward a degree. You can combine Pell Grant money with other forms of federal and nonfederal financial aid to cover your higher education costs.

Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG)
The FSEOG is designed for undergraduates with exceptional financial need and includes institutional matching funds in addition to federal dollars. In 2009-2010, the FSEOG aided 1.3 million students, up from 1.2 million in 1999-2000, with the average grant decreasing from $684 (in 2009 dollars) to $581 over the decade. While you can receive between $100 and $4,000 annually, your award amount will depend on your financial need and the policies and funding provided at your educational institution.

The National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent (SMART) Grant provides up to $4,000 to students majoring in physical, life or computer sciences; mathematics; technology; engineering; or a critical foreign language, or for nonmajor single liberal arts programs. Those students attending school at least half-time and who maintain a cumulative grade point average of at least 3.0 in required coursework qualify for the SMART grant, which is awarded in addition to the student’s Pell Grant. However, the combined amount of the SMART Grant and Pell Grant cannot exceed the student’s cost of attendance.

Academic Competitiveness Grant
The Academic Competitiveness Grant is available for first-year college students who graduated from high school after Jan. 1, 2006, and for second-year college students who graduated from high school after Jan. 1, 2005. Students are awarded $750 for the first year of study and $1,300 for the second year. As with the SMART Grant, the Academic Competitiveness Grant is awarded in conjunction with the Pell Grant, and the combined award cannot exceed the student’s cost of attendance. To be eligible, students must be enrolled at least half-time in a degree program and maintain at least a 3.0 grade point average. Additionally, students must have completed a rigorous secondary course of study as defined in the grant’s eligibility guidelines.

Future teachers can take advantage of the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant, which awards up to $4,000 per year to students who agree to teach full time in a public or private elementary or secondary school that serves students from low-income families. You must teach for at least four academic years within eight calendar years of completing the program of study for which you received the TEACH Grant. If you fail to do so, all TEACH funding that you received will be converted to a Federal Direct Unsubsidized Stafford Loan, and you must repay this loan, with interest, to the U.S. Department of Education.

Institutional Grants
Various institutional grants are available directly from certain public and private colleges and universities, including athletic grants, tuition waivers and grants that meet or exceed need. Grants that meet financial need at public four-year schools increased from 28 percent of total institutional discounts in 1999-2000 to 42 percent in 2009-2010. Meanwhile, more than two-thirds of institutional grant aid at private four-year institutions helps to meet the financial need of students who otherwise could not afford to attend.

With all of the available grants, it behooves you to contact your educational institution’s financial aid office for help exploring the best grant options for you. By combining grant monies with loans, scholarships and various tax deductions or credits, you can considerably offset the costs of higher education.

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