Scholarships

The World of Federal Grants

Along with scholarships, grants are a popular sources of funding for undergraduate students. Though many of us are familiar with scholarships, a large chunk of the student population remains unaware of what grants are, how they work, and how they can be applied for.

And right about now, if you're nodding your head in agreement, you're among such students!

For starters, grants are quite similar to scholarships, but the two entities aren't precisely the same. While both are beneficial means of monetary support for academically deserving but financially challenged students, obtaining grants is sometimes considered more stringent than receiving a scholarship.

Grants are funds disbursed by one party (known as 'Grant Makers' who are mostly a government department, foundation, corporation, or trust) to a recipient (usually, but not always, educational institution, a nonprofit entity, business or an individual). Much like a scholarship, a grant doesn't require repayment. It is, thus, a sort of gift from the grantmaker to the recipient. Most grants are directed towards funding a specific project and need some level of compliance and reporting.

Let’s try to understand the key aspects of Grants:

  • Some form of "Grant Writing" (called either a proposal or an application) is usually required to receive a grant. The grant writing process requires an applicant to submit a proposal to a potential funder, either on the applicant's initiative or in response to a request for a proposal from the donor.
  • Grant reporting and compliance requirements may vary depending on the funding agency and type of grant. In the case of research grants that involve animal or human subjects, additional involvement with the Institutional Review Boards (IRB) or Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) is required.
  • Grants can be given to individuals in particular conditions, such as victims of natural disasters or people who wish to launch a small business. Sometimes grantmakers require grant seekers to have some form of tax-exempt status, be a registered nonprofit organization, or belong to the local government.
  • Most often, grants are offered by the government through attending post-secondary education institutions. In some instances, a part of a government loan is issued as a grant, offering financial support to students for continuing their education.

In the US, most of the grants are offered by government departments or private and public trusts and foundations. According to the Foundation Center, these trusts and foundations number more than 88,000 and disperse more than $40 billion worth of grants every year. Trusts and Foundations that distribute grants are a little more complicated to research and can be found through subscription-based directories.

Now, let’s try to understand Federal Grants in particular

Financial circumstances can prevent some of the brightest sparks from fulfilling their potential and going to university or college. Families with a low income may not afford to lose a wage, a single parent may have other children to look after, or a family may not be able to send their children to college due to financial crunch. Regardless of the reason, the aim behind designing federal grants is that such factors don't play a part in significant decisions and that the spot offered by the university can be filled if an individual wants to go.

Did you know that most of the funding given to students all over America is provided by the federal government? In fact, America now has the power, as the largest student aid source on the continent, to ensure that individuals from lower-class families can manage to send their children to school. America disburses over $80 billion a year in aid, and that amount is set to rise in the future because there are more grants added to the list every year. But it is not just the grants America offers that can help out needy families; it is also the work-study assistance payments made to single-parent families and those families that can't afford to drop a wage. So in effect, there is a way to help needy individuals that want to fulfill their potential.

It doesn't cost an individual anything to apply for federal aid. If you wanted to apply for a regular scholarship, for example, then you'd have to pay an administration fee that doesn't even guarantee that your application gets read. However, if you apply for federal aid funding, you don't have to pay a single penny, and your application will always be reviewed before you are informed of the decision. Plus, you will always get a reason for the decision, which makes for a refreshing change!

How to apply for Grants?

The initial step when applying for a grant is to fill up the FAFSA form.

FAFSA stands for ‘Free Application for Federal Student Aid’. It’s a form that is filled annually by current or prospective college students (whether undergraduate or graduate) in the U.S. The government uses it to determine your eligibility for student financial aid, which includes Pell grants and work-study programs. Even though it’s called the application for federal student aid it’s actually the gateway to be considered for over 600 state-based aids as well as most of the institutional aid that’s available.

Nearly all US colleges and universities use the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for federal and state-funded financial aid including grants, work-study programs and educational loans. In addition to the FAFSA, some states/colleges require additional forms or applications for aid. Check with your school’s financial aid office for any state and/or school specific requirements.

FAFSA should always be the first step you should take in regard to non-scholarship financial aid, but there are other grants that you will need to apply for on a per-grant basis:

  1. Federal Pell Grant: Unlike a loan, a Federal Pell Grant doesn't have to be repaid. These grants are normally awarded only to undergraduate students who haven't earned a bachelor's or a professional degree. The maximum Pell Grant award for 2010-11 (July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011) was $5,550. The amount you will get depends not just on your financial situation, but also on the costs to attend the school you wish to attend, your status as a part-time or full-time student, and your plans to attend the school for a complete academic year or less.  

Note: The maximum aid amount is given for any student who is eligible for the Pell Grant and whose parent (or guardian) died while serving in the military in Iraq or Afghanistan after September 11, 2001. Additionally, you must be under 24 years or enrolled in at least part-time college at the time of your parent's or guardian's death.

  1. Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant. The FSEOF (Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant) is meant for helping out undergraduates who are in extreme financial need. Pell Grant recipients with the lowest EFCs (Expected Family Contributions) are the ones considered first for an FSEOG. Just like a Pell Grant, the FSEOG does not have to be repaid. You can receive $100 - $4,000 each year, depending on your financial need, when you apply, the policies of the financial aid office at your school, and the funding at the school you're attending.
  1. National SMART Grant. The National SMART (Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent) Grant is available during the ending years of undergraduate study. This grant is open to at least half-time students who are eligible for the Federal Pell Grant and major in physical, life sciences, computer science, technology, mathematics, engineering, non-major single liberal arts programs, or a critical foreign language. The student should also be enrolled in the necessary courses for completing the degree program and for fulfilling the requirements of the intended eligible major in addition to maintaining a cumulative GPA of at least 3.0 in the course major. This award is in addition to the Pell Grant award. This grant can provide up to $4,000 for each of the last two years of undergraduate study, but the total amount of the grant when combined with a Pell Grant should not exceed the student's complete cost of attendance.

When applying for grants, make sure you’re aware of the following:

  • Although you can receive generous amounts of money through grants, you should conduct detailed research about the granting agency before writing the grant proposal
  • There is fierce competition for receiving grants and the success rate is low. On an average day, about 2,700 grant proposals are submitted but less than 200 receive funding
  • You can't do anything you want with grant funds; there are strings attached. Also, most grants are short term, and when the funds run out you have to start all over again. 
  • When writing a grant proposal, keep focus not on your own needs but on those of the grant maker. It's imperative for you to have a clear mission statement and you should find a funder whose mission aligns with yours
  • If the funder you’ve approached turns down your grant proposal, don't be disheartened. Politely enquire why you were turned down, and what you can do to improve your chances next time

FAQs on Grants

We've consulted our counsellors and gone through our student chats to come up with this list of Q&A's. Without further ado, let’s get started.

Q. What is the difference between a loan, a scholarship and a grant?

A. Loans, grants, and scholarships are all means to fund higher education and research, but all three have some fundamental differences. The most tangible difference between the three is that a loan needs to be repaid with interest, whereas grants and scholarships don't need to be repaid.

Now let’s try to differentiate scholarships and grants.

  • While scholarships are awarded based on criteria such as merit, talent, ethnicity, or major, a grant is usually awarded with the requirement of supportive research, and it is not limited to toppers.
  • More often than not, to obtain a scholarship, filling the associated form and attaching supportive documents is sufficient. To receive a grant, however, the supporting documents should be accompanied by a proposal explaining why the grant seeker needs the money. This proposal must include a clearly defined mission-statement which explains the seeker's goal behind the study or research for which the grant is required.
  • Scholarships are usually awarded by institutions whereas Grants are generally awarded by parties whose missions align with the grant seeker (these could be corporate houses, government, etc.)

Regardless of whether you apply for a scholarship or grant, merely submitting an application or a proposal does not guarantee that you will receive the promised funds. Everything depends on how strong your eligibility for qualifying is.

Q. How do I figure out which institution or funder to choose?

A. There are a variety of sources that can give you information about probable scholarship giving institutions or grant funders:

  • The finance pages on the website of a preferred university or college can be an excellent place to start. Many sites provide a brief outline of the funding out there and will touch on any department or college funding available.
  • Specialist websites are the next place to look. Websites specifically dedicated to pursuing grants and scholarships would be an excellent place to start looking for more in-depth information.
  • Hints and tips may also be found on websites that may not specialize in academic information. They can often be found on general sites that provide advice for teenagers in general and even those that offer career advice.

While it is useful to source information from the Internet, you should take care of confirming the institution's or funders' authenticity since several cases of fraud have been observed over the years. Never submit an application or proposal to any entity that asks for money to consider your application.

Q. What happens after I submit a proposal for a grant?

A. The process is a bit different as compared to submitting scholarship applications. The success or failure of your grant proposal depends on the way you draft your proposal. Make sure that your proposal:

  • Is backed by in-depth research about the funder
  • Presents a logical solution to a pertinent problem
  • Convinces the donor that you know what you’re doing
  • Tells the same story in the budget and the proposal narrative

Above all, you need to remember that grants are not quick funding solutions. The time between your submission and actual receipt of the funds can be up to a year. Funders often take a long time to make decisions about substantial grants, although sometimes they have short funding cycles for particular projects. 

Typically, after you submit an appropriately drafted grant proposal, you receive a letter from the funder saying that your application is under review, or that it has been rejected. The time when you receive this letter varies from donor to donor. However, if you don't hear anything about your application for a couple of weeks after your submission, don't hesitate to follow up via phone or email.

Q. Are graduate students eligible for government financial aid?

A. Yes, but not all such aids. Graduate students are eligible for federal loans and Federal Work Study (FWS), but they are ineligible for free government Pell Grants. But they shouldn't be disheartened since plenty of non-government aid is available for them. They can look at college financial aid sites and dedicated scholarship websites for more options.

Q. Where will my financial aid cheque go?

A. The majority of financial aid cheque will not go to you, but instead, head straight to your school. The cheques need to be payable to the prospective college you will be attending because they can then be used against costs such as housing and tuition. If much of a scholarship is spent on living costs and has covered the rent, you may have that amount back, but the rest of it will go into your account at the college. You may need to contact your prospective college before applying to see what their procedure is.

Q. What requirements should I meet to maintain my grant?

A. If you've been awarded a grant, it will most probably be on a conditional basis. You need to maintain a certain GPA to qualify, although that can sometimes be specific to particular subjects or classes instead of the overall grade. Different colleges and bodies set different targets for the students that they have awarded money to. This information is usually mentioned in the literature and students are advised to read it before accepting the offer. 

Q. Can I hold more than one grant simultaneously?

A. That depends on the terms and conditions of the grant as set by the body that administers them. If you're awarded help from several bodies, you can take it, as long as you inform all such bodies that you hold more than one because this may affect their assessment. For example, you can keep a college and a federal hardship grant simultaneously, but you do have to inform both parties about the help you are getting.

Wrapping it up

If you wish to go for higher studies at a college or university but can't afford it even with the help of your family, one of the first places you need to find financial aid is in the United States Department of Education. The government's federal aid packages can help to fulfill your hopes and dreams and make higher education affordable. There is such extensive help available out there via federal grants that there is no reason why someone with talent shouldn't go to university.

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