4 easy ways to get free money for college

Through scholarships and grants, college students have access to lots of "free money" for tuition.


Psst … want some free money for higher ed?

Of course you do. And fortunately, there’s plenty of it to go around.

America’s college students have access to a surprising amount of “free money,” also known as scholarships and grants for college, which can help offset the cost of attendance, the cost of tuition, room and board, and more educational expenses. In fact, for the average student, grant awards and other aid money covered 28 percent of college costs in the 2017-18 school year, according to Sallie Mae’s “How America Pays For College” study.

But it’s not like a university president or a representative from the Department of Education is going to show up at your door with a suitcase full of cash. You have to do the legwork before you show up on campus: digging through available resources to find possible grant awards and to find scholarships, filling out paperwork, and even possibly negotiating with the college.

There is financial help available, but the landscape can be pretty overwhelming,” says Kristina Ellis, author of the books “How To Graduate Debt-Free” and “Confessions of a Scholarship Winner.” Ellis won more than $500,000 (yes, more than half a million dollars) in scholarships during her college career, enough to get through undergraduate and graduate school debt-free.

“Figuring out what avenues are best — given the school you plan on attending, your financial situation, the state you live in and a variety of other factors — can be confusing and discouraging,” she says. “Finding the right setup that avoids student loans can take quite a bit of strategy.”

Do it right and the payoff can be handsome indeed.

In 2017-18, scholarships added up to an average of $4,393 per student, or 17 percent of college costs, according to Sallie Mae. Meanwhile, grants amounted to an average $2,955, or 11 percent of costs. Combined, all that “free money” from scholarships and grant programs was the second-largest source families used to pay for college, behind parent income. (Student loans ranked third, covering 24 percent of costs.)

“Most people are not even aware of everything that is available, or of their ability to appeal,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of and author of the new book “How To Appeal for More College Financial Aid.” “They think of the financial aid letter as the final determination of how much aid you will get. And that is not always true.”

So, the big question: Where exactly do you find all this free money? And how can you, in some cases, actually appeal for even more? Here are a few pointers from the experts to help you chart your course.

1) Start with one key form

Filling out a form called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid , or FAFSA, is your Job One. Colleges, as well as federal and state governments, use FAFSA data to figure out how much financial aid you can get. Some of that aid package will likely be federal student loans, which you will have to pay back – but some of it will likely be scholarships and grants, which you don’t.

The application window to file for aid for the coming school year actually opened last fall. But it's not too late to complete the FAFSA.

2) Appeal if necessary

Aid offers going out this spring are based on your financial life in earlier years. Things could look very different now. Your family might have experienced a job loss, for example, a health crisis resulting in medical bills, or some other circumstances that would influence your ability to cover college costs or your family contribution.

If that’s the case, reach out to the school’s financial aid office.

Experts say it is very possible a college would adjust your aid package. Each school has its own process for appeals — you may need to submit forms or a personalized letter detailing the change in life circumstances. Your appeal may succeed in securing more grant money, or it may not. But if you don’t appeal, the numbers certainly won’t change.

3) Look off campus

Your college of choice is only one source of scholarships and grants. Make sure to do a wide-ranging search for scholarships and grant programs. Among college scholarship recipients, 38 percent reported receiving money from communities, nonprofit organizations, or companies, according to Sallie Mae. Another 33 percent received scholarships from state and local governments.

Let’s say your father works for Microsoft, is a member of the Rotary Club, and volunteers at his local church. Right there, you have three potential sources of grant funds.

But you don’t have to figure this stuff all out for yourself. There are plenty of sites and apps that have you fill out a personal profile to match you with potential scholarships. Kantrowitz’s top picks include FastWeb, Big Future and Peterson’s, while Ellis suggests Cappex, Unigo, and the smartphone app Scholly.

4) Apply early and often

Some sources of scholarships and grants operate on a first come, first served basis. That means if you leave it too late, those particular pots of aid might have been doled out already. (You can find a list of state, college and federal aid deadlines from here.)

So be aware of deadlines, and give yourself ample time to put in the work — for instance, many scholarships require essays as part of the application process. Apply for everything for which you are eligible. Don’t think of this as a one-and-done effort for high school seniors.

Continue to apply for free money throughout your college years. “It’s a bit of numbers game,” says Kantrowitz. “Your odds of winning any particular scholarship might be relatively low, so you increase your chances by applying to more.”