Updated on November 22, 2017
If you’re hoping to limit your student loan debt by finding free money for college, you’re in luck. Plenty of students find scholarships and grants. In fact, college students received a total of $125.4 billion in grant money during the 2016-17 academic year, according to College Board.
The key to getting your hands on some of this sweet cash? Start early and research all opportunities.
“Start in your junior year,” Ronald Ramsdell, founder of More College Money, advised. “There are plenty of good sources out there for scholarships, and the odds are in your favor if you start on time.”
Ramsdell and other experts believe most students can find at least some free money if they begin looking early. To get a jumpstart on the search process, check out these 19 great sources for scholarships and grants recommended by experts.
Free government money for college is available
Uncle Sam is a leading source of grants for college students. You have a better chance of getting free government money for school than you do of getting free cash from any other source. Options for getting your hands on government cash to subsidize your education include:
1. Federal grants
Federal grants accounted for 32 percent of all grant money in the 2016-17 school year, according to College Board.
The National Center for Education Statistics reported the Pell Grant Program is the largest federal grant program offering undergrads free government money. These grants are need-based, so you’ll need to complete the FAFSA.
Other federal grants include Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants and Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education.
2. State grants
State grants accounted for 8 percent of grant aid in the 2016-17 school year, according to College Board, and many states are currently working to expand their scholarship programs to provide more free money for college.
For example, New York’s new Excelsior Scholarship Program will provide $163 million in funding and is expected to benefit an estimated 23,000 students in New York.
Start local to find scholarships
The world of grants and scholarships goes far beyond just free government money for college. One of the best ways to get your hands on some cash is to look around where you live.
“I recommend students start in their own community, school or family to really get to know themselves, their family history, memberships, involvement, and employment so that they have the facts about possible scholarship connections,” Kim Stezala, The Scholarship Lady®, advised. “I say ‘go local, then go global’ because the large national scholarship databases probably don’t know about the local scholarships just for students in your area.”
Some of the best resources to look for local scholarship opportunities include:
People seldom apply for local employer-based scholarship programs, according to Jolyn Brand, an educational consultant and founder of Brand College Consulting.
However, they can be a great source of scholarship funds. In fact, a total of 13 percent of grant money in 2016-17 came from private and employer grants, according to College Board.
To avoid missing out on opportunities, Brand suggested both parents and grandparents ask at work about scholarships for dependents. Students who are working can also take advantage of scholarships through their own employers.
There’s a good chance you or a relative will hit pay dirt: Approximately 83 percent of employers offer educational benefits, according to the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans
4. Volunteer organizations
Brand advised students look to volunteer organizations where they are members to find scholarship opportunities.
For example, the Peace Corps offers tuition assistance at more than 90 participating universities and colleges for members, while AmeriCorps also provides a Segal AmeriCorps Education Award for members who complete 12 months of full-time national service. Hundreds of higher education institutions match the award offered by AmeriCorps.
“Churches are a really good source of scholarships,” Ramsdell said. The United Methodist Church offers financial assistance through more than 30 different scholarship programs.
And an older report from BlackEconomics (dating back to 2013) indicated that the top four black Christian church denominations offered an average of 1.45 scholarships per church.
6. Labor unions and professional associations
Stezala recommended tapping into organizations that students, parents, and other family members are a part of.
“Are they members of a labor union, professional association, or veterans’ club? Those types of organizations could have scholarships for the children or grandchildren of members,” she said.
The Union Plus Scholarship Program, for example, has awarded $4.2 million in scholarships to students from more than 2,800 working families.
7. Community groups
Bland, Stezala, and Ramsdell all recommended looking into community groups and local organizations.
“Even community centers have scholarships available,” Ramsdell said. The Northern Lights Community Center, for example, offers $1,000 scholarships to approximately 50 college students.
Then go national with an expanded search
While local groups are a great place to find free money for college, don’t limit yourself to your neck of the woods. Ramsdell said big banks and large corporations offer scholarships to students across the United States. Sources of scholarships to try for include:
8. Fortune 500 companies
Scholarships by private groups fall within the broader category of private and employer grants, which account for 13 percent of grant money provided to students in the 2016-17 school year, according to College Board.
Google, Wal-Mart, and the Coca-Cola Company are among the big businesses offering free college money.
“Big companies are a great source of scholarship money,” Ramsdell said.
9. Banks and credit unions
Ramsdell recommended checking with financial institutions. Bank of America, SunTrust and Citigroup are among the major financial institutions offering scholarships.
Brand also reminded students to check with credit unions, especially credit unions with which their parents have a relationship.
10. Philanthropic institutions
In 2016, 16 percent of all charitable donations went to support education, according to National Philanthropic Trust.
A significant portion of philanthropic funding for education is used for grants and scholarships, as Inside Philanthropywrote: “Higher education grants comprise the most significant portion of education philanthropy in the United States.”
11. Advocacy groups
There are myriad advocacy groups offering college funding to facilitate enrollments by people with certain demographic traits.
For example, there are scholarships for LGBTQ individuals, women, and DACA recipients. If you are a member of a protected class, check to see if there is an advocacy group that can provide help with college funding.
12. Health organizations
If you have had health problems, institutions aimed at helping to educate people about your condition could prove to be a rich source of scholarship funds.
In fact, according to the Diabetes Council, one student was able to win $20,000 in diabetes scholarships.
Take advantage of military scholarships
Military members and their families may be entitled to a variety of scholarships and aid to support their educations. More than a million beneficiaries collected $12.9 billion in payments from just seven veterans’ education programs in 2016, according to the Veterans’ Administration (VA). Scholarships and educational funding may be available through:
More than 1,000 colleges offer ROTC scholarships. ROTC scholarships are available through the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Officers ROTC programs. According to Villanova University, “Army ROTC is the single largest source of scholarship money in the United States.”
14. Government payments for veterans’ education
The VA listed seven programs providing educational benefits to veterans in 2016. These included the Post 9/11 GI Bill; the All-Volunteer Force Educational Assistance Program; Educational Assistance for Members of the Selected Reserve; Survivors and Dependents Educational Assistance; the Post-Vietnam Era Veterans Educational Assistance Program; the Reserve Educational Assistance Program; and the National Call to Service Program.
15. Veterans’ service organizations
Myriad organizations serving veterans offer scholarship funds. These include The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Paralyzed Veterans of America.
Turn your talents into free money for college
If you have special skills or academic prowess, you can often turn your talents into college cash.
When you’re looking into how to get money for college, some sources to turn to for grants and scholarships based on your achievements include:
16. College scholarship programs
Around 47 percent of grants come directly from colleges, according to College Board. Colleges provided around $58.7 billion in funding for students in the 2016-17 school year.
Stezala recommended Cappex to students looking to maximize the chances of receiving a scholarship from a college. “They have an admissions calculator that shows you your chance of being admitted to a college,” she said. “It is a good way to see how you rank compared to other students. If you rank highly, and apply to that college, the college itself may offer you a scholarship to attend.”
17. Athletic scholarships
More than 150,000 student athletes attending NCAA Division I and II schools receive over $2.9 billion in athletic scholarships, according to the NCAA.
While you must be an elite athlete to obtain one of these scholarships — only around 2 percent of high school athletes are provided with funding — Brand recommended looking to local sports organizations you are part of to see if they offer any scholarship opportunities.
18. College career organizations
“If you are currently in college, I recommend joining the club or association for your chosen major or career choice because those groups are often the hub for networking, news and scholarships in the industry,” Stezala said.
It should be noted that membership in the organization is sometimes preferred or required in order to be eligible.
Harness the power of the internet
Finally, look online for sources of free college funding.
“I always encourage students to sign up for two scholarship search engines and fill out a profile,” advised Stezala. “While the websites may have nearly the same pool of scholarships in their databases, you may still find different scholarships in each one because they use different methods in the matching process.”
So, where should you look?
19. Online scholarship websites
There are many different online tools to find scholarships, but the key is to make sure you’re only looking at legitimate sites.
“Never, never pay a fee under any circumstances,” warned Ramsdell, even if the site offers you a “guarantee.” Often, families pay these fees and when they try to get their money back under the guarantee because they don’t receive scholarship money, they’re denied. Why? Because they didn’t apply to every one of the hundreds of opportunities sent.
Now you know how to get money for college
All of these resources should help you find free money for college. The key is to start early and be thorough in your search efforts.
Ramsdell said most students who start in their junior year of high school should be able to get at least some free money — usually around $300 to $5,000 — if they exhaust their options for free funding. The key is to get going and keep trying to apply until you hit the jackpot.
“It’s like the lottery,” Ramsdell said. “If you don’t play, you’re not going to win.”
Need a student loan?
Check out our top picks below or learn more about other ways to pay for college.