hands signing financial aid papers after learning difference between scholarships and grants

College Success

Scholarships Vs Grants: What’s the Difference?

02.05.2022 • 7 min read

Nick Griffin

Subject Matter Expert

This article explains what scholarships and grants are. It also presents the pros and cons of each of them. As well as the steps required to apply for them.


In This Article

  1. What is a Grant?

  2. What is a Scholarship?

  3. How Do You Apply for Grants and Scholarships?

  4. Why Apply for Grants and Scholarships?

  5. Who Offers Grants and Scholarships?

The decision to go back to school is very exciting and a bit intimidating.

Whether you are just out of high school and thinking of college to boost your dream career or considering going back to college at 30 to find a better quality of life, there are a ton of things to figure out.

For starters, you have to go through the process of choosing a major and figuring out which school to go to. Also, decide if you’ll take courses in person or through an online platform such as Outlier.

Then answer the big question: How am I going to pay for it?

After a bit of research, discovering how financial aid can help pay for school will bring some ease to the big question of money.

With many types of financial aid in abundance these days, the track to financing an education takes a bit of understanding and quite a bit of time to navigate.

Try answering these questions before looking into financial assistance:

  • What does my career trajectory/timeline look like?

  • How quickly could I pay back loans?

  • Am I going into a much-needed profession?

  • Do I belong to an underserved population or demographic?

  • Are there any special skills or abilities that I possess?

  • How much time can I spend looking into financial aid opportunities?

By answering these questions, you will have a better understanding of the type of aid that would serve you best: loans, grants, or scholarships.

Let’s start by explaining the difference between a scholarship and a grant.

What is a Grant?

A grant is a set amount of money that is gifted to a student mostly based on financial need. Gift aid is key here, meaning you do not have to pay the money back.

Eligibility for a grant depends on a student demonstrating that they meet certain financial criteria based on both the cost of going to college at their chosen school and the amount of money their family is able to contribute toward their education.

Most grants are awarded by either the federal government or the state government from which you reside, with Federal Pell Grants being the largest grant program. The college or university you plan on attending most likely awards grants based on student needs as well.

The following table breaks down the pros and cons of grants:

Free money that is awarded to you and does not need to be paid backMoney may be attached to criteria such as maintaining a certain GPA
Easy application process by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid FAFSAEntering income information based on past taxes and family resources is required and may take time to gather
Grant money can be substantial due to the financial need of the studentMoney is not awarded to all students and has strict eligibility requirements
College students can receive multiple grants and scholarships combinedOne grant is rarely enough to pay for college on its own

What is a Scholarship?

Scholarships are another form of financial aid that is offered to a graduate student or undergraduate student based on merit - being good at something or especially deserving of it.

This means that students often get college scholarships for things like academic achievement, athletic ability, or having exceptional skill at something. Often students receive scholarships for entering a certain profession as well.

Unlike grants, scholarships do not have to be based on need alone and are open to anyone who is willing to take the time to apply and meet certain criteria. This often means showing your talent and abilities within the application like writing an essay.

Many private companies, nonprofits, school alumni, and community organizations provide scholarships to select individuals who apply. Similar to grants, this is money that is not paid back.

The following table breaks down the pros and cons of scholarships:

Free money that is awarded to you and does not need to be paid backSome scholarship programs are attached to criteria such as high GPA
Thousands of companies and organizations offer scholarshipsCan be difficult to sort through due to the high number available
Awarded for things you have already done such as having certain grades or talent in a particular areaMany scholarships that are available a student may not qualify for due to missing criteria such as high grades
Anyone can apply to a large number of scholarships using free scholarship tools available on their school websiteFinding and applying for scholarships can be very time-consuming with criteria such as essay writing

How Do You Apply for Grants and Scholarships?

Of course, free money sounds great, and accessing it is not as difficult as you would imagine. Follow these 5 steps to apply for a scholarship or grant:

Step 1

Choose a major and a school you are interested in attending and be accepted into it.

Step 2

Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is the government lender application to take out loans at low interest rates. By filling this out, you will see how much you qualify for in federal student loans and see if you qualify for any federal grants.

Step 3

Check with your college financial aid office to get forms and resources to fill out and apply for local scholarships.

Step 4

Do some internet searching on a database that is designed to help you find scholarships matching your qualifications. Websites such as BigFuture by College Board help you gain access to scholarship criteria for billions of dollars in scholarship opportunities.

Step 5

Take the time to apply for scholarships. Make sure you are focused and provide all the requirements of each scholarship. Have someone edit and look over your work to ensure its quality.

Why Apply for Grants and Scholarships?

Grants and scholarships are free money for higher education that you do not have to pay back. Imagine having more time to focus on your schoolwork while in college and not have to worry as much about your financial contribution.

By applying for grants and scholarships, you are gaining the financial freedom to put school first.

Applying and earning scholarships or grants helps to build connections in the community that you live in as well. You are making the effort to get your name out there and possibly show potential employers your unique self and your career ambitions.

When earning a scholarship or a grant, you are also building a credential that can be put on your resume or CV for future job opportunities.

For example, it is impressive to a potential employer to say that you were awarded a $4,000 scholarship from the local hospital if you are going to school for nursing.

Who Offers Grants and Scholarships?

Grants and scholarships come from an abundance of places. Grants are mostly government-based (i.e., the Pell Grant and Teach Grant) and awarded to students based on family income, or expected family contribution (EFC), compared to the cost of attendance (COA) at the school of choice.

Colleges and universities also award grants and scholarships to students based on need and a number of other factors.

Scholarships are mostly offered to students by private entities and community members. You may find that a local bank, clinic, community group, or restaurant offers several scholarships to students each year. Non-profit organizations in your area may also offer several local scholarships to students and are far less competitive.

Many corporations donate money to student scholarships each year as well. Using an internet scholarship search tool and talking to your financial aid office to see what resources the school has to offer students looking for scholarships are both great places to start.

Through earning grants and scholarship money, you could no longer have to worry about how to work full time and go to school full time. This ensures that you can put more energy into your studies and your exciting new career path.

Degrees+: Discover Online College Unlike Anything You’ve Experienced

Outlier (winner of TIME Best Inventions 2020) and Golden Gate University (#1 school for working professionals) have redesigned the experience of earning a college degree to minimize cost and maximize outcomes. Explore a revolutionary way to earn your college degree:

Business Administration, Associate of Arts

Business Administration, Associate of Arts

Explore degree

Applied Computing, Associate of Science

Applied Computing, Associate of Science

Explore degree

Liberal Studies, Associate of Arts

Liberal Studies, Associate of Arts

Explore degree