The investment needed to pay for a college education, while often worthwhile, tends to be an expensive one. To help finance this expense, many prospective students and their families apply for grants. A grant is money that does not have to be repaid as long as it is used for the intended purposes as designated by the grantor. A common source for college education grants is the government – at the federal, state, or local levels. However, to access them, students and those funding their educations must go through the necessary steps. The requirements and methods of application differ depending on the specific grant program. This article will go over how to apply for two popular federal government grants for higher education funding: the Pell Grant and the SMART Grant.
Eligibility Requirements For Federal Grants
To qualify for the Pell and SMART grants, you need to meet these five criteria:
Fill Out The FAFSA: The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is an application that all individuals seeking federal student aid must complete. It helps the government to judge whether or not you qualify for aid. In addition to serving as an application for the basic Pell Grant, this form also stands as a gateway to various other government-funded financial aid programs.
Legal Status: To be considered for federal financial aid, you must either be a U.S. citizen or an eligible non-citizen. Eligible non-citizens are U.S. nationals and aliens who have I-151, I-551 and I-551C Permanent Resident Cards. You must also have a valid Social Security Number.
Educational Achievement: To be eligible for federal aid, one of the following must be true for you:
- You have a high school diploma.
- You have a GED.
- You have already completed at least six credit hours of study toward earning a qualifying post-secondary certificate or degree.
If none of these apply to you and you are time-pressed to get funding for school, the simplest way of meeting this requirement would be to try to get your GED.
Enrollment: To receive any kind of government financial aid, you must be enrolled at an accredited university or college. Some think that they must secure all funding before enrollment, but this is a mistake. Only after your enrollment at such an institution is confirmed can you receive government grants to help you pay for your college costs. The amount of money you receive depends in part upon how many credits you are taking. A part-time student cannot receive the same amount of funding as a full-time student.
Other Factors: If you are currently delinquent on student loans provided by the government, you cannot qualify for more financial aid. To overcome this, you must get up-to-date on your outstanding loan payments. Outside of possibly letting you qualify for grants, doing so can also help to temporary alleviate your monthly debt payments, as going back to school can sometimes allow you to put your monthly payments on hold. Another disqualifying factor can be criminal conviction on drug-related charges. However, you can overcome this disqualification through mediation and by providing evidence of reform. (To learn about student loan forgiveness, see A Guide On Federal Student Loan Forgiveness.)
The Pell Grant
The FAFSA is intrinsically an application for the Pell Grant, which is the basic government grant that post-secondary students in the United States receive. Therefore, once you fill out the FAFSA, you will automatically be considered for the Pell Grant. As of the 2011-12 school year, the maximum amount an individual may receive in Pell Grant funds is $5,500. According to ed.gov, “The amount depends on your financial need, costs to attend school, status as a full-time or part-time student and plans to attend school for a full academic year or less.”
Satisfactory Academic Progress: In order to continue qualifying for the Pell Grant, you must exhibit satisfactory academic progress toward earning your degree or certificate. If you fail too many classes, you may be disqualified for future grants on academic grounds. The specific requirements for academic progress are set by your school. To ensure that you remain in good standing, study diligently and do not fail your classes. If you are disqualified from receiving government grants due to poor performance but continue with your studies anyway, an improvement in performance can help you to receive grants again in the future.
Use of Funds: Part of the FAFSA form is a personal statement in which the applicant must agree to use grant funds to address expenses related to education, such as tuition, school fees, books, etc. In most cases, Pell Grant funds can be used to pay for things like food and rent as well.
Financial Need: One of the requirements for receiving a Pell Grant is that you must exhibit significant financial need. The following items are key aspects of this assessment:
- marital status
- number of dependents
- number of family members attending qualifying educational institutions
- personal income
- spouse’s income
- parents’ income
- personal assets
- spouse’s assets
- parents’ assets
The SMART Grant is a federal grant program that the Department of Education offers in addition to the Pell Grant. Unlike the Pell Grant, which is mostly need-based, the SMART Grant is based on academic performance and on the student’s course of study. Qualifying courses of study include various science, technology, engineering, mathematics and critical foreign languages. To receive SMART Grant funds, students be enrolled in a qualifying course of study at an accredited university and must maintain a GPA of at least 3.0 on a 4.0 scale. As of the 2011-12 academic year, students may receive up to $4,000 in grants from this program during their third and fourth academic years.
Federal Grant Disbursement
If the federal government decides that you are eligible to receive a federal grant, it does not send you the money directly. Rather, the government sends the money to your school which may either automatically apply it to what you owe for tuition, fees, etc. or give the money straight to you.
State Grant Programs
In addition to the grant programs offered by the federal government, states also offer funds to help students pay for university educations. The specific requirements and funding methods of these programs differ from state to state and program to program. However, most of them use the FAFSA as a starting point and look at whether or not you have already received federal grants.
If you are starting to plan for your or your child’s college education, you should take a look at both the Pell and SMART grants. Additionally, you should take a look at your state’s website for state specific grants. Doing your homework ahead of time will help you to make the cost of college education more manageable for you and your family.