The national student loan debt toll currently stands at over $1.5 trillion, with the average borrower from the Class of 2017 having $28,288 in student debt at graduation. Currently, over 45 million Americans have student debt.

So how can students avoid this often-crippling debt? The best way is to look for alternative sources of funding – like grants.

Like scholarships, grants for college are free money awards that do not need to be repaid. Many students qualify for grants of some kind, making them a great way to help reduce the need for student loans. Grants for college students range from just a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars—but every dollar counts when it comes to saving money and avoiding debt.

Why You Should Apply for Grants for College

The main reason to apply for grants for college is that it is basically free money. You will be given money for college—and you do not have to repay it. Even if it is only a small amount, it is money that you will not owe in student loans. Your future self will thank you for applying for grants!

College grants vary based on the college or university. Private organizations also may offer grants ranging from hundreds of dollars to full-ride grants that cover the entire cost of attendance.

The federal government offers need-based grants, with the largest being the Pell Grant. For the 2018-19 school year, the Pell Grant is capped at $6,095.

While there are many advantages of applying for grants, be aware that the process is competitive. Many require a detailed application process, and some are only available based on need. Be sure to thoroughly complete each application, and apply for as many as possible to maximize your chances.

Top Grants for College

Here are some of the best places to look for grant money.

  • Federal grants. According to the College Board, federal grants accounted for 32 percent of all grants awarded during the 2016-17 academic year. The need-based Pell Grant program previously mentioned requires students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Other federal grant programs include the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants and the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education grant.
  • State grants. These grants provided eight percent of grant aid during the 2016-17 school year. The types of grants offered will vary by state, so students should contact their state departments of education to find out what types of grants are available.
  • Local and private organizations. They may be available from churches, labor and professional associations, volunteer organizations, and/or employers. While not all organizations will have grants available, it is worth checking to determine if there are some funds available.

Who is Eligible for Grants for College?

While applying for grants can help you save a substantial amount of money, you don’t want to waste your time and energy applying for grants that you aren’t eligible for; instead, you should focus on the ones that you stand a chance of being awarded. But how can you find those grants?

The first step that all students should take is filling out the FAFSA. This will determine your eligibility for need-based grants from the federal government. You can also explore grants available from your state to see if any are offered for students in your situation. Many colleges and universities also utilize the FAFSA to determine eligibility for need-based funding, including grants.

Most grants are awarded based on need. However, there are grants designed to assist students who fall into certain demographic categories. These include grants for women, minorities, international students, and students with disabilities. If you are a student who fits one of these descriptions, then you should search for grants specific to those categories to help you pay for school.

Should You Include Spousal Income on the FAFSA Application?

One helpful tool is the College Grants Database, which collects information about federal, state, and private grants. No matter what type of student you are, searching through this database or browsing using criteria such as your anticipated major can help you find the right grants for you.

3 Common Grant Application Mistakes

The key to getting grants is making sure that you put together a great application. Some of the most common mistakes can prevent you from getting grants for college—so be sure to double check your applications before sending them.

Mistakes in Your Application

First, don’t forget to proofread. Typos, grammar mistakes, and punctuation errors can sink a grant application. Even if it is a small error, it can make a bad impression on whoever reviews your grant application. While computer-based spelling and grammar checkers are great, nothing beats another pair of eyes, so ask a friend or family member to review your application before sending it in for review.

Not Customizing Your Applications

Second, be sure to send individualized grant applications, particularly if an application requires you to write anything personalized. In some cases, the application will require nothing more than your financial information, such as your FAFSA. But other grant applications may request a cover letter or essay. Tailor your responses so that they fit the application, and never just copy and paste one response into another application.

Missing Deadlines

Third, pay close attention to deadlines—and always meet them. Remember that grants are highly competitive, and you don’t want to be shut out of a chance to get free money for college because you didn’t get something in the mail on time.

How to Improve Your Chances of Getting a Grant

There are a number of things that you can do to improve your chances of getting a grant. While you can’t change your financial circumstances to qualify for need-based aid if you are not eligible, you can maximize the likelihood of getting a grant if you follow these tips.

Read the Fine Print

If a grant application lists eight requirements to apply and you only meet seven, don’t waste your time applying. Only choose grants that you truly qualify for, then make a strong case for why you are well-qualified for the grant based on your academics or other merits.

Go for Smaller Grants Too

While a $10,000 grant is certainly more attractive than a $1,000 grant in terms of how far it will go in paying for your schooling, it is also bound to be more competitive. Applying to a number of smaller money grants that may be less competitive will increase the odds of you winning the grant. And if you are awarded enough small grants, it can equal the amount of the large grant.

Cast a Broad Net

While applying for federal grants is relatively easy through the FAFSA process and many schools will automatically consider students for need-based aid, students should work to find grants on their own. With online tools, it doesn’t take much work to find grants—and by applying to a number of grants that you qualify for, you will increase the odds of getting a grant.

Don’t Rush Through Applications

While the grant application process can be tedious, particularly if you are applying for a number of grants, it is less cumbersome than being saddled with a lifetime of student loan debt. Take the time to make each application sparkle, and enjoy getting that free money for college!

Bottom Line

Grants are a great way to pay for college, which is why every college student should take the time to explore this option. With the cost of college rising, it makes sense to put energy into finding sources of free money for education—including grants for college students.