Free College Grants 101: Claim your chunk of changeDuring college, opening the annual love letter from my university detailing exactly how much tuition would cost became like ripping off a Band-Aid -- just get it over with, and deal with the damage once you know what you're looking at. (Trust me, a nearly $10,000 private loan for freshman year alone will do that to a girl.)

So when that same letter junior year contained the pleasant surprise of a free college grant, I was ... well, pleasantly surprised. As it turns out, my family's income dipped just enough to earn me a need-based federal grant I never knew existed (plus my Mom was a stickler for filling out the FAFSA, but more on that later). If college was Monopoly, then this was hitting the Free Parking space -- I only wish I had known how to actively pursue free college grants all along.

If you're aiming for an education, get educated about what free college grants are out there, and stake your claim instead of waiting for a lucky roll of fortune's dice.

Start with Uncle Sam. The U.S. Government is one of the major sources of free college grants, along with state governments, universities and private foundations, according to the U.S. Dept. of Education's annual Guide to Federal Student Aid.

Speaking from the perspective of one who didn't read this incredibly useful guide until after graduating, I can attest that this idiot-proof, numbered list steps detailing how you can snag free college grants from the federal government should be required reading for the college-bound. (Page 14 in the PDF linked above.)

As the guide explains, the federal government offers six free college grants, all of which are free to apply for using the aptly-named Free Application for Student Aid, which you'll need to fill out every year to keep receiving aid. Not quite ready to apply? Check out the free FAFSA4caster to get an estimate of how much aid you'll be eligible for when you do apply. Federal free college grants include:

  • Federal Pell Grant -- The "foundation of federal student aid," as the Dept. of Education puts it. The maximum award for the 2010-2011 school year will be $5,550, and the information you provide on your FAFSA determines how much you get.

  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant -- Between $100 and $4000 yearly for students with the most financial need.

  • Academic Competitiveness Grant -- Given to students who complete a "rigorous secondary school program of study." See if your high school qualifies here.

  • National SMART Grant -- Up to $4,000 a year for third or fourth year undergrads studying certain science or mathematics-related fields rockin' a 3.0 or better GPA.

  • TEACH Grant -- Up to $4,000 a year for students pursuing a teaching career.

  • Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant -- Available to children of a military service person killed in Iraq or Afghanistan after Sept 11.

Thankfully, plenty of free college grants are available in addition to federal aid. Check out this database or visit your state government's department of higher education website (take my home state's, for example) to see what they offer.

Finally, universities award millions in institutional grants, a fancy phrase for academic or need-based scholarships. If you're still courting colleges, ask about scholarship opportunities on a tour or visit the school website to scan the financial aid offerings and other free college grants. Or, if you haven't found your dream school yet but know you really need merit-based aid, consider the schools on U.S. News and World Report's list of colleges that provide the most non need-based aid (much respect for your generosity, Finlandia University in Hancock, Mich.)

Clearly, doing your homework on financial aid and free college grants starts long before you hit that lecture hall. But when the alternatives to getting free money include cramming a part-time job into your class schedule or swimming eyeballs-deep in loan debt, it's homework that pays off.

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