The University Network

How To Get Grants For College — Interview With Alex Johnston, Assistant Program Director, College Advising Corps at UVA

TUN sits down with Alex Johnston, assistant program director of the College Advising Corps at the University of Virginia, to discuss tips on how to get grants for college. 

TUN: Alex, thanks so much for joining us. 

JOHNSTON: Thank you so much for having me.

There are so many terms to keep track of. To start off, can you explain what a grant is and what different types of grants are available to students?

Yes, absolutely. There are a ton of different terms, and it can be confusing. But, when you hear “grants,” I want you to think “free money.” That’s money that is going to be given to you that you do not have to pay back.

There are two different kinds of buckets of financial aid that are considered “free money” and that’s grants and scholarships. Grants are a little bit different because, oftentimes, they are funded through the federal government or the state government. Those funds are allocated directly to colleges and universities who are the ones that are responsible for disbursing the funds directly to students.

There are a few different types of grants out there. Oftentimes, the grants that a student can get are based on need. So, they’re considered need-based grants, that are just based on what a student and her family are able to demonstrate as their financial need. 

There are also some merit-based grants out there and even some grants that are specific to programs of study for students. 

Let’s pretend that I’m a college-bound high school senior. What should I do right now to secure the most grant money that I possibly can?

The most important thing that you can do is apply for the Free Application For Federal Student Aid, which is called the FAFSA. It’s a very extensive application that asks about a student’s income, their family’s income and assets. 

That information is then provided to colleges and universities who then decide for themselves how much money they can allocate to each student. So, it’s really the primary application and the best way to get these federal-and state-funded grants.

So, the FAFSA, unfortunately, uses tax returns from two years ago. If students and their families have experienced some sort of a significant change in income, how and where can they voice that?

Unfortunately, the FAFSA has not caught up to the pandemic and the crisis that we’re all experiencing. 

Still, fill out the FAFSA. Do it with the 2019 taxes just like you’re asked. And then, immediately follow up with the financial aid offices at any college or university that you’re applying to. 

It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of legwork, but it’s really necessary so that they understand the situation that you and your family have, whether it’s a loss of wages or loss of even a family member. They need to know that information, and when you call each of the colleges that you’re applying to, let them know your experience. Let them know what’s going on now. They may have a process by which you can submit documentation or any further explanation. Whatever they need, they’re going to tell you directly. That way, they can provide the most financial aid that they possibly can based on your current situation. 

I know that securing grants can be a confusing process. If students have any questions, who should they reach out to for help? 

If you’re a high school student, there are people in your building who can help. If they can’t help directly, they can at least point you in the right direction. 

I’m an assistant director with the College Advising Corps. We have college advisors who work in high schools. If you happen to be privileged to have a college advisor or even another college access professional in your school building, reach out to them. They are trained. They are ready to help you and your family navigate this entire experience. 

In general, if it’s not a college access professional, reach out to your high school counselor. Again, they’re kind of tasked with helping you figure out what you’re going to do after high school. They might not know all the technical answers, but they’re going to try and find those answers for you or point you in the right direction. 

You can also, of course, reach out to the financial aid office of the school that you intend to enroll in. Those financial aid representatives are remarkable and really willing to help answer any of those questions. In some cases, they might be the best people to talk to because they’re going to be talking about their specific school and what they can offer a student directly. 

Are grants taxable? Will students ever have to pay taxes on their grants?

That’s a really good question. I’m not a tax expert. 

Most of the time, no, grants are not going to be considered taxable income. But, it varies depending on what grant it is and whether you are in line with the requirements. 

For instance, you have to be enrolled in a degree program at your college or university. In some cases, you have to maintain a certain GPA. In those cases, if you falter in some kind of way, it’s possible that either you would have to repay the grant or that it would be considered taxable income, if the grant isn’t directly being paid for a direct cost, such as tuition, fees or maybe even books or other resources that you need to go to college. 

So, my experience is, generally, no. But, in some cases, yes. That’s a really great question to ask your financial aid representative. 

Great. Thanks, Alex, for joining us today.

Thank you so much. 

This interview has been edited for clarity. Watch the full video here.