Scholarships are the best way to pay for college – and they’re a popular way to pay, too.

In fact, 59% of the 23 million undergrads in the United States pay for part or all of their tuition using a grant or scholarship.

Unlike loans, scholarships are essentially free money. They reliably cover certain expenses, and more importantly, there’s no need to pay them back.

One of the most elusive scholarships is the full tuition scholarship – a gift that covers your entire cost of tuition and in some cases even additional fees or books. A full tuition scholarship can make college far more affordable by relieving the bulk of the burden, leaving you to cover the smaller costs.

Have you thought about a full tuition scholarship? Is it the right form of financial aid for you? Keep reading for our complete guide to finding – and keeping – full tuition scholarships.

Full Tuition Scholarships 101

There are many misconceptions about these kinds of scholarships in part because they’re surrounded by so much enthusiasm but also because they’re so difficult to get.

Let’s dispel some of the inaccuracies surrounding these scholarships to figure out what they really are and how this award could transform your college experience.

Full Tuition vs Full Ride: What Do Full Tuition Scholarships Include?

A full ride scholarship sounds like a colloquial word for full tuition, but there are some distinct differences to recognize before signing onto a new school.

Full Tuition Scholarships

Full tuition scholarships offer to pay for tuition only. If the scholarship is offered by the school, it may also include mandatory student fees like lab fees. But often, full tuition scholarships are restricted to published tuition only.

It’s a good deal nonetheless – tuition often makes up the bulk of your expense. But if you don’t have any other form of aid, you may be surprised by the number of unexpected feeds associated with colleges. And these fees may be added or increased even after you enroll.

The lack of specificity regarding these scholarships is in part because they may be offered by the institution, but other private organizations may also provide the funding. Different groups have different motivations in providing the money, and it’s common for the terms of the scholarship to reflect this.

For example, a sciences organization may want to attract more women into nanophysics, and thus, is willing to pay four years of tuition to those who are interested in the program. But if you transfer during those four years, you may be subject to lose the scholarship because the organization doesn’t want to pay for education in a field outside of the group’s interest.

Full Ride Scholarships

A full ride is often the same thing as a full tuition scholarship.

Only rarely does it include the entire cost of college from the basic tuition fees right down to your meal plan.  Though, it may include some of the university fees.

These plans are typically offered only by institutions and are very difficult to get: they’re offered to individual students who offer achievement and demonstrate enough need to require the extra money.

How Do the Scholarships Work?

A scholarship is a financial award designed to pay for a college education. It may consist of a one-time check or be renewable every year.

How the process works depends on where the money came from and whose name is on the check.

If the scholarship is offered by the school or by a third party directly to the school, then you don’t have much to worry about. Your institution will process the money and apply it to your account balance if you have one.

Not all scholarships are sent directly to schools. Some checks are sent directly to you – and in your name.

A scholarship with your name on it can technically be spent on anything, but it should be spent on whatever the award was provided for.

The great thing about scholarships is that unlike certain loans or grants, you can technically use them to pay for your expenses when required.

But there’s an important caveat: scholarships change between students.

A full tuition scholarship for one student may be more or less than for another student. Why? Colleges offer tuition at different rates to different students.

Colleges increase and decrease their tuition prices based on what they believe groups of students can and would pay based on the data provided to them by FAFSA.

So, your scholarship and your friends’ scholarships may vary significantly.

Are These Scholarships Merit or Need-Based?

Full tuition scholarships are provided on both a merit and a need basis. In some cases, the school or provider of the funds will consider both merit and need. The balance between the two often comes down to the individual school’s priorities.

Merit-based scholarships may be provided based on grades, test scores, or academic promise in the field you’re entering.

Merit may also be achieved via athletic ability or promise.

Can I Use Scholarships for Books or Activities?


Your scholarship will come with terms and conditions. In most cases, it depends on whether the scholarship is sent to you or directly to the school.

Do Scholarships Cover Room, Board, and Living Expenses?

Maybe. Like books and activity fees, scholarship spending is limited by the T&Cs of the scholarship.

However, in most cases, full tuition scholarships are limited to tuition only, leaving living expenses to the wayside.

Things to Consider When Relying on Full Tuition Academic Scholarships

Full tuition scholarships include all the tuition assessed by a school. For some, they make college significantly easier. For other students, scholarships are the only thing that makes college possible.

While full tuition scholarships are the goldmine of financial aid, the size of the scholarship also means that you’re subjected to a long list of terms and conditions, particularly if your scholarship is merit-based.

Can I Lose My Scholarship?

Yes – you can lose your scholarship in surprising ways.

Scholarships aren’t simply handed out. They’re a way to encourage bright students to attend specific schools and specific programs. More importantly, schools or organizations give awards to students who should excel in these programs.

There are three ways main ways students lose their scholarship:

  1. Failing to meet the standards (poor grades, academic probation, academic violations, athletic injuries, etc.)
  2. Transferring out of a program
  3. Transferring to a different school

Meeting Academic Standards

Losing your scholarship is surprisingly easy because freshman year for many students is the hardest. Making the transition from high school to college while dealing with the tougher classes and serious lifestyle changes causes many students to see their grades dip significantly while they find their footing.

Researchers at the National Association for College Admission Counseling studied the transcripts of 122,000 students and found that the average GPA dropped by half a letter grade during freshman year compared to students’ senior year of high school.

Issues during the first year may cause a college to take part or even all a scholarship away for the subsequent years.

Indeed, some colleges use high freshman year scholarships as a way of attracting students before awarding less aid in the subsequent years.

To prevent a decline in award money, be sure the terms and conditions of the scholarship are made crystal clear before accepting the award and enrolling in school. If you begin to struggle, ask staff to help you determine what your grades are during the semester rather than waiting for a surprise at the end.

Finally, be realistic about the likelihood of your success considering the barriers all students face. Don’t load your class schedule with difficult classes during freshman year, particularly if you’re entering a tough major to avoid inadvertently sabotaging yourself.

Sound strange? It happens. A study published in the Southern Economic Journal found that students who major in computing, engineering, and natural sciences are 21 to 51 percent more likely to lose grade-based scholarships compared to other disciplines.

Full Tuition Scholarships for Transfer Students

Whether you’re transferring to a school that better meets your needs or you cleverly saved money on community college tuition before heading to a four-year college, you’ll likely want to take your money with you.

Your ability to do that depends on your school.

If you feel that you might need to transfer or transferring is part of your plan already, look for scholarships that have transfers written into them.

For example, some scholarships allow you to transfer between schools within a network or within the state. Grand Valley State University offers scholarships available to transfer students, allowing students in Michigan to transfer in from a Michigan community college while saving money.

Pay Your Full Tuition with Scholarships

Full tuition scholarships are the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for most students. While they’re an amazing opportunity to reduce or eliminate your tuition bill, there are strings attached, and this form of aid isn’t right for everyone.

Have you used scholarship awards to pay for college? Share your stories in the comments below.

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