Fellowship vs. Scholarship: What’s the Difference?

Fellowships and scholarships help students pay for college. Here are the key differences between two of the best forms of financial aid.

portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published on February 11, 2022 · Updated on February 24, 2022

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Fellowship vs. Scholarship: What’s the Difference?

Students use all sorts of financial aid to pay for college, including grants, scholarships, loans, and fellowships. But what is a scholarship exactly? What is a college fellowship? And what's the difference between the two?

Scholarships and fellowships make it easier for students to afford college. But these two forms of financial aid differ in key ways. Understanding these differences can ensure you maximize your aid and limit student debt.

What Is a Scholarship?

Every year, college students apply to 5 million scholarships worth a total of $24 billion. But what is a scholarship exactly?

Scholarships provide free money to undergraduate and graduate students. Unlike loans, which borrowers must repay, scholarships never need to be repaid. Need-based and merit-based scholarships award free money to recipients, with most covering a single academic year.

A variety of organizations offer scholarships. State and federal governments also award scholarships, as do colleges and universities. Professional associations, businesses, private donors, and foundations may hold scholarship competitions as well.

Grants, like scholarships, provide free money for college; however, grants are more likely to come from government agencies and require proof of financial need.

What Is a Fellowship?

Much like a scholarship, a fellowship provides financial support for students with no repayment requirement.

Unlike scholarships, though, most fellowships support graduate students. A small number of undergraduate fellowships exist, but more commonly a fellowship funds master's and doctoral students.

Additionally, compared to a scholarship, which typically offers a set amount of aid for a single year, a fellowship often covers tuition costs and provides a monthly stipend.

While many organizations offer scholarships, fellowships normally come from colleges and universities, government agencies, and foundations.

For example, Fulbright Fellowships support grad students conducting research abroad. The Jacob K. Javits Fellowship funds graduate students in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, while the National Science Foundation awards graduate research fellowships to students in STEM fields.

A fellowship differs from an assistantship. Graduate assistants, such as teaching assistants (TAs) and research assistants, take on professional responsibilities in exchange for funding. TAs, for example, teach courses and grade assignments. Fellowships do not usually come with any work requirements.

Fellowship vs. Scholarship: 5 Key Differences

Fellowships and scholarships share some similarities, one being that they both provide free money to degree-seeking students. But they also differ in several key ways.

While a majority of undergraduates receive a grant or scholarship, this funding generally does not cover the full cost of college. Most private scholarships award less than $4,000 per year. As the Washington Post reported in 2018, just 0.2% of students received $25,000 or more in scholarship money, according to 2015-16 data.

Scholarship Fellowship
Need-based or merit-based Typically merit-based
Offered by institutions, private businesses, professional organizations, and foundations Generally offered by institutions, government agencies, and foundations
Most provide one year of funding Often provides multiple years of funding
Recipients receive a set monetary award to cover educational expenses Recipients often receive a monthly stipend and a tuition waiver
Available to both undergraduate and graduate students More common for graduate students

Even though over 1.5 million college students received scholarships during the 2015-16 academic year, according to the Washington Post, the average amount awarded per student was under $4,000.

In contrast, fellowships can offer a substantial amount of money. At Cornell, for instance, graduate fellowships provide $28,500-$33,000 in annual funding, depending on the department. Meanwhile, Northwestern guarantees a minimum stipend of over $35,000 a year for doctoral students on top of a tuition waiver.

Scholarships support both undergraduate and graduate students. Fellowships, in contrast, generally fund graduate students. While master's students may qualify for certain fellowships, many fellowships specifically fund doctoral students.

How Do Fellowship vs. Scholarship Applications Differ?

Fellowships and scholarships also differ in terms of their application processes. Students may only need to submit one application for scholarships and fellowships offered by their institution. For other fellowship and scholarship applications, students complete a sometimes lengthy application process.

Professional associations, businesses, and foundations that award scholarships set their own eligibility criteria and application requirements. Applicants may need to meet specific criteria and possess a particular major, intended career path, or background. Many scholarships consider factors like community service, leadership, and financial need.

Fellowships offered by the government or foundations may require multiple steps. Applicants often must submit material like a personal statement, letters of recommendation, and a research statement. The fellowship committee may even conduct interviews to award funding.

The process can take months. For example, Fulbright applicants submit their materials between March and October. The national selection committee reviews candidates and notifies those moving on to the second round by January. Recipients may receive notification as late as May, or a year after submitting their application.

Students looking into financial aid options should consider both scholarships and fellowships. Make sure to set aside time to review eligibility guidelines and complete all required application materials.

Frequently Asked Questions About Fellowships and Scholarships

Can you have a fellowship and a scholarship at the same time?

Yes, students can hold a fellowship and win a scholarship at the same time. However, institutions may deduct the scholarship amount from the fellowship funding. Students should contact their financial aid office or department for more information.

Are there undergraduate fellowships?

While undergraduate fellowships are less common than graduate fellowships, they do exist. Undergraduates may qualify for summer fellowships, undergraduate research fellowships, or fellowships granted by foundations.

Who awards fellowships for graduate students?

Graduate fellowships typically come from three sources: colleges and universities, government agencies, and foundations. For example, the U.S. Department of Education, the Department of State, and the National Science Foundation each award research fellowships to graduate students.

The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute professional financial advice; instead, all information, content, and materials available on this site are for general informational purposes only. Readers of this website should contact a professional advisor before making decisions about financial issues.

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