The never-ending scholarship search
Scholarships and grants now pay for almost one-third of higher education costs. But you have to keep looking throughout your college career.
So your kid got enough scholarships and grants to pay for most or all of freshman year. Congratulations! Tell him to keep looking.
Yes, the past year was pretty fraught: writing application essays, poring over the different financial aid offerings, deciding which school to attend, searching for those extra-long dorm bed sheets. It's tempting to take a breather and focus on being a college freshman.
But sophomore, junior and senior tuition also has to be paid, so the search for funds should continue year-round. Scholarships and grants now make up 30% of the average financial aid plan, according to a recent Sallie Mae study.
They're easier than ever to find, thanks to online tools can connect you to billions of dollars' worth of funds. You shouldn't ignore local opps (more on that below), but you'd be amazed at how much free money is out there.
Application deadlines come and go all year long, and there's something out there for just about every imaginable field of study/physical condition/passion, from confectionery to left-handedness to the Klingon language.
Scholarships exist for twins, vegetarians, people who are shorter than 4'10" and the children of Tupperware dealers. Money is out there for bowlers, golfers, hunters and those who want to study aquatic entomology, welding or winemaking.
If you're an "oddball genius" of a creative writer who wants to attend Ursinus College you might get a full-ride scholarship and bunk in J.D. Salinger's old dorm room to boot.
Sometimes it pays to have the right name, like "Zolp" or "Scarpinato." School-specific surname scholarships are out there, too, such as "Gatling” or “Gatlin" at North Carolina State University, or Harvard's scholarships for people named Baxendale, Hudson, Thayer, Downer and (ahem) Bright.
Sound like work? It is.
"You have to think about applying for scholarships as (a) part-time job," says Gen Tanabe, manager of Sallie Mae's "Scholarship Search" online tool.
'Apply for a lot'
That search engine and other online tools, such as FinAid.org's FastWeb, the College Board Scholarship Search and Scholarships.com turn up scores of potential funding sources based on student profiles.
If the profile questions seem endless or even intrusive, remember the variety of opportunities available out there. When the search engine asks if you have physical impairments or whether you're the first person in your family to attend college, it's not prying -- it's looking for matches.
Don't assume that awards are only for the 4.0 crowd. Some require only a minimum 2.5 GPA, according to Scholarships.com.
The site notes several other pervasive scholarship myths:
Most awards are small and not worth the time. Every dollar you earn is a dollar you don't have to borrow (and pay back with interest).
You have to write a perfect essay. Obviously you shouldn't send in your first draft, but "whether you follow the instructions and address the essay question is often more crucial to your success than how eloquently you write."
Scholarships are mostly for minorities/those with great financial need. Awards exist for both groups but plenty of others are available. Are you an avid skateboarder or an amateur duck caller? Was your senior service project a citywide drive to sign people up for organ donation? Is your family of the Wiccan or pagan faith? Scholarships exist for all of these groups.
Your search results can be organized by application deadline, the amounts offered or what you think are your best chances. Relatively few students win giant, all-encompassing awards.
"While we don't discourage applying for the big awards, I think it's much more realistic to apply for a lot of little ones," Tanabe says. (Note: "Little" can mean a few thousand dollars.)
Local funding sources
Save some energy for local or regional funding opportunities, too. Alumni clubs, the PTA, service groups like the Lions or the Elks, unions, craft guilds and religious organizations are all potential sources for scholarships. High school counselors say that students are often so focused on national awards that they don't even consider looking for local ones.
Some states offer grants and scholarships. The school you're attending likely included these in your financial aid package -- schools now provide 61% of total scholarship funds, according to Sallie Mae -- and may also have additional grants/scholarships for which you can apply.
A community college "foundation scholarship" helped pay for my last quarter there when I went for a degree in my late 40s. The rest of my schooling was covered by work-study, Pell grants, a state "educational opportunity grant," a couple of essay contests and a three-year private foundation scholarship to the University of Washington.
I found out about these funding sources because I made it my business to find out about them. Your student should, too. He or she will be busy, but it's not impossible to set aside an hour or two a week to follow up on the latest matches from scholarship search engines, fill out forms or work on essays.
It's easy for him to think "I'm too busy right now -- I'll do it after finals/next quarter/during winter break." But application deadlines come and go all year long, so don't imagine Junior can find everything he needs in a couple of hours next January.
The scholarship search isn't a sprint, Tanabe says. It's a marathon and you need to pace yourself to finish successfully.
"College bills come every year," he says. "You can't stop looking."
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