Paying for College

Free Money for College

Scholarships aren't that hard to get, and these days every little bit helps.

As the biggest high school graduating class ever gets ready to head to college in the midst of an economic slump, the scramble for breaks on tuition -- not to mention room and board, books and airfare to get home -- is on.

Some students will be awarded funds in the form of merit aid from the schools they attend, fat financial-aid packages, or both. Others will industriously scour the planet for scholarship money -- and they'll likely find some.

Private scholarships, the ones you get from outside the school itself, account for 7% of all grants awarded, according to the Institute for Higher Education Policy. Some 7% of undergraduates receive such awards, with an average value of a little less than $2,000.

Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the popular Web site FinAid.org and a project director at FastWeb.com, a scholarship-search site, says your chances are better than those statistics suggest: The typical student applies for five to six awards, he says, with the odds of winning at about one in ten.

Those aren't bad odds. And you don't have to be an all-star athlete, a musical prodigy or even an A student to collect, either. Many scholarships are awarded to students based on need, lifestyle or special interests.

For instance, KFC Colonel's Scholars awards up to $20,000 to seniors who will be attending a public school in their state and who have financial need, an entrepreneurial spirit and a minimum grade point average of 2.75. The Vegetarian Resource Group offers two $5,000 scholarships each year to students who promote a vegetarian lifestyle in their schools or communities. Budding free-market capitalists can vie for one of 521 awards from the Ayn Rand Institute, ranging from $30 to $10,000, by writing an essay on one of Rand's novels.

Sometimes winning a college scholarship and a crazy contest come in a single package. Creative couples can make their prom outfits out of Duck Tape-brand duct tape (it comes in various colors) and send a photo to the Henkel Corp. Each member of the winning couple gets a $3,000 scholarship.

Where to look. The best place to start your search is in the high school guidance office. A financial-aid officer at the college you're applying to can help as well. Web sites for exploring scholarships abound. One of the best is FastWeb.com, which lists more than 1.5 million scholarships worth more than $3.4 billion and matches scholarships to your profile. Other free sites worth visiting include FinAid.org, CollegeBoard.com and WiredScholar.com.

Don't forget to contact the academic department of your intended major -- advisers and professors there may be aware of specialized awards, especially for students who are already enrolled, that generalists might not be aware of. For example, Microsoft offers full or partial scholarships to college students enrolled in computer science, computer engineering or related fields. Lucky winners are also considered for a paid summer internship at the software giant's headquarters.

Your best bets. There are plenty of national scholarships with payoffs large and small -- Toyota Community Scholars, Coca-Cola Scholars and Kohl's Kids Who Care, to name a few. But you'll get the most bang for your buck by staying local. You may have to look no further than an employer (student's or parent's) or a community group, club or lodge. "The odds are significantly better in your local area, where you're not competing against a national pool," says Bill McClintick, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and a counselor at Mercersburg Academy, in Mercersburg, Pa. He often steers students to a $1,000 scholarship the Waste Management Corp. offers to residents of the small nearby township where the company operates a facility.

The narrower the field, the better. Counselor Lisa Sohmer at the Garden School in Jackson Heights, N.Y., recalls a student of Finnish background who won a scholarship, discovered through FastWeb, for her talent in Finnish folk dance. Philadelphia University offers a knitting scholarship for textile students. Then there's the extreme in niche scholarships: one for Catholics with the last name of Zolp attending Loyola University in Chicago.

How to apply. The effort needed to apply for a scholarship varies as much as the awards themselves. Some require a nomination from a school or other mentor, and many require an essay, which often can be a tweaked version of a college-application essay. Other awards require little more than the asking. American Harlequin Corp., which makes flooring for dance studios, gives $25,000 a year to 20 dance students nominated by their hometown instructor. Recipients, who get anywhere from $500 to $3,000, are drawn at random.

Make sure the money truly is free. Schools will reduce financial-aid awards dollar for dollar if scholarships and aid together put the student over his or her calculated financial need by more than a few hundred dollars. However, most schools will apply at least half of the reduction to student loans, so you'll still come out ahead. And scholarships can help bridge the gap when a school's aid package doesn't meet 100% of a student's need.

It's easy to become immersed in the millions of opportunities out there. Don't lose sight of the fact that scholarship money -- by definition -- is free. Don't pay a nickel for services that will match you up with awards you can find on your own. And never pay an application fee. "It shouldn't cost you a dollar," says counselor Sohmer. "Legitimate scholarships are in the business of giving money to students, not taking it away."

Most Popular

Top Bear Market Tips from 10 Financial Advisers
investing

Top Bear Market Tips from 10 Financial Advisers

When a bull market turns into a bear market, it can be hard to know what to do. Take comfort in the guidance of 10 financial professionals.
June 30, 2022
Your Guide to Roth Conversions
Special Report
Tax Breaks

Your Guide to Roth Conversions

A Kiplinger Special Report
February 25, 2021
The 15 Best Growth Stocks for the Rest of 2022
growth stocks

The 15 Best Growth Stocks for the Rest of 2022

A sharp selloff in growth stocks this year creates opportunity for keen investors. Here are 15 top-rated picks to consider in the second half of 2022.
June 28, 2022

Recommended

When Will Student Loans Be Forgiven?
Paying for College

When Will Student Loans Be Forgiven?

Millions of Americans are waiting for the Biden Administration’s next hint, which could come later this summer, at how he’ll address the student loan …
June 27, 2022
Financial Advice I Would Give My Younger Self – Planning for Education Funding
college

Financial Advice I Would Give My Younger Self – Planning for Education Funding

College 529 plans vs. Roth IRAs: A financial expert shares what she wishes she had known when saving for her own law school and her son’s college. Tak…
June 21, 2022
How to Qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness
Paying for College

How to Qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness

The Department of Education revamped the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program started under the Bush administration. Here's how to see if you quali…
June 1, 2022
25 Best College Majors for a Lucrative Career
college

25 Best College Majors for a Lucrative Career

One way to increase your chances of earning a good living is to pick a college major that prepares you to work in a field that pays well. Here are som…
May 31, 2022