Free Money for College Students

Every bit helps, and scholarships aren't that hard to get. Really.

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

Private scholarships account for 7% of all grants awarded, and they average just under $2,000. The typical student applies for five to six awards, and the odds of winning one are about one in ten. You don't have to be an all-star athlete, a musical prodigy or even an A student to collect, either.

For instance, the Vegetarian Resource Group offers two $5,000 scholarships per year to students who promote a vegetarian lifestyle. 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.

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Start your search in the high school guidance office. The financial-aid officer at the school you're applying to can help as well. lists more than 1.5 million scholarships worth more than $3.4 billion, and matches scholarships to your profile. You'll get the most bang for your buck by staying local. You may have to look no further than an employer (the student's or a parent's) or a community group, club or lodge. The narrower the field, the less the competition.

Schools may reduce aid if scholarships and aid combined equal more than a student's calculated need. But that might mean a reduction in loans. Don't pay a nickel for services that purport to match you with awards you can find on your own. And never pay an application fee. Scholarships, by definition, are free.

Anne Kates Smith
Executive Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Anne Kates Smith brings Wall Street to Main Street, with decades of experience covering investments and personal finance for real people trying to navigate fast-changing markets, preserve financial security or plan for the future. She oversees the magazine's investing coverage,  authors Kiplinger’s biannual stock-market outlooks and writes the "Your Mind and Your Money" column, a take on behavioral finance and how investors can get out of their own way. Smith began her journalism career as a writer and columnist for USA Today. Prior to joining Kiplinger, she was a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report and a contributing columnist for TheStreet. Smith is a graduate of St. John's College in Annapolis, Md., the third-oldest college in America.