Scholarship Search Engines and the Quest to Fund College
The argument can generally be paraphrased as following:
Parent: If you really want to go to X college, you can show us that you are responsible by applying for scholarships. There are tons of scholarships out there. I heard that Y’s daughter paid most of her tuition by applying for scholarships.
That didn’t go too badly. Until well into spring of senior year when you bring it up again. The chances are your child will not have applied for scholarships. And it’s not because they are showing you that they don’t really want to go to X college. It is because the phrase “applying for scholarships” is terrifying and they hope it will go away if they ignore it.
To a student, scholarships are search-engine-fueled shots-in-the-dark that require a lot of work, yield little, and usually have no personal connection. Write an essay about why it is important to wear seat belts in hopes of earning $500 towards a $40,000 tuition bill? They would rather study for their AP World History exam. And, in fact, maybe they should. Money awarded by the college itself for academic prowess can be exponentially greater than the culmination of multiple private scholarships. So let’s examine the different avenues available to fund college (I did not include NCAA scholarships in this post!)
Federal and state scholarships: FASFA/CSS profile
Families of college bound students can fill out the FASFA, which provides the government with information, largely based on your tax return. Some more selective colleges will require an additional form called the CSS profile. The data is entered into a set formula that calculates how much money a family in your unique situation should be able to spare per year for college. Regardless of whether you agree with the number or not, this is the number that colleges use to determine your need-based aid. The most selective colleges commit to meeting %100 of your need-based aid if you are accepted. If your FASFA and CSS profile calculations state you can pay $6,500 a year for college, and you are accepted into Vanderbilt, you will pay $6,500 a year, instead of the $73,000 listed sticker price. As a general trend, the more selective the college, the more of your need-based aid they guarantee to meet. If you are high-achieving, medium to low-income student, you may be better off spending your time maximizing your academic rigor, rocking your AP exams, getting creative with your extracurricular time, and assembling a competitive application than looking at gathering money from search engine scholarships.
I recommend most families fill out the FASFA even if they do not think their family will qualify for federal aid. Access to the information provided especially by the CSS profile can be the venue for colleges to award their own tuition discounts or other financial help not disclosed to the public, as well as open the possibility for unsubsidized federal loans and work study opportunities that are otherwise not assessable to you. To get an idea of whether you qualify for aid before the FASFA opens up for seniors on October 1, you can fill out an estimator provided by Collegeboard.org
Money awarded to the student directly from the college they will be attending is considered institutional aid. Colleges award money to students based on their enrollment strategy, which means the amounts and criteria will change from year to year depending on how they decide they want to craft their incoming class. Factors that drive colleges to offer students institutional aid include outstanding academics or leadership skills, sports involvements, a special talent, diversity (geographically, gender, race, socioeconomic), choice of major, and community service. The CSS profile, required by many selective schools, can also be a determinant. The shifting enrollment needs of schools leave these factors somewhat unpredictable, but academic excellence and an application that shows engagement with the community can lead to considerable institutional aid. Consider applying to colleges where your academic profile falls in the top 25-50% of the applicant pool. The the chances for this money to come your way will increase.
Prestigious National Scholarships
Some scholarships are prestigious and highly competitive, but the payback is awesome. If you have the time and ability to write, and are an exceptional student, it may be worth your time to give these a shot, as they are worth from $10,000 to full tuition. Look into the criteria for the awards before investing your time; where the Coca Cola scholarship is strictly achievement based, the Jack Kent Cooke scholarship is for families with financial need.
Local scholarships may provide the incentives of less competition and a personal connection that can't be matched by the scholarship search engines. Although the awards tend to be smaller ($1000 or less) they are easily accessible through the high school, and often students can apply to multiple scholarships with one cover letter and one application, though some will require additional essays. The pool of competitors is limited to your county or district, and you may find you are familiar with, or even connected to, some of the organizations offering the scholarships. I usually recommend that high school students seek out scholarships offered locally as early as their sophomore year. You can search for local scholarships through your community foundation website, or google the keywords “scholarships”, your year in high school, and your home county or town.
Search engine scholarships and micro-scholarships
There are now so many search engines that it is almost as hard to choose your platform as it is to whittle down the vast number of scholarships. Some of my favorites are scholarships360, scholarshipowl, collegeboard.org, and collegexpress.com. It will only take about 15 minutes of doing this yourself to see how daunting this process is to most high school kids. But, if your student gets a kick out of the hunt and is self-motivated to apply to these sometimes creative and time-consuming scholarships, they can actually raise a big chunk of money for college. The key is to understand how labor intensive this track is, and to be sensitive if they don’t dive into the search with enthusiasm.
Micro scholarships are small scholarship awarded in increments each time a student does well something that they are supposedly going to do well in the first place—a little bit for an A, a little more for an AP test, and a bit for being captain of the volleyball team. Raise.me is the most well-known. If your student is motivated to find and attend partner colleges, and stay on top of updating his achievements, then they may consider micro-scholarships as a way to chip away at the cost of attendance, but they are limited to attending the school who awards the scholarships in order to get the money for college.
Remember, your student is actually applying for scholarships every time they work hard to ace a test, to serve a community, to lead a team, to reach out in compassion to a friend, and to show up at a job on time. This all translates into potential award money whether from private, institutional, or government sources. The next trick is to make sure all that effort translates into their college applications.
(Join me next month as we talk about how to stand tall on your college application!)