This is an excerpt from the new book The Complete Guide to Paying for College (Career Press, 2017). It was also published by Parade.
When it comes to college financial aid, the best kind to look for is the kind you don’t have to pay back—namely grants and scholarships. But how can you increase your child’s chances of scoring them? By using the right strategy.
There are two kinds of scholarships and grants that colleges and universities award—need-based and merit. Need-based is based on income and the family’s expected family contribution—or EFC—to college. Many middle-class families won’t qualify for traditional need-based aid at most public colleges and universities.
Merit scholarships are based on grades. But here’s something important to remember about merit scholarships—it is nearly impossible to get merit aid from the country’s top-ranked colleges. Why? Because everyone who applies and is accepted got great grades in high school. Almost no one is getting merit aid when nearly all of the incoming freshman class has a 4.0 GPA or got a perfect score on the SATs or ACTs.
Applying to colleges below your academic profile
If you’re counting on your good grades to get you more than just admission, one strategy to score significant merit aid is to apply to colleges below your academic profile. So in other words your GPA, standardized tests, and other details are significantly better than the typical student that attends that school. Colleges are always looking to raise their academic profile, and they will often offer merit aid to get smart students to enroll.
How do you figure out who the typical student is at any school? You can search on the college’s admissions page. Look for something called the incoming class profile, fast facts, or something similar. This is a document or page that a college updates each year to reflect the characteristics of the incoming freshman class. You can usually glean the average GPA or SAT score from there.
If you are above that threshold, there is a good chance this college will offer you merit aid if you apply and are accepted. My own daughter used this tactic when applying to one liberal arts college in upstate New York, and it worked: Not only was she accepted, she received a merit scholarship that amounted to a 60 percent discount.
Uncovering other merit scholarships
Another approach to finding schools with merit-based scholarships is searching for names often associated with these financial aid programs. I would recommend looking on college websites for programs with names like “presidential scholar” or “trustee scholar.” You may also want to swap “fellowship” for “scholar” in your search. Other titles used for merit-scholarships include provost, founders, and dean.
Additionally, look for colleges with honors programs for which you may qualify. Honors programs often come with hefty merit scholarships and grants. Both state and private colleges and universities have honors programs or honors colleges, all with scholarships.
Attending college with a sibling
Are you in a family with two or more people going to college at the same time? If so, you and your siblings may want to consider attending the same school, especially if that school offers a sibling discount. This discount applies if your time at school overlaps in college with an older or younger sister or brother, or if you are a twin or a multiple.
To find out if a school offers such a discount, search the financial aid office’s page for phrases like “sibling discount,” “twin discount,” “family scholarship,” or “family grants.”
Even if siblings don’t attend college together, there is a good chance that you may qualify for need-based financial aid for a short time while your children overlap in school. That’s because your EFC changes when you have to pay more than one college tuition bill. I discuss this in depth in Chapter 7: FAQ on Financial Aid.
Looking at community and local scholarships
According to W.C. Vance, director of admissions at Ashland University, one of the biggest mistakes students and parents make is not looking for scholarship opportunities in their own backyard. “Typically donors give money for someone that’s following the exact path that they did, from a certain county, or for following a certain major,” he says. While the chances might be slim that you would come from that certain county or be interested in that specific major, you’ll never know unless you investigate options.
Look for scholarship opportunities on the hyper local level, such as your town or your high school. Does the PTA, local library, or a department within your high school give out scholarships? My older daughter Jane received a $600 scholarship from her high school’s music department, simply because she was in chamber choir for four years. That was enough to cover her books for her freshman year.
After you’ve explored those hyper-local opportunities, expand outwards from there. Is there a scholarship just for students attending college from your county? What about your state? Is there a community foundation that provides scholarships for students in your area?
Many times these scholarships aren’t huge amounts of money, but they can add up. Says Vance from Ashland University, “I have had numerous students say that they didn’t apply for a local scholarship because it’s only $1,000. How can you overlook a free $1,000 award?”
Researching major-specific scholarships
My daughter Annie is studying engineering in college. So one of the ways we’ve gone after scholarships is by focusing on major-specific scholarships.
For example, there is an organization called the Society of Women Engineers, and they have been a treasure trove of engineering scholarship information. Because engineering falls under the term STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), we have also searched for scholarships using that term as well.
While STEM is certainly a buzzword when it comes education these days, it’s not the only major area with scholarships opportunities. You can find scholarships related to other majors that lead to careers where there is a huge demand, such as education and nursing.
In this book I share lots of other secrets for finding free scholarship money. And when I say free, you should never pay for scholarship money. If someone wants to charge you to submit you for a scholarship, move on. It’s likely a scam.
Leah Ingram’s mission is to help you feel more confident about your spending, regardless of income. She’s written 14 books, including Suddenly Frugal: How to Live Happier and Healthier for Less and Toss, Keep, Sell! Her 15th book is The Complete Guide to Paying for College. Leah is a money-saving expert who has shared her unique personal finance approach and advice about getting the most bang for your buck on local and national TV, including The Weather Channel, Good Morning America and ABC News Now. For more about Leah, subscribe to her money-saving blog, follow her on Twitter @theleahingram, see what she’s Pinning on Pinterest, and “Like” her page The Confident Spender on Facebook. Also, check out Leah’s newest venture–Puppieware by Pawsome Doggie, selling dog-themed bakeware and cake pans, and unique gifts for dog lovers!