How Realistic Is a College Scholarship?

Key Points

  • Scholarships are essentially free money, so well worth the time and effort to pursue.

  • There's a lot of scholarship money available from schools, businesses, civic groups and more that are tailored to a variety of interests, talents and ethnicities.

  • Start your scholarship search on reputable websites and be sure to meet all deadlines—including the FAFSA deadline.

Dear Carrie,

Our daughter will be starting college in a year and a half, and while we have some money saved, we don’t have enough to cover the whole bill. People often say that scholarships are a long shot, but I’m wondering if that’s true?

—A Reader

Dear Reader,

With all the focus on the burden of student loans, the possibility of a scholarship sometimes falls by the wayside. Yes, scholarships are competitive and characteristically hard to get, but they're also free money that doesn't have to be paid back. And to me, anything that can help students graduate without a lot of debt is worth the time and effort to pursue.

Actually, there's a lot of scholarship money available. According to “How America Pays for College 2015,” almost a third of college costs were covered by scholarships and grants in 2014/15. High school scholarship funds, university endowments, and specialized scholarships offered by various businesses and civic groups are only the tip of the iceberg. In general, universities base scholarships on financial need (in fact, some will provide a full ride for families earning below a specific threshold.) However, there are also myriad scholarships geared to specific interests, talents, and ethnic groups—even where you live.

But as with anything that's valuable, you have to work for it. And in terms of researching scholarships, you may also have to be a bit of a detective. I say "you" but in that I include your daughter. This is something that she should be involved in from the start.

Start your search online

Fortunately, the Internet makes your initial search a bit easier. There are a number of websites with a wide range of information and resources. For instance, Scholarship Search by Sallie Mae at salliemae.com has a database of more than five million scholarships as well as tips on applying. The Department of Education's Federal Student Aid website at studentaid.ed.gov also has a lot of information and links to scholarship sources. The Department of Labor has a free scholarship search tool at careerinfonet.org. Collegeboard.org is also a good resource for not only scholarships, but also other types of financial aid as well as internships.

Websites like these will also help you refine your search according to various categories, so you can see where you might find the scholarships that most suit your daughter's particular situation. There's plenty of information out there, but do make sure that you're using a reliable resource. For instance, avoid sites that require some type of payment or give you sales pitches.

Make personal enquiries

While online resources are plentiful, don't forget the power of personal contacts. Talk to your high school counselor, reach out to local civic groups such as The Rotary Club or Lions, and after you narrow your list of possible colleges and universities, be sure to contact the individual financial aid offices.

Follow through on applications

Once you and your daughter zero in on possible scholarships, it pays to be diligent. Every scholarship will have its own application requirements and deadlines. The scholarship's website should have complete information on qualifications. Some will be needs-based, others merit-based. Also pay careful attention to the applications. Encourage your daughter to carefully fill out forms and give serious thought to things such as required essays.

Don't forget about FAFSA

FAFSA—the Free Application for Federal Student Aid—should also be at the top of your list. While people often think of FAFSA in terms of loans and grants, there are also scholarships available and often these are first come, first serve. There's a federal deadline, but states and individual schools have their own FAFSA deadline, so be sure to look these up well in advance—fafsa.ed.gov is a good resource—and put them on your calendar.

Start now

With a year and a half to go, you're right on schedule to begin your search for scholarships. In fact, some scholarship deadlines are a year in advance, so there's really no time to lose. I can imagine that your daughter is looking at various college choices now, so it's a perfect time to be researching scholarships as well. I'd encourage her to be as rigorous in applying for scholarships as she is in applying for college. It will be challenging, but also exciting, and may open even more doors for her as well as ease your financial burden. Best of luck!   

Have a personal finance question? Email us ataskcarrie@schwab.com. Carrie cannot respond to questions directly, but your topic may be considered for a future article. For Schwab account questions and general inquiriescontact Schwab.

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