The cost of college is increasing every year, but that doesn't mean you can't afford to go to school. One option to consider: scholarships.
Federal student aid has plummeted compared with the rate at which college tuition has increased, making external funding such as scholarships even more important, according to Richard Serlin, adjunct professor of personal finance at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Use these free websites to search for scholarships:
National Merit Scholarship Corporation"Back in 1981, a student could work full time all summer at a minimum wage job and earn about two-thirds of annual college costs, leaving less than $2,000—in inflation-adjusted 2004 dollars—that they needed to pull together from grants, scholarships, loans, working during the school year, or their parents," says Serlin.
Even though being able to pay for college on minimum wage is probably a thing of the past, Serlin emphasizes that there still are ways to pay for school. "Now, you have to be savvy to fund college," he says.
One way to help pay for college is with the help of scholarships, but you need to be smart when it comes to searching for them.
Mark Warner, director of student financial aid at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, says these ideas will help your scholarship search:
- Use a team effort—To be effective, surround yourself with a committed group. This can include parents, teachers, counselors, siblings, extended family, co-workers, and other trusted advisers. These individuals make up your network when it comes to scholarships. Believe it or not, all of those people most likely have some connection to or knowledge of at least one scholarship.
Think about the saying, "It's not always what you know, it's who you know."
Ask your parents and other relatives if their employers offer scholarships. Ask older siblings and cousins about scholarships they've applied for in the past. Also, talk to your teachers and guidance counselors about scholarships they can recommend for you.
If you have a job, ask your boss or human resources representative if the organization offers scholarships or tuition reimbursement to employees. Also ask at the place you worship if there are scholarships available.
Even if the folks in your network don't know of any scholarships, don't be discouraged. Ask them to keep their eyes open and let you know when they see an opportunity.
"You can't be a student in a vacuum. It has to be a team effort to be effective," says Warner.
- Start early—Decide which scholarships you would like to apply for at least three months in advance. This way, you won't be rushed when gathering materials for the applications, including letters of recommendation, transcripts, essays, or adviser approval.
Also, ask respected people you know for letters of recommendation. These letters can be very important, so take them seriously and ask for them long before they are due; think four weeks or more.
Keep in mind that getting all of these materials together will probably take longer than you think it will.
- Look closely at applicant criteria—Many scholarships have a narrow focus; you need to fit those criteria exactly to be considered. You'll waste your time applying if you don't fit the specifications.
On the other hand, keep an eye out for narrowly focused scholarships that seem to be tailor-made for you. If you fit into a narrowly focused scholarship, your chances of winning will be improved.
- Look at all levels—Scholarships are offered at all levels of government and private organizations.
Start with local organizations and move up from there. There probably are many local scholarship providers who would be thrilled to see their money being put to good use by someone in their own community.
You also should contact your credit union—many offer scholarships annually.
Next, check city, state, and federal/national organizations offering scholarships.
- Use your interests and abilities—Do you play a sport, obscure or mainstream? Are you a racquetball champion? Do you like studying invertebrates? Most likely, there are scholarships that focus on an activity you enjoy. Who doesn't like getting paid for what they already like to do?
- Be professional—When a scholarship requires an interview, dress to impress. There is no quicker way to lose the scholarship than to show up in a T-shirt when your competitors wear ties.
- Don't pay for what's free—With the Internet, you can find more scholarships than you'll ever be able to apply for, and specialized search sites help you do it for free. If a scholarship search company tries to make you pay to find scholarships, don't do it.
"I would never suggest families pay for scholarship searches, because the information is out there for free," Warner says.
To be successful, a family has to have the ability and willingness to find the information, according to Warner.
Great, free search resources include the College Board, Fastweb, and Scholarship America.
- Communicate with college administrators—Colleges offer scholarships at all levels of school, so keep up on offerings at the university and within your specific college or major. Often, all you need to do is submit a simple yearly application to your department.
"Whether you are a junior in high school making campus visits or an incoming grad student, be sure to stop in to the financial aid office to get more information about money you can apply for," says Warner. "We encourage and welcome these visits."
If you weren't exactly a scholar during high school or your freshman year of college, don't worry. Many scholarships aren't totally based on your report card. In fact, the vast majority are heavily based on need.
No matter your situation, remember that the money won't just fall into your lap. You have to seek out scholarships and fully complete each application.
"Remember, scholarships are out there, but you have to be aggressive when seeking out and applying for them," Warner says.