Education Guide — Summer 2014
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Scholarship School
Paul Rogers

SECURING COLLEGE FINANCIAL AID IS AN EDUCATION IN ITSELF

Snagging a college scholarship can make the difference between a life of dull, poorly-paid jobs and a glittering professional career. But with the stakes so high, competition for these financial aid awards is stiff and just landing one requires something of a “how to” education.

LA Weekly spoke to three college scholarship experts, including a Harvard University graduate who had most of his tuition paid for, to find out just what it takes to get a financial break.

“There are millions of scholarships out there, worth billions of dollars and … not just academic and sports-related awards,” said Kevin N Ladd, Vice President of Scholarships.com, a free college scholarship search resource. “[But] you probably won’t win many or any at all without working hard … You need to be organized. You need to apply for as many as possible in order to have a good chance of winning.”

The first thing that scholarship seekers need to understand is just where the money for these awards comes from. According to college financing specialists College Planning Services, there are $46 billion in free scholarship money awarded each year by the Department of Education and colleges as compared to just $35 million in college scholarships that are available through private companies, foundations, and civic groups (so-called “outside” scholarships).

“Parents need to understand that the majority of scholarships come directly from the schools they plan to attend,” said Dan Evertsz, owner of college planning specialists College Money Pros. “Every school has different criteria for scholarship funding. Check directly with the admissions department at the school your student is thinking of applying to and they should be able to supply the information.”

Jonathan Farley is a scholarship star. The author of How to Get Straight A’s in College, he won a Kodak-Urban League scholarship which initially paid for 50 percent of his tuition at Harvard University and was increased to 100 percent after he achieved seven A’s and one A- in his freshman year. (The Kodak-Urban League scholarship, which is not currently awarded, was for Rochester, N.Y-area students who would pursue careers in a technical field of interest to the Kodak company.)

“I got my scholarship enabling me to graduate from Harvard with no debt because of my grades,” said Farley.

Farley also won a Marshall Scholarship (which finances up to 40 young Americans to study for a graduate degree in the U.K.) and a U.S National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship to attend England’s University of Oxford, and was later a Fulbright Distinguished Scholar to the United Kingdom.

“Scholarships directly from schools can run anywhere from $4,500 to $30,000, on average,” Evertsz explained. “Outside scholarships … average $500 to $1,000. Many of these scholarships roll over to the next year due to lack of applicants.”

Nearly 9 million students received federal Pell Grants, which are limited to students with financial need, in the current fiscal year (the maximum Pell Grant award has been increased to $5,730 for the 2014-2015 award year).

While the majority of outside scholarship opportunities are fiscally modest, some awards offer substantial support. The Dr. Pepper Tuition Giveaway (for which applicants must submit an original video explaining why they deserve aid) and the Intel Science Talent Search (which requires hopefuls to present a full, scientific report about research of their choosing), for example, both award up to $100,000.

“You will have better luck applying to local organizations such as Rotary, Lions, Links etc.,” said Evertsz. “Every month you pay your bills, the company that you are writing a check to will usually have a scholarship for college-bound students.”

As well as high-profile awards such as those provided by the Ronald McDonald Charities Scholarship (more than $44 million since 1985), there are many under-the-radar offerings which can nonetheless have a significant effect on a student’s schooling. There are scholarships for tall and short people; for left-handed applicants; for vegetarians; for duck callers; and even one, from Loyola University Chicago, available to Catholic students with the last name of Zolp.

“I had a scholarship from, I believe, the Eagle Foundation. It was $1,000 or so, but the money adds up,” said Farley. “Students should scour the internet and catalogs for obscure scholarships that perhaps only they are eligible for. For instance, there is a Robert F. Rich Scholarship for residents of Hancock County, Maine who are graduating seniors of Mount Desert Island High School and who will major in shipbuilding.”

While scholarships are sometimes described as “money for nothing”, securing even small awards can require considerable time and effort to locate and research grants for which a student might meet the sometimes super-specific qualification criteria and then to complete the often lengthy application process.

“Most families apply to an average of 5 to 10 [outside scholarships] and usually receive little if any success,” said Evertsz. “My strategy, you must treat this process like a job. Apply to 50 or more scholarships per month. On average you will be awarded two $1000.00 scholarships per month. [Over a year], that’s 24k for your kid’s college education.”

As most scholarships are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, Ladd recommends an “early and often” approach to scholarship application.

“Those who begin early in high school, say freshman or sophomore year, have the advantage of being able to apply for scholarships targeting the earlier years in high school,” he said. “Many students don’t start searching until their senior year in high school and miss such opportunities.”

And while most scholarships are for high school-age and traditional college-age students, opportunities do exist for adult learners. There are no age restrictions on eligibility for federal student financial aid, and the database of online college preparation resource Fastweb includes more than 1,800 awards which have no age restrictions.

Regardless a student’s age and academic ambition, all three of our experts advise students to start their scholarship search at least a year before starting college and to be prepared to put in the long hours of often dull research that securing such financial aid requires.

“Go to local universities’ career offices and ask for help,” said Farley. “Get a big book of grants and scholarships and start scouring it.”
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