Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday…if you are like millions of other Americans, you have likely spent the past week in bargain mode (ideally with a break for “Giving Tuesday”). In fact, when is the last time you paid full sticker price for a big purchase? When you bought your last car, was there any chance you were going to shell out the amount listed on the window? Who would dream of buying a new iPhone or computer without checking to see if it were cheaper online, or in the store down the street? Ours is a culture of bargain hunting—doorbusters, BOGO offers and clearance sales have become inherent manipulation strategies used to attract customers and move product. What about when the product is higher education? It is no secret that college is an expensive endeavor, and increasingly savvy “shoppers” are looking for ways to shave costs. And, colleges are responding, maybe not with buy one/get one deals, but certainly with creative pricing, discounting, and the coveted scholarship.
The College Cost Landscape
According to the College Board, in the 2018-19 school year, the average cost of tuition, fees, and room and board at private, nonprofit, four-year colleges is $48,510. If this number isn’t intimidating enough, consider that total Cost of Attendance at some private colleges is over $70,000 per year. Jaw dropping, right? Even at public institutions, rising costs can be a significant barrier to accessing a college education, leaving some families feeling discouraged and excluded. Fortunately, there are colleges and universities with healthy need-based financial aid budgets that make affording college a reality. For example, Johns Hopkins University with their recent $1.8 billion pledge for financial aid from former New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg. Announcing his gift in The New York Times, Bloomberg wrote,
America is at its best when we reward people based on the quality of their work, not the size of their pocketbook. Denying students entry to a college based on their ability to pay undermines equal opportunity. It perpetuates intergenerational poverty. And it strikes at the heart of the American dream: the idea that every person, from every community, has the chance to rise based on merit.
The Reality of The “American Dream”
But what if the quality of your work—or uber selective admission criteria—make acceptance to one of these deep-pocketed schools unlikely? What if you make just enough money that the government and college determine you don’t technically demonstrate need? Will paying full boat (just over $73,000 at Hopkins) still feel like a hardship? Wouldn’t a financial break be appreciated? For many families, this is where so-called merit scholarships enter the college financing picture. With dollar signs in their eyes, they go looking for scholarships and other ways of reducing costs. While need-based financial aid can be challenging enough to understand and navigate, non-need-based scholarships can be even more layered with confusing terms that vary from school to school. So what does it all mean and what should informed families know as they piece together the reality of funding higher education?
Smart shoppers will know that in retail, rarely does anyone pay sticker price, and increasingly college is no different. Inflated attendance costs are balanced by—sometimes deep—discounting, such that it is hard to know which numbers are real and what one should expect to pay for college. While a small subset of colleges and universities are able to meet 100% of a family’s financial need, there are many schools that cannot. These institutions typically employ a combination of need-based aid and merit scholarships to attract students based on the school’s financial aid budget and institutional enrollment goals.
Meanwhile, families—even those with ample resources—accustomed to deal-making, approach paying for college with a bargain mindset. We all want to believe that our children are exceptional, as though they have earned—or deserve—a break. In fact, our consumer culture has conditioned us to expect cash back, a discount, or special treatment, and we are often convinced that these deals are a reward reserved for us. Affordability is a legitimate concern for families of all income levels and any hint at the possibility of a bargain will certainly attract attention. Colleges and universities are taking this reality to the bank with the strategic use of scholarships to build an incoming class in admission.
In the broadest sense, college scholarships refer to funds, which a student receives to attend school, that do not need to be repaid. It is a catch-all term and generally, these gifts are not based on need, but rather some sort of achievement, talent, or affiliation. Most commonly, scholarships are financial awards for intellectual excellence and academic success, but they can also represent accomplishment in another area such as art, music, athletics, leadership or community involvement/service.
Scholarship aid comes in all shapes and sizes is used by colleges and universities to attract students who might be “above profile” (stronger grades and/or testing than the average accepted student). It is also used to enroll students who can pay a significant portion of costs and who will be swayed by an academic honor or perceived deal. For colleges that do not meet full need, scholarships are more common. Often, behind the scenes of financial aid packages, the line between need-based grants and non-need-based scholarship gets fuzzy. It is important to understand that not all schools offer scholarships—typically the more selective a college is, the less likely they are to use these incentives.
Here is an overview of some of the scholarship opportunities:
Merit Scholarships: The term “merit aid” most commonly signifies scholarships based not on need but rather on exceptional ability, whether that is academic, artistic, or some other attribute a college values. Generally speaking, these awards do not require a special application, but rather students are identified during the admission review and are offered scholarships as the result of high grades and testing (if applicable). The names of these scholarships vary by college and university, but usually, there are different set levels of funding (ie: Deans, Presidential, Trustees Scholarships). The amounts might range from as little as $2,500 to the full cost of attendance, though the latter are few and far between.
Local Scholarships: Often local Rotary, Elks, or Lions clubs sponsor college scholarships, as do men’s or women’s leagues and other organizations within individual towns. Fire departments, hospitals, and churches can also be sources of scholarship aid, often reserved only for students from their area. Usually, these are limited to gifts of $500-$2,000 and require an application with an essay and/or recommendation. Sometimes high schools also have alumni scholarships or a parent’s company might have scholarships for children of employees. Check with your school counseling office, as this is where organizations typically send announcements and applications for their specific scholarships.
National Scholarships: As a public service (and marketing opportunity) many large national corporations and organizations have established college scholarships to reward exceptional young people—some are directed at first-generation college students or students of diverse backgrounds, and others are open for any student who wishes to apply. Depending on the organization, there might also be a financial need component as they look to create access for underserved students. A few examples are the Coca-Cola Scholarship, GE-Reagan Foundation Scholarship, Wendy’s Heisman Scholarship, Comcast Leaders and Achievers Scholarship, and The Gates Scholarship. Another well-known scholarship provider is the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, which initially bases competition on test scores from the Preliminary SAT (PSAT) taken in the fall of a student’s junior year. These are among the most selective scholarships because students from all over the country are in consideration.
Endowed/Institution Specific Scholarships: Many colleges and universities have endowed scholarships that may require a nomination from a high school official or a special application/deadline for students to apply. A few examples are the Jefferson Scholarship at The University of Virginia, the Morehead-Cain Scholarship at The University of North Carolina, the John Montgomery Belk Scholarship at Davidson College and The Danforth Scholars Program at Washington University in St. Louis. As one might imagine, these scholarships are extremely competitive and often cover the full cost of attendance. Most programs will winnow down applicants and invite a handful to campus for interviews in the final stages of selection.
Foundation Scholarships: These sources of financial assistance again vary in dollar amount and selectivity, and are generally available from philanthropic family foundations. Eligibility may be limited to students from specific backgrounds or geography and the scholarships often have other priorities attached, like students planning to study medicine, law or another specific discipline or career. For example, the Lilly Endowment Community Scholars Program provides full college scholarships to students from Indiana. Again, check with your school counseling office or do an Internet search to identify scholarships that might apply to you.
Athletic Scholarships: The dream of a “full ride” for most athletes is just that, a dream. In fact, According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), fewer than 2% of high school athletes will receive a scholarship to play in college. Only Division I and II athletics offer scholarships and depending on the sport, the budget will vary. Coaches who do have money to spend on building a team often have to spread these funds around, so do not plan to cover the bulk of your college expenses with sports talent alone. For students who do earn sports-based scholarships, make sure you are clear about the small print and how these opportunities will impact other financial assistance for which you may be eligible.
Scholarship Contests: There are countless other miscellaneous scholarships that are awarded for everything from spelling bees to beauty pageants. Scholarships exist for writing contests, art competitions and just about every other category one could imagine. Typically these scholarships are limited in dollar amount unless they are large national programs. However, money is money, so it can’t hurt to compete or apply.
Students applying to college need to be resourceful in order to secure scholarship aid. This might mean applying to colleges that are less selective or outside your initial application list. It also requires special attention to detail and deadlines. Check the financial aid website for each college to which you are applying to see if they offer scholarships and what their process is for consideration. There are also a host of search engines that will allow students to build a profile and find scholarships that match their interests, backgrounds and/or talents. A few examples are the College Board, College Data, Finaid, Fastweb and the US Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid website. At a former school, we had a student who won a college scholarship for asthmatic athletes, which is just one example of the distinct opportunities that exist if you are willing to dig. If you are really up to the challenge you might be like Darrell Andrews Jr. who applied to 147 scholarship programs with the help of his mother and won over $700,000 in scholarships last year. Keep in mind that the lion share of financial assistance comes through the financial aid office at a given college and “outside scholarships” often are deducted from the institution’s aid package. Be alert to scholarship scams and skeptical of any company that promises to win you scholarships for a fee. You should never have to pay to be considered for a scholarship. Also, be aware of the misinformation and myths that surround college scholarships.
What are these myths? College admission officers and high school counselors who guide students and families every day are especially aware of the misconceptions about college scholarships and merit aid. Here, in their own words, admission leaders reflect on myths that…
Scholarships are heavily weighted on SAT scores. When it comes to merit/scholarship aid, more and more often, students are not measured by SAT or ACT achievement. In fact, many colleges in universities in NH are now considered SAT/ACT optional—thus, high school GPA, class standing, student involvement, and special talent can lead to academic scholarships. It is always worth applying!—Kenneth Ferreira, associate vice president for student financial services at Franklin Pierce University
Either everyone gets merit aid or, that no one does. First, verify that your school choices have merit-based aid. Then ask yourself if you fit in the top quarter of their profile.—Mike Sexton, vice president for enrollment management at Santa Clara University
Scholarships are abundant and easy to obtain. It takes a lot of work to coordinate this process and students have to be hyper-organized to coordinate the essays.—Emily Moore, director of college counseling at Dexter Southfield School
Annually there are millions or billions of dollars in unclaimed merit aid. Because the media reports this, families often think they can make a huge dent in the cost of college. But with the exception of a few big scholarship programs—Coca-Cola, Prudential, etc.—most [non-school-based] scholarship programs offer tiny amounts—$500 here, $250 there. If a student is lucky, they win a $1,000 scholarship. When private education is nearing $70k, and when in-state tuition is $25k, this doesn’t make much of a dent. If students could devote themselves full-time to completing scholarship apps, then maybe they could make a dent. But most students already have a full-time job: it’s called being a student.—Ari Worthman, director of college counseling at Lakeside School
You can predict how much merit aid you may get at an institution based on how much someone you know that was admitted/enrolled received. Also, there are fewer “full ride” scholarship opportunities available than what I think students and families expect; and for those that do exists, it’ll probably require more than a 4.0 GPA.—Falone Serna, director of admission at Pepperdine University
Merit awards at similarly ranked schools will be exactly alike. Some families think that because School A and School B are similarly ranked in US News and World Report, their applicant pools are extraordinarily similar and merit consideration/awards will be exactly alike. Despite a similar ranking, there can be stark differences due to the applicant pool, geography, internal application review characteristics, etc.—Andrew Strickler, dean of admission & financial aid, Connecticut College
‘Finding the money’ will work best by asking for a ‘deal’ from a college after the student has applied and been accepted. There is also a myth of assuming ‘outside scholarships’ will bring in enough money to make a difference. The best way to ‘find money for college’ is to apply to appropriate colleges in the first place, since most money for four-year colleges comes from the institutions. Finding colleges that meet your budget means knowing your college budget ahead of time, researching to find colleges that fill a higher percentage of calculated need, where your student is desirable because she falls into the top quarter of the college’s academic profile and may be automatically eligible for institutional non-need scholarships, and where parents have used net price calculators to get a rough sense of affordability before the student applies.—Lora Block, certified educational planner
‘My merit scholarship will be the same at all colleges.’ It’s not one size fits all: each institution has unique merit aid resources and an individual student will fit into different applicant pools differently. This means that a student could qualify for merit aid at one school, but not at another institution. Families typically don’t consider the fact that a student is most likely to get merit aid at the institution where they are most competitive for admission and are least likely to get merit aid at their “reach” school. If merit aid is an important financial factor, identifying some schools where a student will be very desirable will give them an edge.—Elizabeth Cheron, dean of undergraduate admissions at Northeastern University
Be a Scholar
The best thing students can do to increase the likelihood of earning a scholarship is to excel in school and stay open to opportunities. Also, follow the rules. Some colleges require students to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA) to be considered for certain scholarships. Others give preference to students who apply by a priority deadline, so be sure to do your research. Be sure to ask if you are not clear on how scholarships are awarded. Do your homework. For those willing to approach college scholarships with the same fervor and strategizing as they do their Black Friday shopping, there are deals to be had, you just need to be an informed consumer and flexible shopper.
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