How To

Free Money for College? How to Optimize Your Scholarship Search

(photo: elycefeliz)

Whether you’re applying to colleges or graduate schools or you’re already  a student, there’s little doubt that every scholarship dollar you can get to set off tuition costs is worth your time and effort several times over.

With student loan debt now exceeding credit card debt and 1 in 14 college grads in default on their student loans, the last thing you want is to borrow money that you could have had for free.

Getting your hands on that free money is, of course, never easy — which makes optimizing your scholarship search all the more important.

What are the keys to getting a scholarship or employer-based tuition assistance? Time commitment, organization, filling out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and starting your search with your own community network. Here’s a quick, four-step plan:

1. Build Your Community Network

While you always want to search national databases such as Fastweb.com for scholarships, your network of financial aid and high school counselors, employers and parents’ employers is vital to your scholarship search.

Always contact the financial aid offices at universities you are considering (or  currently attend) to ask for a list of scholarships — general, as well as specific to your major– for which you may qualify. And don’t be shy about going back to your high school, either: many high school counselors will give scholarship advice to alumni years after graduation.

Your employer or your parents’ employers could also offer competitive scholarships. For instance, says Monson High School Director of Guidance Bob Bardwell, high school students may apply for a scholarship offered to Dunkin Donuts employees.

And if you already have a job and are thinking of advancing your education, check your own company’s tuition assistance policy. According to Nathan Bell, the director for research and policy analysis at the Council of Graduate Schools, 25% of all graduate students receive some sort of funding from their employer.

Most employers have clear cut policies on tuition reimbursement, says Bell, but always ask. “If a company determines more education is required for the job, then they may also decide to go ahead and pay for it because it’s a good investment for them.”

On the flip side, be sure to double-check stipulations such as how long you’ll have to remain with your employer after receiving tuition help. Applying for university jobs that specify tuition assistance as a benefit is also an option, says Bell, especially for graduate students.

And if you’re applying to grad school, check into scholarship programs from professional organizations in your field, such as marketing, art, or science organizations.

2. Fill out FAFSA

Most university-based scholarships that consider financial need will want you to fill out FAFSA. The information gathered by universities and the Department of Education is also used to determine federal student loan eligibility and grants for both undergraduate and graduate students. Applications generally become available in January of the prior school year.

3. Get Organized

As soon as you start looking, Mr. Bardwell suggests you “develop an organizational system to keep track of scholarships, requirements, deadlines, etc.”

Your organization system could be a dedicated binder at least an 1.5” thick, a computer database file along with folders, or an expandable file folder. You may want two binders, multiple folders, or two expandable file folders. Mr. Bardwell recommends keeping copies of everything.

Don’t just file basic scholarship information. File your additional research such as applicant to scholarship ratios.

“Find out how many awards will be given and the typical number of applicants,” says Mr. Bardwell. “This will give you an idea of just how competitive the application process will be.”

Don’t fill your folders with scholarships in random order. Thomas Harnisch, a policy analyst at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, recommends ordering scholarships by source and deadline date. Local scholarships should be first in line followed by scholarships from your top university choices.

Having priorities will help you make sure you don’t miss the deadlines for the scholarships you have the best chance of receiving.

4. Time It Right

While it’s best to start early in your search Mr. Bardwell doesn’t think you should apply too early. He suggests watching to make sure deadlines don’t pass, but wait to apply until the deadline is near.

Why? Largely, because plans change and it can affect the aid you need. For instance, one of the students Mr. Bardwell counseled originally wanted to go to a school with tuition and fees of $30,000. Later in the year, he decided to go to a school with tuition and fees of $18,000. His need was now lighter, which could be a consideration for certain scholarships. In reverse, if he had started out with the less expensive university and then decided to go to a higher-priced university, he could have lost out on scholarships due to his need.

Paying for college isn’t easy, but the key is having a thorough plan in place to get through college with the least debt possible.

Reyna Gobel is a freelance journalist who specializes in financial fitness. She is also the author of Graduation Debt: How To Manage Student Loans and Live Your Life.