It’s never too early to start saving for a child’s education, especially when the cost of tuition is outpacing inflation. Most families plan to use some combination of savings, loans and grants or scholarships, preferably with an emphasis on the later two because they mean free money.
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The average cost for undergraduate tuition, fees, and room and board at in-state four-year schools is $17,131 and $38,589 for private four-year schools for the 2010 academic year, according to the College Board.
With more than $3 billion available in money each year, according to the College the sooner students start looking and applying, the better their chances of winning scholarship money to help pay for college.
“The earlier you start a scholarship search, the more options you’ll have and the more flexible you can be,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org. “Every dollar a student wins in scholarship money, whether merit or need-based, is one less dollar they’ll have to borrow.”
“What qualifies as merit is defined differently,” says Haley Chitty, director at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “It’s not always for pure achievement, and researching scholarships take time.” He recommends applicants identify their strengths and interests before sending out applications since there are scholarships seeking a wide range of unique and special talents.
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Some scholarships are based solely on academic achievement or sports abilities, while others have unique requirements, like being tall, short, left-handed, having a certain surname like Van Valckenburg or Zolp, or wearing a duct-tape dress to prom. Some scholarships award money for being a golf caddie, science fiction writer, parapsychology student, member of the Starfleet Academy, or a winning marble shooter or “mibster.”
Scholarships are offered by states, colleges and universities, or private funds with some requiring students to attend particular schools to qualify. Scholarships’ monetary values tend to range from a few hundred dollars to more than $100,000, with the average around $1,000 to $2,500. The application process can start in elementary school with awards offered by companies like Kohls, Jif, and the Olive Garden. Students can also win money for college by winning academic contests testing different subjects like spelling or geography.
To research scholarships, Kantrowitz recommends searching at least two free scholarship databases such as Fastweb.com, CollegeBoard.com, and Scholarships.com, as well as looking through scholarship guides at your local, public library that are no more than one or two years old. Experts discourage anyone from paying for a list of scholarships or from applying to scholarships that charge fees.
“It takes about an hour to apply for most scholarships,” Kantrowitz says. “Once you apply to about six scholarships, you can start to recycle the application material.”
During the college application process, “parents have to start with financial aid forms,” says Gary Carpenter, certified public accountant and executive director of the National College Advocacy Group. The FAFSA is a federal form accepted by every school that receives Title IV federal aid in the form of grants such as Pell Grants, loans, and work-study programs.
Both the federal government and colleges use the FAFSA to determine how much money a student is eligible to receive. Completing the form takes time. “Families will provide information about their income and assets,” says Carpenter. “The form is run through a computer program that determines the expected family contribution.”
Once the FAFSA is completed, “a lot of states have it set up so that the institutions that you’re interested in attending also receive a copy,” says Chitty. “The school will send a letter detailing what you qualify for and may ask for you to complete additional forms.”
“As a general rule, if your expected family contribution is the same as the cost of education, you won’t receive any need-based aid,” says Carpenter. When the expected family contribution is less than this amount and there’s a financial need, the college will help families in the form of grants, loans, or work-study that’s outlined in an award letter.
Since different students qualify for different types of aid, Chitty recommends that students follow up with the school’s financial aid office. “They will have the most intimate knowledge of the types of aid each student is eligible for,” he says.
Depending on where they apply, experts also advise students complete the College Board’s PROFILE form that’s used in conjunction with the FAFSA by about 275 schools. “The PROFILE form is used by private colleges to gather information to disburse funds out of the college’s own endowment,” says Carpenter.
The best strategy is to “cast a wide net to piece together as much aid as you can get,” Chitty says. Once in school, experts recommend students work to meet the scholarship’s ongoing requirements to insure that the scholarship is renewed every year.