Nowadays, average tuition and fees for state residents at an in-state public university are almost $10,000 per year, and if you’re attending a private university, the costs can be over FOUR times this amount.
One common method for cutting costs is to first attend a 2-year school (which only offers an Associate Degree) to get your core courses out of the way and then transfer to a 4-year college for the remainder.
But whether or not you attend a university for 2 years or 4 years, graduating without a huge debt weighing you down means spending some serious time and energy researching your options for scholarships and grants.
Unlike student loans, you don’t have to pay back grants and scholarships. However, in some cases, you may have to fulfill certain requirements to continue receiving (or annually renewing) the funds after you’ve worn them, such as upholding a particular GPA, attending a specific school or even working for a company after graduation for a certain amount of time. Some scholarships accept applications only from enrolled college students in the 2nd or 3rd year, while others are only available to high school seniors. Be sure to read all criteria carefully before you start the application process, and also remember to continue searching and applying for scholarships throughout your college career.
Scholarships are a valuable resource for financing college expenses. About a third of college costs are covered by scholarships and grants. If you are going to college and you want to use your education to help people reach their financial goals, check out SuperMoney’s Financial Literacy scholarship program. It awards $2,500 a year to a student who wants to help Americans improve their financial wellness through continued education.
There are a few big scholarship databases online where you can begin your searches, like CollegeBoard.org, Fastweb.com and Scholarships.com.
As you search, it’s important to see if you qualify for one or more of these scholarship eligibility categories:
Most states (and colleges as well) have funds set aside for tuition assistance grants, which are offered to students who meet certain criteria, including minorities, those who are considered at-risk youth, are from a low income family, have been in the foster care system or are planning to pursue a high-demand subject area or career path. A list of grants by the state can be found here: http://www.collegescholarships.org/grants/state.htm
For minority students, there is an incredibly wide range of opportunities for free money. From government funds to private organizations, from college funds to corporate dollars, there are millions of dollars waiting to be given away (each year, much of it goes unclaimed), so do not give up searching and applying til you get your chunk of it.
If you and/or your parents are part of a community, a regional or national organization, club, team or nonprofit, find out if they offer college scholarships or grants. Even a small amount can help offset the cost of books or travel to your college town. Ask at your local place of worship, service organization (Lion’s Club, Key Club, Rotary Club, etc), country club, sports team or league, etc. Communities always want to help their citizens succeed.
If you are pretty confident about the major(s) or career direction you will pursue in college, you can search for scholarships accordingly. Check out the website of the relevant university department for scholarships in your major, as they may not be advertised elsewhere. Big corporations also set aside money to help support students who plan to enter into their industry or work for them in the future.
First in Family/Alumni
Are you the first in your family to attend college? Or are you planning to go to the same university as a parent and/or grandparent? Then there is some serious money to be made here. Search the scholarship websites and ask the colleges you are applying to about this kind of award.
If you want to go straight for the big bucks and prestige, then you’re in for some major competition, and you’ll need to be very “well-rounded.” Students interested in researching or studying abroad for a semester or two can apply for a merit-based Fulbright Grant, a highly competitive scholarship with various stages of the application. Your university can help you through the process.
Have you been seriously involved in community service in high school or even since you began college? Then you can apply for a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholarship, which will send you to study at a university overseas for one year where you will become involved with the local Rotary club there. The Harry Truman Scholarship is for college juniors who have a strong interest in the government or public sector and desire to make a change. The National Merit Scholarship is based on your PSAT scores from high school. But these are just a few examples–for many more, search the scholarship databases for merit-based awards.\
Partial Tuition or Full Ride
Many universities offer a prestigious, merit-based full-ride or partial tuition scholarships, so if you’ve got the grades for it, make sure you ask each university that you apply to about this excellent opportunity. You may automatically be entered into consideration for this award when you submit your college application.
Do you have a unique hobby or skill? Then you might just luck out with one of these unique scholarships. From playing a complex snare drum solo to creating a duck tape sculpture or a peanut butter sandwich masterpiece, there are impressive amounts of cash waiting to be won by the right applicant. Try YesCollege.com for a list of unusual scholarships.
Remember, timing is everything. Even if you are the perfect applicant, missing the deadline means missing out on free money. Instead of waiting till the last minute, especially for government-funded grants, it’s even better to apply as early as technically possible before the funds run out. No matter what your college dreams may be, there’s bound to be a scholarship or grant that’s just right for you.
Suchi Rudra is an avid traveler and freelance writer from Texas who covers personal finance, travel, green building, tech, and entrepreneurship. Her work can be found in VICE, The Guardian, Vice, American Way, BBC Travel, Fodor’s, Transitions Abroad, PlanetEye.com, TravelStart.com, Expats.cz, The Writer and India Currents and many other publications.