When our children are growing up, we read fairy stories to engage them in a story that can teach them about the real world. That’s great when they are young, but by the time they are in high school and applying to college, we need to be honest with ourselves and them about reality. Applying to private scholarships and winning enough to pay for college is one of those fairy tale stories you shouldn’t pass on to your kids.
According to author Mark Kantrowitz, former publisher of FastWeb and FinAid, less than 20,000 students1 a year receive a completely free ride to college. That’s just .3%1 of full-time college students enrolled at four-year colleges. The money to cover the free ride comes from a combination of money from colleges themselves, federal and state grants, and private scholarships. To be even more realistic, there are less than 250 private scholarships that even provide enough money to cover all college costs.
So, the likelihood of winning a full ride scholarship or even piecing enough scholarships together to cover your college costs is pretty slim. Before your student starts looking for private scholarships, understand the following five realities and share them with your student too……
1) The largest scholarship a student will receive will come from the college they attend. According to the latest data from the College Board’s Trends in Higher Education, 40% of all free aid money (money that does not need to be paid back) was given by colleges to students. Only 11% of free aid money came from private and employer grants.2 So if your student is going to be efficient with their time, it’s more worthwhile to find colleges that are going to offer the most money in either financial aid or merit scholarships, as opposed to searching and applying to private scholarships.
2) Private scholarships reduce financial aid students receive from colleges. If your student wins a private scholarship, they must report that information to the financial aid office. Colleges usually use the scholarship money to reduce the amount of need based aid they offer. Some colleges choose to reduce the college’s grant or others may reduce loans included in the financial aid package. Reducing the loan amount is better for the student, but in either case, wining a private scholarship doesn’t give you more money than what you would have received from the college and government anyway. Frustrating – right?!!
3) Private scholarships last for one year, merit scholarships are for four years. Private scholarships are usually for just one year. If your student is depending on private scholarships, they’ll have to apply to scholarships every year to continue to find scholarship money for each year of college. On the other hand, merit scholarships are usually offered for all four years of college, assuming students continue to meet the requirements (like GPA minimums and no academic or legal violations). Which would your student rather do – research and apply each year for new private scholarships or do the upfront research to find a college that will offer need aid or merit scholarships for all four years.
4) Don’t count on private scholarships to get your child through college debt-free. It’s possible to earn scholarship money to help for college costs, but know that the average student will only win $1,000-5,000. Here’s advice from Kevin Ladd, VP at Scholarships.com: “I say if you’re really good you might win one out of every six scholarships you apply for. If you’re average you might get one out of ten. If your circumstance is unusual you might get a higher ratio, but typically if you want to win ten scholarships to pay for 90% of your need, you’re going to have to apply to five to ten times that many to win them.” Let’s do the math – If you want to earn $10,000 from private scholarships, you’ll probably have to apply to 100 scholarships in the hope of earning 10 scholarships, for $1000 each. How much time do you think that will take?
5) Is that a private scholarship or a sweepstakes your student is entering? Over the years, more and more scholarships look like sweepstakes, rather than scholarships awarded based on defined criteria. If no specific information is required to apply for a scholarship, especially “no essay” scholarships, then what criteria is being used to pick winners? These scholarships are really just lotteries used by companies to collect student information. When you see the words “no essay”, think advertising and lead generation. So, if your student plans on entering these types of scholarships, make sure to at least create a new email address to use, so they don’t get overwhelmed with marketing emails.
Even if you believe and agree with these five issues about pursuing private scholarships. it doesn’t mean students shouldn’t give it a try to find and apply to scholarships. Just be realistic about the effort needed and the potential outcome. And remember, if you really want to make a dent finding money for college, the best time spent will be used towards targeting schools that are more likely to offer financial aid or merit scholarships.
To get more information and resources about applying for scholarships, download our Scholarship Toolkit, which includes:
- Ratings of 16 major scholarship search websites
- Overview of 7 websites with lists of scholarships
- Listing of resources to organize and track scholarship applications
- 46 often overlooked state websites for scholarships
- Information on how to apply for scholarships including checklists
Sign up and download our FREE Scholarship ToolKit Report.