In today’s economic and political climate, it’s not really getting any easier to pay for college. A couple recent news stories, however, offer evidence that there is hope for students and prospective students who are willing to dig deep and exercise some diligence in their search for college funding. Between choosing the right school, engaging the assistance and resources of people who know where — and how — to look and making college a priority, these students have demonstrated that it is still possible to fund an education without relying too heavily on loans or family members, or without having to work so many hours that it detracts from both your academic progress and your college experience.
In one instance, according to an article in the Palm Beach Post, a student from Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, managed to cover the majority of her projected expenses for four years of college at Florida Atlantic University. Jasmine Wilson, now a freshman at FAU, managed to pay for her tuition, books and dormitory housing by doggedly going after every financial aid source she could find. Among the sources she tapped were federal Pell grants, a Ford Salute to Education grant for a laptop, scholarships from her high school alumni and $3,000 in scholarships from two different sororities.
What’s truly remarkable about Jasmine is not necessarily her GPA, which was not shabby at all, but rather her work ethic in pursuing the money for college. Following the advice of college funding experts (which has of course be parroted on this site), Jasmine Wilson made the search for scholarship money a job in and of itself. She also has a remarkable sense of what she wants for herself in life, one that would make Thoreau proud. The Post quoted Wilson as saying, “I stayed up all night on most of those essays I wrote… I just kept working. I couldn’t accept failure. I really wanted to go to college and I didn’t want to be that person who could have done something great and didn’t.”
The financial aid advisor at FAU recounted a story of another student she knew of who managed to string enough discretionary financial aid together to pay for all her college needs and study abroad for a year. She went on to become an officer in the U.S. Foreign Service. The student “made it her business” to scan sources for available scholarships every month and send out the applications. Good grades and strong writing skills help a lot, but the willingness to put in the work necessary is really the difference maker.
Students like Jasmine Wilson are clearly the exceptions in the world of college financial aid. A typical student can’t realistically expect to go through college on scales hips alone, unless he or his family is funding them. As it is, even with college costs rising at a rate that outpaces many financial indices, only one student out of every eight will receive financial aid; and the typical amount of aid that an incoming freshman will get averages less than $3,000 — not enough to pay for a semester at most state universities.
There are some things you can do to make yourself more attractive to scholarship selection committees that have nothing to do with grades, but first you have to apply. Apply for every scholarship you can find for which you think you’re eligible. Even if it seems borderline, the selection criteria are often flexible and subjective enough that you will get props just for submitting a well-written and appropriately packaged application. Schedule time every week to search for scholarships and fill out applications. To make the process more efficient, or to overcome nerves if writing isn’t exactly your bag, put together a small portfolio of essays that you can just retool for different applications. This will help you streamline your search process. But be careful to make changes for each application so that your essay fits the selection criteria. Remember, it’s a volume game. You’re not looking for one big home run but enough small hits to get you through the college game.
Use your networking skills. Talk to your parents, uncles, aunts, school counselor, employer… anyone who may have heard of a scholarship opportunity. Many employers and local fraternal organizations offer scholarships or challenge funds to students from area schools. While we’re on the topic of networking, monitor your own social networking: more than one out of four scholarship committees acknowledge that they use Google to check the backgrounds of finalists. Make sure your Facebook photos and user names are relatively appropriate and professional.
When (we’re thinking positively here) you receive a scholarship, don’t be aloof: write a thank you note. Explain how the scholarship will help you not only with your educational goals but your purpose in life. Stay in touch and give them updates on how you’re doing in school after each semester. Give your benefactors a reason to consider offering you another year of funding. Remember, college lasts much longer than the first year.