Looking for free money for college? At websites like Scholarships.com, millions of potential scholarships and grants are listed, free money worth billions of dollars. But the site's COO, Kevin Ladd, says that last year roughly $2.9 billion in scholarships and grants (including Pell Grants) went unused -- probably because people didn't know the money was available!
Some scholarships require special talents, either academic or athletic. Others have quirky requirements, and others reward essays or students' outside interests and commitments. Some require you to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, because they have a "needs" component, while others make no mention of financial qualifications. Just in case, be sure to file the FAFSA now, and adjust parental income later, if necessary. Federal grant programs, such as the Pell Grant, are free money that is awarded based on need.
Here are five tips to finding one or more scholarships that could cut your financial burden:
- Start early. The time to start looking for scholarships is as early as your freshman year in high school, because some of them award grants based on your extracurricular activities, community service or time spent interning or working in the field in which you want to major. If you're looking for a scholarship that will start when you enter college this fall, file your application in January because many awards have deadlines in the next few weeks.
- Register at multiple sites or download the apps. Scholarships.com and FastWeb.com are two of the largest sites for scholarship searches. They are free, although they do require you to register. (Scholarships.com has a free app that allows you to search without registering.) Be sure to answer all the questions in their online profile to get the most potential matches. The sites stay in business by providing your information to those who market to students, although you can opt out. It's worth it to get a chance to search all those scholarship offerings.
- Check with your high school guidance office. The counselors at your school know you -- and they know some of the aid that past students have received. If you start early enough and are willing to make this a project, they can help you not only in searching for scholarships that might be available to graduates of your high school but also qualify for work-study programs as well.
- Diversity is rewarded. Scholarships are one place where race, gender and ethnicity are openly listed as prerequisites for many awards. Search for them. Some private colleges offer scholarships just to get a diverse student body -- whether racially or geographically. It's no shame to take every bit of money you can get to further your education.
- Look beyond money. Many scholarships come with benefits that are equally valuable as the free money. Some offer internships, which could potentially lead to a job. Others subsidize study abroad. They are offered by everyone from Nike to Disney to "The Ellen DeGeneres Show"! Truly priceless.
Nowhere in this column have I mentioned athletic scholarships (equally available to women and men under Title IX) or merit scholarships based on academic excellence. Presumably, you already know about those opportunities, as well as needs-based student loans. Even if you get some financial aid, it's worth searching for free money for college.
Remember, you'll never get that scholarship or grant if you fail to apply! Don't presume anything. Start applying now. A few small scholarships could save you a fortune in student loan interest over the years ahead. And that's The Savage Truth.
Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser and the author of four best-selling books, including "The Savage Truth on Money." Terry responds to questions on her blog at TerrySavage.com.