(Part 1 focuses on scholarships from schools, states and the Feds, Part 2 is for outside scholarships)
Scholarships and grants are great ways to cut down on college costs.
The question is how do you get them?
A scholarship is “free money” that does not have to be paid back. When they are given by a college they are actually a discount on the total cost of attendance. The majority of families do not pay a school’s sticker price, they pay a discounted amount, usually in the form of scholarships. Scholarships are usually based on merit, whether it is grades, test scores, or academic promise.
Grants are based on need and require the students to file the FAFSA or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. They are automatically given by the colleges based on the student’s financial need, so there are no other applications or essays a student has to complete. They are granted by the college or university. Some grants, like Cal Grants are given by the state.
At most schools, students must file the FAFSA to be considered for any school scholarship so there is no reason not to file it.
Many colleges give scholarships automatically based on the college application.
All schools calculate financial need and depending on how much they promise to cover, schools will offer financial aid confusingly called either scholarships or grants. If a student has proven financial need, then the grants/scholarships will be included in the financial package sent to the student soon after the acceptance letter. Students must meet the financial aid filing deadlines for each school. This means filing the FAFSA or other financial aid forms such as the CSS:Profile (private schools) in a timely manner. Financial aid deadlines are listed on the college websites.
The other type of "free money" are merit scholarships. These are not based on need so they are the only source of school based discounts for students who do not qualify for financial aid.
The catch is knowing which schools give merit aid.
The more prestigious and well-known the school (Brown, Tufts, Princeton, Vassar, Yale, etc.) the less likely they are to give merit aid. These schools have so many students applying to them that they can afford to be very choosy. They say that they are saving their financial bounty for students with financial need, which is true as many of them guarantee to meet 100% of financial need. They do not feel that it is necessary to provide discounts to students who on paper can afford to go there. Other prestigious schools do give a small percentage of merit aid with many requiring students to write scholarship essays and to comply with their earlier deadlines. (E.g. USC has a Dec. 1 application deadline to be considered for merit aid which they only give to the most high achieving applicants.)
Schools without this level of prestige are much more generous with merit aid. They actively want to attract students to come to their campuses so they offer discounts aka scholarships. The nice thing is that merit aid is not ONLY offered to the straight A student. Students with grades into the low Bs may be offered merit aid, sometimes even C students who have a particular talent will be courted with merit aid. Click here for a pdf that shows need-based and merit aid for over 400 US schools. Not all schools provided information like University of Chicago, Boston College or MIT, so their information is blank.
Take a look, you might be surprised by what you see. For instance, Beloit College in Wisconsin meets up to 94% of financial need, and offers 95% of its students an average merit aid of $25,000. Boston University meets up to 96% of financial need, but offers only 11% of students merit aid, averaging $21,000. Cornell University meets 100% of financial need, but does not offer any merit aid.
State colleges and universities are generally underfunded and cannot offer substantial merit aid. UCLA and UC each meet around 82% of financial need and offer between 7-10% of students between $5,600 to $8,600. State schools tend to have lower costs than private schools and in-state incentives and state sponsored scholarships and grants (like Cal Grants) definitely help.
Raise.me is a website used by over 200 colleges. Students input grades, classes, activities and can see the monetary value that the individual school offers. This site offers a tally of micro-scholarships. Students can start keeping track in 9th grade. Students pick the colleges they might be interested in and they will see the amount of merit aid that each college would give. For instance, AP Language might guarantee $250 at one college or $150 at another. This merit aid is given by the college, not Raise.me.
In summary school based scholarships vary by institution. It really pays to do your homework.