Want to win your way into college? Higher education is the ultimate prize, say creators of The Scholar, ABC's (DIS) newest reality TV series that has overachieving high school seniors from underprivileged backgrounds competing for scholarship money. Contestants include a home-schooled kid who works up to 80 hours a week to help support his family, a Russian immigrant who spends her free time doing stem-cell research, and a single mom's child who passionately studies Spanish, ancient Greek, and Latin. Of course, all 10 rank at the top of their class and have high SAT scores to boot.
You might be thinking your average son or daughter can't beat out kids like this for college cash. But students don't have to be superbrains or near-professional athletes to win scholarships, grants, awards, and fellowships, all of which never have to be paid back.
WITHIN EVERYONE'S REACH. Part of the motivation for putting The Scholar on the air is to help families understand that higher education is within everyone's reach. "Every parent in America wants to know what happens behind those closed doors," says Shannon Meairs, co-creator of the show and CEO of Full Ride College Admission Counseling, which advises students applying to higher education, in Los Angeles.
You can still win your share for higher education - even if you never make it onto reality TV. After all, more than $3 billion in private scholarships was doled out in the 2003-04 academic year, according to a study recently released by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C., that fosters access to post-secondary education. In 2006, the U.S. government plans to offer $13.7 billion in Pell Grants, mostly to undergraduates who show need.
Universities themselves also offer financial-aid packages that include free money. In 2005, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh set aside about $46 million in scholarships or grants for around 3,300 undergraduates. Through the Carolina Covenant, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill provides students from low-income families with a debt-free full ride, as long as they agree to work on campus 10 to 12 hours a week.
IT ALL ADDS UP. Even graduate students have opportunities. Those at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon are considered for merit scholarships that on average amount to $7,500 per year. Across the country, those seeking advanced degrees can work for tuition dollars by becoming a teaching assistant or doing research with a professor. And every little bit counts.
You'll need a game plan for the scholarship application process. "Spend a little time around the kitchen table to think about who you know and what you do that might make you eligible for certain scholarships," says Jim Belvin, co-author of How to Save for College (Random House/Princeton Review, 2004).
You'll find scholarships for just about everything - from knitting to ethics. All sorts of groups want to give away money. The Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation offers 250 high school seniors each year a share in $1.8 million. The key to finding these opportunities is conducting a broad search.
NO NEED TO JUGGLE. Check with the financial-aid office at your chosen university to find out what it offers, which might depend on whether it's a public or private institution. Private institutions can draw from endowments, while public ones are often limited to traditional avenues of revenue like tuition.
Things just might go your way. Brooke Fisher, a rising college sophomore, thought she wasn't going to be able to attend Duke University in Durham, N.C., her first-choice school, because of its $30,000-plus annual price tag. But after filling out the application and going through special interviews, she was named one of two Trinity Scholars, a program for North and South Carolina residents that awards full tuition, room and board, books, an internship, and trips overseas. "Now, instead of juggling job and schoolwork, I'm deciding where to study abroad," says Fisher.
Many online search engines specialize in matching students with appropriate national or local scholarship opportunities, including collegenet.com and educationplanner.org. One of the most widely used and highly regarded is FastWeb.com, which boasts that more than 21 million students have used it since its 1995 launch. Doing multiple searches on many engines should increase your odds of finding the most opportunities that are right for you. (Beware of sites that charge money or fees for scholarships -- they're often scams.)
A WAY TO SHINE. Another way to snag some college cash is through sports - even if you're not a star athlete. "Soccer moms can get coached in sales and marketing 101 to get their kids money for school," says Bob Collins, publisher of the magazine College Opportunities for Student Athletes in Delray Beach, Fla.
He suggests that parents encourage kids to quickly choose their preferred sport. Then, the key is to find an expensive private university that provides a good education and has an unsuccessful team, he adds. Those schools are more likely to award money to average athletes.
But don't fret if your kid has two left feet. You can still put them in the game of winning scholarship money. Even parents who think their salary makes them ineligible for need-based scholarships should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and necessary university forms, especially at private institutions that cost more.
UNCLAIMED CASH. The schools determine financial-aid packages based on tuition, which tends to be significantly higher at private schools. That means even those students with parents making $150,000 annually could win some grant money.
As for merit-based awards, experts say students often write themselves off without even applying. The Institute for Higher Education Policy discovered that $100 million in scholarships goes unclaimed every year. "The common link among all scholarship winners is not where they're from, their GPA, or even how smart they are," says Ben Kaplan, founder of ScholarshipCoach.com, an online counseling service for those seeking money to finance higher education. "It's one very simple thing: They apply, and they keep applying."
One scholarship winner after another agrees. Marcella Grant, a project manager at Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) in Palo Alto, Calif., and a 2004 college graduate, nearly missed her chance at participating in HP's Scholars Program because she misplaced the forms when she was a senior in high school.
PAY IT FORWARD. She jumped at a second chance when a spot in the program became available during her freshman year at San Jose State University, where she studied electrical engineering. HP awarded her full tuition for four years, which paid for internships at the company, a mentor, computer, printer, scanner, and calculator. Grant credits the program with not only helping her avoid debt, but also leading her to a career.
Anyone can win - from the prom queen to the computer geek. Just remember that free money still has a price. You have to fill out the numerous parts of scholarship applications. For almost every one, students need to show some effort - getting involved in school or community activities, performing good deeds, and at least maintaining decent grades. And volunteering seems to be a favorite activity of many award recipients. The idea is to pay it forward now, so you don't have to pay it back later. By Francesca DiMeglio in Fort Lee, N.J.