A Primer on College Scholarships

I am the guest lecturer this week for an online college counseling course that’s offered through the extension service of the University of California, San Diego. It’s the second time that I’ve taught the class and it’s nice to get a chance to see what high school counselors, who are enrolled in the class, are thinking.

Here’s a question that I got from a counselor last night:

It can be frustrating for students who have over 4.0 GPAs and get offered a 50% tuition break while their peer is offered a full ride for a sport. Do you have some resources of the schools that tend to offer the most merit aid?  I have had many parents ask me this.  Are there any schools that offer full rides for merit aid? Many of our families are too wealthy to receive much help from federal aid.

Here’s the answer that I posted:

There are many opportunities to cut the cost of college for a teenager with a 4.0 GPA. Actually, most schools will reward students with GPAs that are far from perfect.

For starters, I wouldn’t compare merit scholarships with athletic scholarships. Only 2% of high school athletes earn a sports scholarship. What’s more, the average athletic scholarship is worth less than $9,000. A smart kid could easily find an academic scholarship that’s worth far more.

I wrote a package of stories on athletic scholarships at CBSMoneyWatch.com that will explain how parents can get cash for their student jocks. Ironically, the real money is at Division III schools which tend to be generous with student athletes, but they can’t call their awards “athletic scholarships.”

As for other college scholarships, the College Board has determined that the average award at private schools equals a 33% tuition discount. At public schools, the discount is 15%. I know of many schools that offer 50% tuition discounts. As I mention in my book, The College Solution, public and private schools love affluent students and are willing to provide merit scholarships to lure them to their campuses.

It’s important, however, to understand the financial fingerprint of schools when determining whether a school will award a particular teen. Here’s an example:

Pomona College, which is an excellent liberal arts college in the Los Angeles area, doesn’t offer college scholarships for rich kids. It doesn’t matter how smart the kid is; Pomona reserves its institutional cash for applicants who truly need financial aid. (For a smart student who requires lots of aid, Pomona is a phenomenal educational deal.) In contrast, Occidental College and the University of Southern California, which are not far away, do award scholarships to rich kids.

The document that can help you determine which schools award cash to affluent students — or how generous their financial aid policies are for middle- and lower-income students — is called the College Data Set. Here is a link to the archive of my college blog that contains stories that explain what the heck the Common Data Set is. I’m also providing a link to a package of stories for CBS that explains how affluent students can capture college scholarships.

Another excellent resource to determine a school’s financial fingerprint is the federal College Navigator.

As for full-ride scholarships, they are not plentiful, but many colleges and universities offer them to a tiny number of students. A quick resource would be to visit the admission section of any institution’s website.

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