Studying for College Scholarships


When parents start talking to me about college, they often mention that they’ve been haranguing their kids about applying for private scholarships.

It happened again on Wednesday night before I gave a talk at High Tech High in San Diego, which is where my son is a junior. A mother expressed frustration that her teenage son wasn’t prowling for free cash.

I could appreciate her frustration since it’s not easy for me to motivate my own 16-year-old (and that’s an understatement) , but I told her that I think the focus on private scholarships is largely misplaced.

The average outside scholarship, according to the latest figures, is worth less than $2,000. And typically these scholarships, whether a teenager snags one from the Rotary Club, a union, a community foundation or some other organization, aren’t renewable. I don’t have to tell you that $2,000 isn’t going to go far.

Rather than spend inordinate amounts of time chasing private scholarships, which roughly 7% of students receive, I’d argue that kids should devote those extra hours to earning stellar grades.

Here’s why:   Most of the big bucks for college come from the institutions themselves. And the best way that students can ensure that they snag some of this serious cash is to boost their GPA and class rank.  When colleges and universities are deciding who will earn the biggest aid packages, it’s a student’s GPA which is the biggest factor.

In fact, I’d suggest that the best way that teenagers can help pay for college during these scary economic times is to simply become more studious.

You can learn dozens of ways to shrink the cost of a bachelor’s degree by reading  The College Solution and checking out my blog archives. You can learn even more by visiting my second college blog at

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  1. Me, too, was scholar when i was in college. Though our school is not not popular and located in the province still they managed to give a quality education like others can.

  2. I worked very hard with my two intelligent, high achieving, children to help them get college scholarships. Basically, their first years were mostly paid for. It’s so much harder getting any scholarships after that.

    When paying so much for their educations, and if they’re in difficult programs, it doesn’t pay to have them try to work minimum wage jobs while in college. Engineering and bio/chem are really hard and have long hours of lab classes.

    So, you take out Federal loans and hope and pray you can pay them back later. That’s hard when there aren’t jobs aren’t there for new college grads. Then comes unemployment, early retirement for parents.

    Meanwhile, people we know lied about income etc. and their kids got state money and have nothing or little to pay back. Wouldn’t want to be a liar, but it is unfair. In the long run, it seems that the people who are rewarded inexpensive college educations are those whose parents didn’t work hard in school, go to college, pay off their loans, work hard as adults and try to save responsibily. Then don’t get me started on all those scholarships that go to low income families who never get past their first year in college.

    Our son graduated from UC Santa Barbara in bio/chem – pharmacology. Took GRE and got a 99% in bio/chem. Still looking for a job 2 years later and meanwhile making much less than minimum as a ski instructor. Ski instructing sounds like a dream job to some people, but do they know that you have to be there daily, but only get paid if people actually want a lesson? He survives by living at home. Lucky we love him.

    So, go to grad school and build up more debt that we can’t afford?

    You say retirement money doesn’t count, but if parents aren’t retired yet, how is it determined that investments are for retirement? I tend to believe that they’re looked at assets instead. Also, how much an asset is owning land that won’t sell?

  3. Scholarships are, quite frankly, a racket — just like everything else that has to do with sending a child to college. I know — I’m half way there; daughter just graduated this spring; son starting college in the fall. After the daughter’s four years — here is what I’ve learned:
    The Financial Aid Office is not there to really help you with anything, except to tell you what forms to fill out by what deadlines. And then to tell you that you don’t qualify for anything.
    Books: the ultimate racket — I’m sorry, but there is no book on earth worth $200 to $300 to be used for 15 weeks, and then bought back for $10. Never buy them new if at all possible. In fact, my daughter routinely shared expensive books with 2 or 3 other students so that they did not all have to buy them.
    Match the cost of the school’s tuition to what the expected starting salary is for your child’s major. We did not let our daughter go to a private university for $35,000 a year, when her major would likely place her at a starting salary of around $30,000/year. She was very disappointed her freshman year, but now that she is graduating in this awful job market, she is thanking us. Especially after hearing what some of her friends’ monthly payments are for their student loans.
    We looked at a small, private, women’s college — there was no financial incentive offered for her to attend there. It was after that visit that I finally figured out the financial aid / scholarship mystery: if you have “average” children and have managed to save even a small amount of money, there is nothing for you in financial aid. And if annual income is the big factor, then I don’t know how low your income needs to be. My husband and I, combined, made under $90,000 at the time my daughter started college and the amount of EFC calculated for us was nearly $30K. Really, they think we can afford almost one third of our gross income toward college expenses? What planet are those number-crunchers from?
    Even after all this, I still feel that a college education is a necessary thing. But you have to remove all the emotion from college selection, and approach it the way you would any other large purchase — what are you getting for your money? Can you really afford the “luxury model”? My son has been able to do just that — he is attending our local community college for his freshman year and then going to one our “second tier” state schools (i.e., not Penn State or Univ. of Pittsburgh). He said it well himself: “Mom, if I can get the same major at another school for $15K per year, why would I want to spend $25K for it at Penn State? Those 6 or 7 football games are just not worth that much.”

  4. For God’s sake, Mike in Boston you greedy, arrogant f**k! Why can’t you be grateful for your gifts and thankful that your parents HAD the money?! Damn, pig you sound like an entitled welfare-monger. Do you want food stamps, too, baby?

  5. During my senior year (1998), I found and applied for 41 different private scholarships. (Gasp–41?!! I’m a white male with successful parents!) It took me approximately 40 hours of extra work to apply for these scholarships. I know, because I kept track. This is quite a bit when you’re going to high school and working 25 hours/week (to save for college). Sure, you have to write essays for many of them, but often the same essay can be used for several applications with minimal changes. In the end, I was awarded 4 of these private scholarships, totaling $7,875.

    Do the math: that’s $196.88/hour.

    Worth it? I was only making $5.80/hour (before taxes!) at McDonald’s.

    But then, I could just be a statistical outlier.

  6. Hi John,

    As I said before, white kids who are affluent have many choices. They did 10 and 20 years ago and they still do today. It’s a myth that saving for college will hurt your chances for financial aid. The financial aid formula allows families to typically shield $50,000 from any consideration and, as I mentioned earlier today, retirement assets aren’t counted at all. It’s extremely, extremely rare that a family with a rainy day and college funds will be hurt. The EFC is mainly driven by family income.

  7. GPA is important in getting scholarships, but not as important as minority status and parents income. Especially if you’re from a larger metropolitan area (because rural area applicants often get preference too even though they’re white).

  8. Hi Lynn,

    This topic has always been very sensitive to me because as a high-school senior, it was very shocking to be so obviously wanted by certain schools but offered so little tangible incentive and so much doublespeak.

    When considering retirement accounts and income, don’t forget that the tax-deferred IRA has only been around since the mid 70s, the allowed contributions used to be paltry (and are still pretty small), the phase out for deductible contributions is at a pretty low income if either spouse has a pension at work, and the Roth IRA is a very recent invention (late 1990s). So most of my parents’ money was (is) in regular old taxable accounts which count toward EFC. And unfortunately for our EFC, my college fund was in my name (a mistake by 1996, but based on good-faith financial advice they received circa 1980). And my dad’s government retirement pay was indeed included in EFC.

    I looked into the private-school options, and while I think things are better now, it did not work for me then. At one end of the private spectrum, MIT (to which I was accepted), had an official policy at the time of giving no merit-based aid. At the other end of the private spectrum, small/regional schools did offer generous packages, but a lot of those packages merely brought the out-of-pocket cost down to that of an in-state public school. And in my field (electrical/computer engineering), the small private schools just couldn’t offer the caliber of education of a large public school with a top-10 engineering program.

    In the end, the thing that saved me the most money on college was taking a slew of AP classes in high school, doing well on the AP tests, and picking a university that was willing to utilize that credit. In my opinion, AP classes are the cheapest college credit you ever will find. (The tests cost ~$70 in my day.) Due to the AP credit, I was able to complete my BS in engineering plus a liberal-arts minor in 3 years without ever taking a summer class or taking more than 17 credit hours (averaged 14.7 credit hours per semester). That cut my college costs by about 25% or about $18000, substantially more than the large handful of small scholarships I was able to get over the 3 years, which totaled about $10000. That, plus internships, plus my college fund from the parents, got me through undergrad debt free.

    Fortunately, grad school was much better in terms of funding; for most fellowships the selection committees don’t care about your parents’ success-level or financial responsibility or even your own assets. And surviving a PhD program on a grad-student stipend sure teaches you how to live reasonably well by stretching a dollar. 🙂

    My wife (a PhD who still has a lot of loans from her private undergrad school) and I don’t have kids yet, but I worry that they will be even more punished for their parent’s success/responsibility than we were. Public-school prices are soaring, and more of the private schools are going to models where you are expected to pay a flat percentage of household income after exceeding a threshold that isn’t that high compared to East/West coast cost of living. While my parents were retired when I went to college, my wife and I will likely be in our peak earning years (and needed retirement-saving years) at that point. It’s hard to tell your kid that he is responsible for funding all or most of his education when the reason he can’t get scholarships or non-loan aid is because of his parents.

  9. Mike – I agree with you 100% as I had a similar experience as you (although my merits were not as stellar as yours). I also went through high school in the late 90’s. Kids that had more in-demand demographic characteristics needed MUCH LOWER GPAs and test scores to get offers and financial assistance, while white and asian kids were held to a higher standard. That was a fact that many universities I applied to bragged about in their affirmative action statements right in their application/advertisement brochures, and admission counselors confirm during Q&A sessions. Maybe things are different today, I don’t know, but affirmative action was a big thing back then.

    My parents were also very financially responsible. I grew up in a relatively small one-story house and we never enjoyed too many “luxuries”, so that my parents could save up an adequate emergency rainy day and college fund. Therefore, our EFC was ridiculous. They expect us to pay more to subsidize all the irresponsible families that get aid.

  10. Nate — I have to disagree with you. Getting a high GPA is a great way to boost your chances of getting money from colleges, but you have to approach the right ones. For instance, if your family is wealthy and you apply to Georgetown with your 4.0 GPA you won’t get anything because the school only awards non-need-based aid. But if you applied across town to American U. or George Washington U. the average merit awards to afluent students is about $19,000. You can look in my blog archives for more on this.

    I also talk about this phenomenon in my book The College Solution.

  11. Hi Mike,

    Thanks so much for commenting on my blog.

    Many out-of-state universities do not provide smart students with scholarship money so it will often be a dry hole. The University of California system, for example, would have given you nothing. The big money is typically at private colleges and universities and with your academic profile I’m sure you could have gotten a nice, fat package. I realize this is a small consolation. The key is matching up a student academically and financially with the right school. By the way, Expected Family Contribution is not impacted at all by retirement earnings. Your parents could have stockpiled millions in retirement accounts and it wouldn’t have impacted the EFC one bit.

    Unfortunately, most high school counselors direct students to private scholarships which are very small and usually only last for one year. It’s the private schools that provide big four-year grants and most schools are happy to award them to families with high EFC. They love kids from affluent (white) families. As for women getting an advantage, actually men are more in demand because there are far fewer of them going to college. A white boy from an affluent family can be in the catbird seat.

    I cover this subject in my book, The College Solution, and on

    It’s also a topic that I’ve addressed on, where I write about college.

    Lynn O’Shaughnessy
    Author of The College Solution

  12. In 1996 as a high-school senior, the large out-of-state public school I eventually attended offered me a paltry $3200 non-renewable scholarship. I had a perfect GPA, >1550 SAT (old scale where 1600 was perfect), was valedictorian of a class of 500 that had over a dozen National-Merit Finalists (including me), good extracurriculars, etc. But I wasn’t qualified for any need-based aid because my unemployed/retired parents had actually saved for both their retirement and my college costs and had too many assets. Our annual “expected family contribution” was essentially equal to their gross income (from pensions).

    We sat down with the head of financial aid asking if they could do anything else, and she said there were “lots of scholarships” available and handed me a sheet of paper listing 2 columns of university-managed scholarships. I circled the two I already had (the $3200 non-renewable), crossed out all of the ones that I was ineligible because my race and gender weren’t considered “diverse,” and then handed the sheet back to her. Every line on the sheet was either circled (2) or crossed out (the rest). She didn’t have much of a response to that.

    Scholastic excellence won’t get you very far in terms of $ if your parents are successful and financially responsible or if you’re not a woman or ethnic minority.

  13. So what would you tell a student who had above a 4.0 and got no help from the college that they attended? The push for high GPA is not a certain reward from a future college and shoudl not be sold as such. More depends on the income of the parents than the GPA. Scolastic prowess gets you in the door, but wont get much in the way of money.

  14. Why not suggest studying in Europe? University education is free. The only costs are living expenses and most college students can get by on far less than the average $15k per year cost of public school tuition.

  15. Hi Lynn,
    I agree with your observation. Searching for scholarships is desperately time consuming as well as frustrating given the number of “scammers” out there trying to get your attention and money.
    With that said though… there are indeed thousands of legitimate scholarship opportunities available to all kinds of students. Your readers might enjoy checking out
    They are professional researchers (all mom’s themselves!) who will do the work for you, for a very reasonable price… with Excellent results!
    Thanks, jennifer