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High Schools Keep College-Bound Families in the Dark About Merit Scholarships

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High schools often ignore an important topic when advising families about college: how students can use their achievements to lower the cost of college. Based on achievement, rather than demonstrated financial need, merit scholarships can significantly impact the amount of money available to pay for college.”College Knowledge Nights” at public and private high schools nationwide, focus heavily (if not entirely) on need-based aid. Yet, more and more families that do not qualify for need-based aid do in fact need some type of financial assistance to afford the rising cost of college. Budget cuts, an unstable economy, and tuition increases mean that many of us who do not meet the government’s formula for “need” are struggling to make our student’s college dreams a reality without breaking the bank.Merit scholarships can be a highly effective tool for reducing the cost of college, supplementing need-based aid, increasing a student’s options about which college they can afford to attend, and minimizing the need to take out loans (and take on college debt). In addition, understanding how colleges award institutional merit aid can help families expand their vision of “best fit” colleges by dramatically cutting the “sticker price” and making expensive colleges much more affordable.Ranging from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars, scholarships do not have to be repaid. Unless a student is accepting need-based aid, there is no limit to how much merit aid or the number of scholarships a student can win.Merit scholarships are not just for the valedictorian and winning quarterback. Based on virtually everything except financial need, merit scholarships reward students for achievements in academics, community service, athletics, religion, career goals, awards, heritage and a wide range of accomplishments ranging from baking an apple pie to analyzing an Ayn Rand literary work.According to The Los Angeles Times, “The outstanding American student loan balance is $870 billion. That’s greater than the $693 billion that Americans owe on credit card debt or the $730 billion that Americans owe on car loans” (March 5, 2012).Advisors do a disservice to families in all financial brackets by not providing more information about how to find, apply, and qualify for merit scholarships. Families may seek merit scholarships to increase their student’s options about where they can afford to go to college. Some families have funds available but not enough. Perhaps they can afford a state school but not their student’s top choice, or the college that offers the best academic fit. For others, these scholarships can help fill the gap between the need-based aid that they do receive and the actual cost of college. Wealthier families can use them to avoid invading their investment portfolios, while also combating entitlement issues by giving their students the opportunity to contribute to the cost of their own education.A college counselor at a prestigious private high school outside Los Angeles recently said to me, “We tell our parents about merit scholarships but maybe not in great detail. I don’t think our parents need in-depth information about them.” Really? Shouldn’t it be the family’s decision whether or not to put in the time and effort to pursue merit scholarships?Merit scholarships also offer students many non-financial benefits, including validation for their achievements, a vested interest in their college education, a way to reduce the impact their education has on the family budget, and prestige of winning. Some merit scholarship winners also enjoy special networking opportunities.While virtually every student can become eligible to receive merit scholarships, not all students will take the necessary steps to do so. These scholarships do indeed take time and there is no guarantee of being awarded any money for college; however, if a student spends two hours on a scholarship application and wins $1,000, that is $500 per hour! That’s a lot more money than all but a very few adults earn during their professional career!

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Written by hintonfran6

August 9, 2013 at 8:39 pm

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