Post-Snowmageddon, Money for College Part deux

Now that digging out from the snow has ensured that my chiropractor’s kids can all afford any college, it’s time to continue helping the rest of you.

The last column covered basic merit-based scholarships, and while these are the bulk of the awards, they are not the only ones. No matter how incredible your academic record, you’ll likely be shocked when that kid who slept all through junior year gets a larger scholarship from the same school. How is this possible? Just remember, scholarships are awarded to help colleges and universities get the students they want to enroll, not to be fair, just, or even reasonable.

Non-academic talent scholarships are probably the easiest to understand. Athletic awards tend to be the best known, along with scholarships in the performing arts (and you can add forensics and other special extra-curriculars to that mix – Shameless plug: Mason’s forensics team continues to have one of the strongest wining records in the nation!). Of course, those tend to be focused on actual talent and what you can do for the team/program/department – so the question is whether the school is looking for a basketball guard or a shot putter, a male dancer or double-reeded instrument player, etc. These are nearly always awarded by the individuals that run those programs: coaches, artistic directors, team directors, etc. While admissions offices will occasionally refer students, in general you want to be in touch with the people that run that team/program/department directly to find out about any funding opportunities in your area of talent. Note: athletic recruitment is a bizarre and complex process – check out the NCAA clearinghouse website for more information.

There are two additional sources of merit-based funds, although neither is nearly as large as the academic and talent awards noted above. The first are donor-based scholarships administered by colleges and universities. These, by and large, are created when someone decides to give money to an institution to assist some group of students they like, or who they feel are like themselves. These can be as basic as strong students in a particular major, or as bizarre as students from a particularly zip code with a certain hair color with experience in both quilting and raising bees. Many of these awards are based on college performance (so open only to students already at the institution) or on financial need (which I’ll go into in one of my next columns). The awards that are open to prospective students are usually listed on the financial aid or admissions websites and/or, on rarer occasions, in the university catalog.

Many external organizations also offer scholarships. There are a variety of websites to help search for these, and your school guidance counselor(s) often have lists of local awards. Beware of any individual or organization that tries to get you to pay to qualify for these funds. Most, if not all, are scams – the information on legitimate awards is readily available online and is nearly always free, although you will often have to hand over your contact information so that the web sites can then sell them back to the colleges, universities and, at times, credit card companies that are, of course, only using the data in your best interests (cue laugh track).

One other way to get that “How in a rational universe is it possible for THAT KID to get a SCHOLARSHIP” feeling: there are an increasing number of offers from very expensive private colleges and universities billed as “scholarships” awarded to students who, to put it bluntly, are shocked to qualify for any award. This is one of the great mysteries/super-secret marketing efforts of the college funding process: many expensive schools know they can charge less and still make money. Of course, it wouldn’t look nearly as impressive if they sent a letter out saying, “You’re not all that academically impressive, but we realize our cost is CRAZY high, and we need a certain amount of students paying SOMETHING to keep paying the gas bills for heating our jacuzzi, so here’s a coupon for a few thousand off our cost. You’ll still pay WAY more than many other schools, but don’t let that worry you.” You can see how that kind of honesty might slow down enrollment. SO much better to call it a scholarship.

Today’s Chronicle of Higher Education has an article noting that some private institutions have gotten REALLY aggressive about this since the economic downtown. One admissions director admitted (bragged) that, when she realized in April that institutional enrollment deposits weren’t what she had hoped, she sent out new, bigger awards to the people who hadn’t yet deposited. What a great feeling that must be for their most enthusiastic and committed students that deposited early. Those lucky students will get to pay more – but since they love the school, I’m sure they’re not bitter about that at all. Be seeing you.


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