We have a student debt crisis on our hands: $1.5 trillion in the U.S. Breaking it down by individual, according to the Institute for College Access and Success, the average student debt load for the Class of 2017 is $28,650.
What’s sad is that Americans are carrying that debt load into their later years. In 2018, Americans over the age of 50 owed more than $260 billion in student debt, which is up from $36 billion in 2004, according to the Federal Reserve.
Unless your child is planning on making alternate plans for higher education — going to community college, taking a gap year, going to vocational or trade school, or joining the military — you’ll want to see how you can help reduce that student debt burden.
Here’s some good news: If you have a college-bound child, there is “free money” available in the form of scholarships. Known as a form of “gift aid,” that’s money your child doesn’t have to pay back. Per the 2018 Sallie Mae How America Pays for College survey, it turns out that 3 out of 5 college students received at least one scholarship. Not too shabby.
Here are some tips on how your child can land college scholarships:
Narrow Down the Criteria
Scholarship databases can be quite overwhelming. When researching scholarships, there are two main categories scholarships fall into: “private,” or “external” scholarships, and “public,” or “internal” scholarships. Private scholarships are offered by private companies, organizations and non-profits, explains Debbie Schwartz, founder of Road2College. Public scholarships are awarded by colleges and universities.
If your child has maintained a high grade point average, they might want to focus on merit-based scholarships that are based on grades and test scores, suggests Schwartz. “Students who are in the upper 25th percentile of admitted students have the best chance of being awarded merit scholarships,” says Schwartz.
While many scholarships are need-based or merit based, you’ll be surprised at what else is out there, points out Kathy Hart, founder of Scholarships Made Simple. There are scholarships for different religions and ethnic backgrounds, plus ones for surfing, skateboarding, cliff-jumping, being left-handed, or having a disability. Schwartz adds that there are even “no-essay” scholarships that are essentially sweepstakes whose “winners” are chosen at random.
Get an Early Start
Hart recommends getting started on your research as early as the 9th grade. Not only are there scholarships 9th graders are eligible to apply for, but you’ll have plenty of time to see what’s out there. And while there are scholarships available to apply for while you’re an undergraduate, there are more available when you’re still a high schooler. If a scholarship is renewable, meaning a college-bound kid can receive money for subsequent years, if they’re awarded as a high school senior, it’ll bump up the total amount awarded.
Apply for the FAFSA
For your child to be eligible to receive financial aid for college, they’ll need to submit a FAFSA — the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. In a nutshell, the FAFSA is a form that the government uses to figure out how much your child is eligible to receive in grants and scholarships. If your child doesn’t submit the form by the federal and state deadlines, they also won’t qualify for federal student loans, either.
Focus on Local Scholarships
A good place to start: Focus on local scholarships rather than national ones, recommends Hart. While you should look at regional or national scholarships, think about the pool of applicants, says Hart, whose two children both received a sizable amount in college scholarships. “Who is allowed to apply?” says Hart. “Who will you be competing against? Is the scholarship open to 9 to 12 graders, or just seniors in high school?” From there, your child can size up the competition and gauge which scholarships they might have a greater chance of scoring.
You can check the career center of your school, or ask a guidance counselor for some resources. For instance, your local credit union, Rotary Club, Kiwanis International chapter, or women’s group might award money for college to high schoolers.
When I was in high school, a woman came to my school to help seniors apply for scholarships. She told me about a women’s club which was awarding renewable scholarships to young women. She helped me brush up my personal essay, and walked me through the steps of applying for gift aid. I was elated when I received the scholarship, which was renewable throughout my undergraduate years.
You Don’t Need to Spend a Ton of Time
While you will need to devote a fair amount of time to researching scholarships, once you have a solid application, you can pull from that, and make tweaks for multiple scholarships, suggests Hart. Hart estimates that many scholarships take an average of two hours to fill out and submit the application. If you budget your time accordingly, spending 15 to 30 minutes a day will help you stay on top of applying for different scholarships.
Learn to Market Yourself
You don’t have to be an A student, poor, or a top athlete to snag a scholarship, says Hart. But you do need to market your skills to a judge. Personal branding is definitely a life skill that will come in handy throughout the course of your life. But if you’re young and inexperienced, you’ll probably struggle with marketing your talents, achievements, and telling your story in a compelling way.
“Think about what makes you unique,” says Hart. “Do you have a special talent, hobby, or illness that you had to overcome? What makes you different than your next-door neighbor?”
You Can Go the DIY Route
If you can afford it, you might want to hire a professional to help your child research scholarships. Hart doesn’t recommend paying for a package, as these are costly and you can get results by hiring a professional on an hourly or as-needed basis.
If you don’t have the resources to hire a professional to help hunt down money for college, there are a number of great books to get you started on your search, points out Hart. What’s more, a lot of high school career centers have resources such as books and databases to help you on your hunt.
There’s nothing like money you don’t have to pay back. By getting a jump on scholarship research for your child, being strategic about which ones they apply for, and learning to present their story and achievements before judges, your college-bound kid could score some free money for their higher education.
Jackie Lam is a personal finance writer. Her work has appeared in Investopedia, Magnify Money and The Bold Italic, and she’s been featured in Money, Kiplinger, Forbes and Woman’s Day. She runs heyfreelancer.com, a blog to help freelancers and artists with their money, and to balance their passion projects and careers.