The Numbers Crunch

I can’t tell you how often I find myself out and about – at social gatherings, at horse shows, you name it – and someone mentions that So-and-So’s son or daughter just got a $100,000 scholarship to Big Name University.  Or someone finds out that I work with college-bound students for a living and asks, “Is it true that Prestigious College gives equestrians $50,000 scholarships?”  Sometimes I find myself scanning articles that exclaim that someone received multiple scholarship offers from ABC and XYZ Universities totaling somewhere in the neighborhood of the low six figures.

Impressive dollar amounts, no?  Your attention is undoubtedly piqued.

Have you heard similar figures?  Did your eyes goggle?  And did you ask these two relevant follow up questions?

  1. Are these numbers accurate?  Can people really earn such high-dollar scholarships for college?
  2. How the heck can I (or my son or daughter) get hold of some of this money?!

Allow me to respond to both:

The short answer to question #1 is yes, there are some hefty scholarships out there to help finance students’ undergraduate educations.*  The short answer to question #2 is that it’s a little bit easier than you think.**

(* **You caught the asterixes at the end of both sentences, didn’t you?)

As with many things in life, college scholarships and their amounts are all about context, readers.  So are there colleges that will offer scholarships totaling $100,000 to incoming freshman students?  Absolutely – here’s how:

  • The big total listed typically covers four years of undergraduate education, so $100,000 actually breaks down to $25,000 per year (still very impressive!) and is broken down still farther into $12,500 per semester (which is nothing to sneeze at).
  • Unless the student in question is a star athlete in a head count sport (football, basketball, etc.), the substantial scholarship is most likely awarded based on academic merit.  As a result, it will also require that the student maintain a minimum GPA in college in order to retain it.  So $100,000 could wind up at only $25,000 if the student is expected to maintain a 3.0 GPA and falls to a 2.8 at the end of freshman year, thus sacrificing the rest of the money on the table.  (It’s worth nothing, however, that most scholarship retention GPAs are set fairly low so that students have every opportunity to keep the money for four years – but it’s always good to know what target to aim for!)
  • If the scholarship is a combination of academic and need-based financial aid (as some are), the initial award amount could change if the family’s financial situation alters at any point during the student’s academic tenure.
  • If the student is enrolled longer than four years, the award will be used up and additional costs could be incurred by the student in the fifth and/or sixth year.

The amount of the scholarship offered also needs to be examined in context with the college or university’s sticker price.  There are many schools that boast full freight fares (tuition, room, board, and fees) upwards of $40,000 to $60,000, so while a scholarship of $25,000 annually is wonderful and offers significant help to families, at a $50,000 per year school, it only covers half the annual cost of attendance.  Additional (outside) scholarships, institutional grants, loans, and other forms of need-based financial aid may well cover many remaining costs for families, but savvy college shoppers should crunch these numbers well before final decision time rolls around so that they can have a reasonable expectation of what each college on the final list will cost over the course of a student’s education.  (This is where those federally mandated net price calculators on college web sites can come in very handy.)

The final thing I want to mention in regard to substantial scholarship amounts is this:  typically, $100,000 in scholarship dollars aren’t surrendered to students in terms of actual dollars.  Instead, the scholarship arrives in the form of a discount – that is, a student who has a $25,000 scholarship for their first year ($12,500 per semester, remember) never sees the money, but instead earns a reduction in the amount he or she is charged for that semester/year.  The financial aid and accounting offices reduce the amount due on the student’s bill by that amount (and the amount of any additional scholarships or aid the student has earned) and the total owed reflects this math.

This contextual analysis should by no means make you feel bad about the amount of scholarship dollars your chosen college/university offers to you, however, students.  Earning any amount of scholarship money through your own hard work to offset the cost of your college education is to be commended and you’re absolutely deserving of any and all rewards you receive.  But it’s always important to know how the awarding process works and the context behind the big numbers that get thrown around so that you can be the savviest college consumer possible.

…which brings us to that nagging second question:  How can you make yourself a strong candidate for scholarship money?

  • Academic success.  Good grades are going to do more for your scholarship chances than anything else – and don’t think that they won’t impress those college coaches either!  After all, it’s in their best interest that not only can you obtain admission to their school, but that you can afford to stay there for all four years of your education.  So double up on the chemistry reviews and summer reading list and maybe don’t spend every hour at the barn this summer (or if you do, take a book along).
  • Volunteer and service activities.  Many schools acknowledge the work that students do outside of the classroom with leadership and service awards while schools with a religious history or affiliation often offer scholarships or grants for students who are active in their church communities.  Though these awards aren’t usually as large as those granted for academic merit, every little bit adds up!
  • Become an educated shopper.  If your dream is to attend Stanford University and you want an academic scholarship, you’ll unfortunately be out of luck because they’re an institution that doesn’t award merit aid to any incoming freshmen.  Need-based aid could be awarded to your family if you qualify, but other than that, the cost of attendance will fall to you.  Meanwhile, other institutions award academic aid to anywhere from five to 50 percent of their incoming classes and the dollar amounts can be anywhere from a few thousand dollars to full tuition or even tuition, room, board, and fees – a full ride!  So as you add different schools to your college search list, use their net price calculators and other admission resources to find out early on what types of aid you might feasibly qualify for so you know where you might get the best financial deal for your education.

Need help becoming an educated shopper?  Contact me or pick up a copy of my book.  (There’s an overview of scholarships and financial aid in Chapter Nine!)

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