scholarships

We’ve all heard the rumor, right? There are millions in scholarship dollars that go unclaimed every year, and if you can just find them, you can follow a road paved with gold to college.  Is this true?

I’ll ruin the suspense right now—for the most part, no, it’s not true. But like many rumors, there is a small grain of truth in there, so let’s see if we can find it by exploring where scholarships come from, how you find them, and finally, whether any of them go “unclaimed.”

First, let’s define scholarships and grants. They are free money that someone gives to you to pay for college. They do not need to be repaid. Scholarships tend to be awarded based on certain characteristics you have, like good grades, or a musical talent, or a commitment to community service. Grants tend to be awarded based on financial need—i.e., your family provides some financial information and then the awarding organization decides if you have a financial “need” for the money. However, scholarships sometimes require you to have financial need, and grants sometimes have criteria besides need attached, so these are not perfect definitions. The two terms are often used interchangeably in the higher education world, so for the purposes of this blog post, we’re going to talk about both.

Where do scholarships and grants come from? Let’s break them down by category.

The federal and state governments:

You can apply for grants and scholarships from the government by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and any supplemental forms required by your state. You should do this in the fall/early winter of your senior year of high school. These funds are usually awarded on the basis of financial need, and some states have certain academic requirements you must meet. Do these dollars go unclaimed? Definitely not. The only way this money is left on the table is if you don’t apply. So apply! And sometimes there are deadlines attached (especially for state programs), so be sure to beat them.

The colleges:

According to the College Board, of all the aid awarded in 2016-2017, about 25% came in the form of college grants and scholarships. Compare this to grant and scholarship aid from federal and state sources combined, which was only 21%. So the colleges are important.

Does the money they award go unclaimed? As someone who worked in colleges for 27 years, I can assure you, it does not. With the exception of a few narrowly defined endowed scholarships, we awarded every penny we had.

So how do you get some? First, research each college’s website to make sure you apply on time and complete the right forms to be considered fully for need-based grants and all kinds of scholarships. To maximize your chances of receiving merit scholarships, apply to colleges who award them, and where you are in the top quartile of students admitted there. Good luck!

Large national private organizations:

Back in the olden days, when I went to college, if you wanted to look for scholarships from private organizations like corporations, foundations, and community organizations, you had to go to the library and check out various books of scholarships, and then pore through them to find ones that fit. In today’s world, of course, you can learn about scholarships easily, by using free scholarship search tools widely available on the internet.  As a result of this fortunate change in technology, there are many more students applying for private scholarships.

 If you’ve used any of these tools, you’ve probably encountered many national organizations that provide scholarships, like the Coca Cola Scholars program, the Horatio Alger Scholarship program, and the Hispanic Scholars Fund.  These are all wonderful programs, and they help a lot of students. However, the competition for them is intense, because everyone knows about them and a lot of students apply for them. So those dollars don’t go unclaimed either. If you are a good candidate, by all means apply, but know that your odds of winning are actually quite small.

Small local, regional, and national private organizations:

There are thousands of organizations who award scholarships. Some are small and local, like your town’s Rotary Club, or a regional community foundation. Others are national, but have very specific missions, like the American Association of Candy Technologists, or the Professional Bowlers Association. It is here, finally, where there might be a bit of unclaimed scholarship money. This is because these scholarship sources are harder to find, and sometimes they have very specific criteria a student must meet in order to win. In the end, even if awards are not unclaimed, the competition to win one is much more manageable.

However, it takes hard work and perseverance to find this kind of money. While you can start your search online, you will also need to reach out personally to your community, as well as to organizations connected to your family. Check in with your guidance counselor, your financial aid office, your coach, your music teacher, other students, and anyone else you can think of who might know about scholarship sources. Find associations that support your projected career path, and be willing to think outside the box when it comes to career choices (who even knew there was such a thing as a candy technologist?).

Once you have identified possible scholarship sources, make sure you meet the eligibility criteria and follow instructions carefully when you submit an application. Consider this an ongoing project—one that will continue throughout your educational career.

So there you have it. While there is not millions of unclaimed scholarship money to be found, there are billions of regular dollars awarded annually to college students all over the country. Use this as a guide to understand where that money comes from, and do what it takes to get in line to receive some. And in the end, perhaps your road to college will indeed be paved with gold.

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Written by Kathy Ruby
Kathy Ruby is a member of College Coach’s team of college finance experts. Before joining College Coach, Kathy was as a Senior Financial Aid Officer at St. Olaf College and Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania.