the unicorn of scholarships

A full-ride scholarship is somewhat like a magical unicorn in the college process. Many families count on their academically gifted or super-star student athlete receiving one and yet, when admission decisions come back, a scholarship offer of this magnitude rarely materializes. As we college finance educators love to say, “Hope is not a strategy worth counting on,” so, in an effort to demystify the myth of the full-ride scholarship, we look at a few key points that families need to consider in regards to this elusive full-ride goal. While, like the fictitious unicorn, there are many stories of their existence, do students actually receive awards that cover all of their college expenses?

Some, but not many, do. The reality is that at most colleges, the majority of families are paying something (if not a lot!) for tuition and fees. According to a recent analysis of National Postsecondary Student Aid Study data by Mark Kantrowitz cited in The Washington Post, only 1.5% of students are getting enough grants and scholarships to cover 100% of their college costs. Only 5.9% of families received enough to cover 75% of their costs, and the statistics for families who were able to cover 50% of their total costs rose only to 18.8%.

Merit Scholarships

So how do you maximize your chances of getting a large scholarship that will cover all of your college expenses? Try to think like an admissions officer. A full-ride scholarship is a college’s largest recruitment tool used to entice top-performing students who might otherwise enroll elsewhere. For that reason, full-ride scholarships become less common the more selective an institution is. In short, if there is no shortage of applicants dying to get in and willing to pay full price, there is likely to be a shortage of scholarships. Students looking for a full scholarship should consider schools that will be no problem for them to get into—colleges where they are not just meeting, but exceeding (frequently by a lot), their entrance requirements. These colleges often compete with more well-known names to attract top students, and, if you are a top student, that competition can work in your favor.

Motivated students can start looking at what is required to get these scholarships early. Colleges will often provide information about the typical profile of their scholarship recipients right on their websites. For an example, check out the recipients of the prestigious Jefferson Scholarship at the University of Virginia. These students have the grades, the leadership skills, the extracurricular activities—the whole package—and may be competitive for admission to an Ivy League university or college of similar selectivity. UVA is willing to offer up some big money in order to provide incentive to these top students to enroll in their university over others they may have been accepted to. Another example of a fiercely competitive full-ride scholarship is the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program at both University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University. The Robertson Scholars are a diverse group of students who come into the process with demonstrated leadership skills and intellectual curiosity. These types of merit scholarships are very competitive and may have strings attached that go beyond maintaining a successful GPA while in school. For example, recipients may need to fulfill summer or post-graduation requirements as a condition of their scholarship.

Need-Based Grants

Outside of highly competitive merit scholarships, students may also have their college costs covered through generous need-based financial assistance. Some of the most selective colleges, where merit scholarships are hard to come by, are actually the most generous when it comes to awarding need-based grants to those who qualify. At four-year private colleges, for example, roughly 6% of families with incomes over $120,000 pay nothing towards tuition and fees, according to the College Board’s Trends in College Pricing 2018. For families with income of $70,000 – $119,999, approximately 11% receive enough money to cover their costs. Sixteen percent of families with income $35,000-$69,999 pay nothing, and 30% of families with incomes less than $35,000 are charged no tuition or fees. The trend is similar at four-year public colleges, with the lowest income families receiving generous need-based assistance, and those same grants being harder to come by the higher your family income.

Depending upon your family income, it may not be in the cards for your student to receive enough in grants to cover all costs, even at the most generous schools. Always be sure to run a Net Price Calculator on the website of each college of interest to get a better understanding of the free money that your family may be eligible for.

Athletic Scholarships

Many families are hopeful that their student’s athletic skills will be their golden ticket to a full ride. The truth is, some “head count” sports—like football and men’s basketball at the Division 1 level—are sometimes able to offer full scholarships. Full-ride scholarships are also available for women in the following sports: basketball, volleyball, tennis, and gymnastics. Other sports are called “equivalency” sports, and the available scholarships for each team are divided up among many players. There aren’t any restrictions about how many athletes can receive money, and awards are distributed however a coach determines. The average athletic scholarship in 2015/16 was just under $12,000, and, in total, only 2.3% of college students received any sports funding at all. So again, the stats aren’t in your favor.

All in all, while full-ride scholarships are not as elusive as that magical unicorn, they are hard to come by. Our advice, therefore, is to prepare for college costs to the extent that you’re able to and save what you can. Utilize Net Price Calculators and apply strategically to colleges that may be willing to offer you more funding. You won’t regret being prepared, and, if your fairy tale scholarship does come to be, you’ll have funding to spare to launch your next adventure on the other side of that college rainbow.

the best way to pay for college

Written by Robyn Stewart
Robyn Stewart is a member of College Coach’s team of college finance experts. Prior to joining College Coach, she worked as a former financial aid officer at College of the Holy Cross.