Get real on scholarships

As the parent of a soon-to-be college student, I’m privy to a lot of conversations other parents have about their child’s chances of getting significant scholarship or grant money.

I have one word to describe many of these conversations: delusional.

It’s delusion that soothes many parents who know they haven’t saved as much as they could have saved, and/or those who cheer their children on to go to their college of choice regardless of the cost. They think if their child gets superior grades, can play an instrument exceptionally well or is a star athlete, he or she will qualify for substantial financial assistance.

Some will. Most won’t.

If you need a reality check or, most importantly, strategies to win what money is out there, I’m recommending as the Color of Money Book Club selection this month “Secrets to Winning a Scholarship” by Mark Kantrowitz. The book, available exclusively on Amazon.com, costs $9.95, and $5.95 on Kindle.

Kantrowitz is one of the leading experts on college financing and is the publisher of Fastweb.com, a free scholarship matching service, and FinAid.com, which provides some of the best financial aid information available online.

Kantrowitz starts out with some truth-telling. The fact is, very few students receive enough scholarships and grants (including state and federal need-based and non-need-based aid) to cover all college costs. Of the students enrolled full time at four-year colleges in the 2007-08 school year, only 0.3 percent (be sure you read that right: not 3 percent but 0.3 percent) received enough money to cover the full cost of attendance, according to Kantrowitz, whose statistics come from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study and analyses of various Fastweb databases.

Only about one in 10 undergraduate students in bachelor’s degree programs wins a private scholarship, on average about $2,800 a year.

Here’s what he says about the prospects of earning scholarships:

l Good grades matter. But only about 19 percent of high school students with a grade-point average of 3.5 to 4.0 (on a 4.0 scale) get the awards.

l Among all students, not just those enrolled full time at four-year colleges, the odds of gaining an athletic scholarship are just 0.7 percent.

l Having a high SAT score does increase your odds. Still, only 13 percent of students with 1,300-to-1,400 scores get money.

l Minority students are less likely to win scholarships than whites. “I hear the race myth all the time,” Kantrowitz says of allegations that the bulk of scholarships goes to minority students. “I got a call from a student complaining about a neighbor on welfare getting a free ride while he struggles to repay his student loans. Every few years someone creates a scholarship for Caucasian students and uses the myth as justification.”

l You don’t have to be poor to win money. “Middle-income students are more likely to win scholarships than lower- or upper-income students,” Kantrowitz writes. Among students enrolled full time at four-year schools, 10.6 percent of those with a family adjusted gross income of less than $50,000 won scholarships compared with the 13.8 percent who won money in families with incomes of $50,000 to $100,000.

As for banking that a private school education will catapult your kid into the front line of scholarship money, don’t count on it making that much of a difference. Students from private high schools win just slightly more scholarships and other merit-based aid than students attending public high schools. And the money is not enough to compensate for the higher cost of private school tuition.

Additionally, Kantrowitz warns about scams. The most common myth out there is that there are billions of dollars of scholarship money that go unclaimed every year. This is based on a study from the 1970s that counted employer tuition assistance that was not used by employees. Promoters trying to get parents to pay for access to scholarship information often use this claim. “If you have to pay money to get money, it’s probably a scam,” Kantrowitz writes.

Let me be clear. Kantrowitz believes your child should be aggressive in applying for every scholarship for which he or she meets the qualifications. But it’s also important to be realistic about your child’s chances and what it takes to win funding. You’ll find that realism in this book.

I’ll be hosting a live online chat with Kantrowitz at noon Eastern time on March 24 at washingtonpost.com/discussions. Every month, I randomly select readers to receive a copy of the featured book or books, donated by the publisher. For a chance to win a copy of “Secrets to Winning a Scholarship,” e-mail colorofmoney@washpost.com with your name and address.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Or e-mail ingletarym@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible. Please also note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.”
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