Through College Avoiding Debt

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, January 7, 2007

There is so much information about college financing that it's hard to choose which Web site to visit or book to read. But, as one well-worn Chinese proverb goes, "to know the road ahead, ask those coming back."

In the case of paying for college, we'd want to ask Ben Kaplan. Kaplan amassed nearly $90,000 by winning more than two dozen merit scholarships, which allowed him to graduate from Harvard in 1999 debt-free. That successful experience certainly qualifies him to write "How to Go to College Almost for Free" (Harper Collins, $22), which is the January pick for the Color of Money Book Club.

Kaplan's book is probably just what you need to motivate your child to apply for and get the scholarships it will take to make a college education affordable. His personal story is a testament to the tenacity it takes to win money for school.

Kaplan writes that he assumed he would go to college on a tennis scholarship. Then a back injury sidelined him and his hopes of winning an athletic scholarship to a top university. Kaplan's search for money from other sources began with an application for the Discover Card Tribute Award Scholarship Program, which gives away up to $1 million in scholarships annually to high school juniors nationwide. (The deadline for the 2007 program is a postmark date of Jan. 31. For more information, go to

Kaplan initially won $2,500 on the state level, and then won another $15,000 in the national portion of the scholarship contest. (The national award is higher now -- $25,000.) He kept filling out more scholarship applications and writing more essays. It's this step-by-step strategy that Kaplan teaches in his book. In addition, he interviewed dozens of scholarship winners, judges and scholarship program administrators to find out what works best.

Most parents know they need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, which, by the way, you should be submitting right now.

Students must complete this application to receive any federal student aid. Additionally, many schools use the FAFSA as part of their application for non-federal aid. You must submit the FAFSA every year that you want aid.

Billions of dollars in financial aid are distributed to undergraduate and graduate students in the form of grants, federal loans and work-study programs. Filing the required forms early can increase your child's chances of getting free money.

While the financial aid process might start with the FAFSA form, it shouldn't end there, Kaplan says.

Right about now is also the time many scholarship applications become due. And yes, it's hard to get scholarship money, but not impossible. In fact, I love the section of Kaplan's book that dispels many myths about merit aid. If I had a dollar for every time I've heard, "Only low-income families get help paying for college," or, "Most scholarships are for athletes or minority students," I could fund a good portion of a year's tuition for one of my children at our state university.

"This myth stems from confusion between need-based and merit-based scholarships," Kaplan says. "Merit scholarships, by definition, do not consider financial need."

Another myth: Only students with high GPAs win merit awards. Not true. The Discover scholarship I mentioned earlier only requires applicants to have a 2.75 cumulative grade-point average (GPA) on a 4.0 scale for the ninth and 10th grades.

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