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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 http://www.discoverfinancial.com/data/philanthropy/tribute.shtml.)

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.

"Most scholarship programs aren't myopic," Kaplan says. "They take into account that applicants have much more to offer than simply sterile grades that appear on their official transcripts."

Kaplan starts out by explaining the financial aid process, but some of his information is dated. The latest edition of the book doesn't include recent changes in 529 plans. For example, a 529 plan -- whether it's prepaid or a savings plan -- is now considered a parental asset in the determination of federal financial aid.

Nonetheless, this book is chock-full of useful features, such as the Q&A boxes with real questions Kaplan has received while lecturing on this topic.

Now 29, Kaplan has taken on the moniker "America's Scholarship Coach." It's an appropriate title given that his book reads like a high-energy pep talk.

"The scholarship game is not solely about winning college cash," Kaplan writes. "The game is also about setting a goal, and being willing to do whatever it takes to reach it. It's about not letting current financial circumstances dictate our destinies. It's about accepting risk and having faith: the risk of putting yourself on the line, and the faith that comes with believing in yourself."

See what I mean?

* * *

To become a member of the Color of Money Book Club, all you have to do is read the recommended books. Then we chat online with the author. In addition, every month I randomly select readers to receive copies donated by the publisher. For a chance to win a copy of "How to Go to College Almost for Free," send an e-mail to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Include your name and address so we can send you a book if you win.

If you are interested in discussing this month's book selection, join me online at http://www.washingtonpost.com on Thursday, Feb. 1, at noon Eastern time. Kaplan will be my guest and will take your questions about successful strategies to win scholarship money.

· On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online athttp://www.npr.org.

· By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

· By e-mail:singletarym@washpost.com.

Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please 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.

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