The College Search: A Student Financial Aid Tool

Conducting a college search can be a long and arduous process of elimination involving countless hours of research, discussion, campus visitations and comparisons of college sticker prices. Many families, however, choose to limit their search to one or possibly two colleges on the grounds of price, location, admissions or other considerations. But, limiting your college search by not exploring your options can do you a disservice financially in your pursuit of student financial aid.

Recently, a family received an offer of financial aid from their daughter’s college choice and asked me for guidance. The award notification from a state supported public college contained only federal student loans in the amount of $5,500 toward a cost of approximately $25,000, including room and board. Their daughter had her heart set on this particular college and her parents felt fortunate that their child selected a “reasonably” priced tax-supported institution. This college had a fair degree of good academic programs, nice amenities, and was only forty minutes from home. As a result, Mom and Dad felt that a full college search was unnecessary. Nevertheless, when the offer of financial assistance arrived in the mail, they were surprised and disappointed.

Why did the college not provide any scholarship or grant awards to them? The parents would argue that their young lady is nearly an “A” student with notable results on her SAT exam and performed a small but adequate amount of community service. Surely, they thought, their daughter would qualify for some amount of merit aid based on her high school record. Sadly, it was too late to tell them that if they had extended their college search to additional public or private colleges in their state, a merit scholarship covering full tuition and fees, renewable for four years, was waiting for them just down the road.

Why such a great difference in college offerings? Some colleges simply do not have the institutional funds to offer merit awards. But many public and private colleges, some without large endowments, find the money to offer merit-based scholarships to students in their freshman class. Some may offer merit awards to their new transfer candidates too.

These scholarship programs may offer one year awards, two year or even full tuition and fees coverage for four years of education. Colleges often use lofty names for these institutional programs, like Trustee or Presidential scholarships. Schools advertise the availability and details of their scholarship programs on their web site or in their admissions materials.

Keep in mind that you do not need to be at the top of your high school class to qualify for one of these scholarships. Hardly, and this may surprise you. Colleges award these scholarships not solely based on recognizing your talent, but to attract you to their college or academic program to fulfill one or many of their institutional goals. A common enrollment goal, for instance among state public colleges who are competing with their sister institutions, is to increase the average SAT score and class rank of their freshman class and offer merit awards to students who exceed the college’s current average student scores. Students with average scores can find a full scholarship award letter in their mailbox.

Perhaps a college has a new academic program being offered this coming year. To fill the seats, they award tuition scholarships to those who declare a major in this program. Or, a college has a directive from their state agency to increase their student diversity so they offer scholarships to a diverse ethnicity of students or non-resident students to address that requirement. Your talent may be an important consideration that colleges use to distribute their money, but it may not be the only criteria for awarding you a scholarship.

You’ll need to invest some time, but it will be well worth it. Remember, there can be any number of reasons why a college offers a scholarship. Casting a wide net in your college search can pull in offers of financial aid from competing colleges that are anxious to attract you to their institution and provide the discount you need to attend the college of your choice. Good hunting!