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9 ways to make bank with college scholarships

  • During 2016-17, the average family reports receiving $8,390 in scholarships and grants.
  • Just 0.2 percent of college students receive more than $25,000 in scholarships.
  • Even elementary school students can win some college scholarships.

Scholarships and grants may be covering more of the college bill, but families hoping for free money have their work cut out for them.

During the 2016-17 academic year, the typical family reported receiving $8,390 in scholarships and grants — enough to cover 35 percent of their college costs, according to a new Sallie Mae report "How America Pays for College 2017." That's the largest share the survey has logged in its 10-year history. (See charts below.)

Sallie Mae and Ipsos polled 800 parents of undergraduate college students age 18 to 24, as well as 800 undergraduate students age 18 to 24. Respondents determined what "scholarships and grants" covered; researchers said as a result, the category might include need-based aid, merit awards and tuition discounting from the college, as well as scholarships and grants from third parties such as community organizations or the state government.

"Scholarships are part of your plan for paying for college, but they're not the complete plan." -Mark Kantrowitz, vice president of strategy, Cappex.com

Growing scholarship tallies coincide with greater awareness of college costs, said Marie O'Malley, senior director of consumer research at Sallie Mae. All but 2 percent of families said they are "taking deliberate steps to make college more affordable." The number of families filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid has also been steadily rising, she said.

"Families really seem to be more cost conscious and aware of looking for other ways to pay," O'Malley said.

But scholarship money is far from a given.

Although 70 percent of families told Sallie Mae they applied for scholarships, fewer — 49 percent — included scholarship funds in their rundown of how they paid for college. Just 0.2 percent of students receive more than $25,000 in scholarships and grants, said Mark Kantrowitz, vice president of strategy at college and scholarship search site Cappex.com.

"Scholarships are part of your plan for paying for college, but they're not the complete plan," he said.

Here's how to maximize the impact of scholarships on your college bill:

1) Start early…

There's no "too early" when it comes to scholarships, said Kantrowitz. Some awards are open to kids in elementary school. Options multiply for high school students, especially seniors.

Even shifting your search a few months earlier could help.

"There's an unfortunate trend where families wait until the spring of their child's senior year to start searching for scholarships," Kantrowitz said, yet many awards have fall deadlines.

An early start also offers advantages when it comes to picking a college, helping you go into the search with a better sense of your resources, said Amanda Schwab, director of high school partnerships for Raise.me. The "micro-scholarship" site lets high school students lock in awards at 250 participating colleges by earning good grades, volunteering and other achievements.

(That's often money the college would offer anyway, but it gives families a guaranteed minimum offer to consider. The average participant earns $26,000 in aid to be spread over four years, but some students have earned upward of $80,000, she said.)

2)…And don't stop

"Even after you graduate high school, it's not over," said Jocelyn Paonita, co-author of "The Scholarship System" and founder of a scholarship prep course by the same name. (Paonita won more than $125,000 in scholarships, enough to cover her undergraduate degree in full.)

Plenty of awards are open to current college undergraduates, she said. Other awards can be renewable if you submit transcripts or reapply.

3) Check your school's policy

If you've already banked scholarship money, or expect to, ask prospective colleges about their displacement policy on outside scholarships.

"When you're receiving need-based aid, and you win a private scholarship, your need just decreased," said Kantrowitz.

Some colleges may offset grant aid first; others, loans, he said. That distinction can make a big difference on your bottom line, and is worth keeping in mind as you weigh college options and compare aid offers.

4) File the FAFSA

That's an important avenue for aid, Schwab said. Even if you don't think you'll qualify for need-based grants, a completed FAFSA is required for federal student loans, as well as state aid and many colleges' merit aid.

5) Make the most of search sites

There's often plenty of overlap among free scholarship search sites, but it's still worth signing up for several to make sure you're getting a full picture, said Kantrowitz. Answer all the profile questions, even optional ones — if the site is asking about family members with cancer, for example, or if you're left-handed, that's because there are scholarships that include those details in their eligibility requirements.

Then set up alerts to be notified of new awards.

6) Follow directions

With competitive awards, blunders like missing the deadline, submitting an incomplete application or otherwise not following the instructions (think, a 301-word essay when the prompt calls for 300) can be an easy way for organizers to narrow the field, Paonita said. Double-check instructions to avoid being disqualified on a technicality, and know when to cut your losses.

"I tell my students, if you miss the [application] deadline, move on," she said.

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7) Think small

"People tend to like going for the gold," said Kantrowitz — the Cappex.com list of scholarships valued at $25,000-plus is one of the site's most popular pages.

But even small awards add up. Yes, it's more work, but spending 10 hours on 10 applications to win one $500 award still works out to a return of $50 per hour, he said.

"I don't know any teenager who can earn $50 an hour, doing something legal," he said.

8) Look local

Start your search with groups that you have a connection to, said Schwab. That includes employers, unions, religious institutions and local community groups. Your high school can be a great resource for finding those awards.

9) Steer clear of scams

Be wary of any search site that offers to help you find or secure scholarships for a fee, or any awards that include an application fee. The most you should pay is the cost for a stamp to mail your application, Kantrowitz said.

"If you have to pay money to get money, it's probably a scam," he said.

On the free side, be wary of "sweepstakes" scholarships that rely on a drawing rather than any qualifications of the applicant, Paonita said. At best, those are a ploy to collect your information for marketing; at worst, they could be thieves hoping to perpetrate fraud or identity theft.

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