It was Valentine’s Day last week, so let’s talk about love!

Just kidding. I want to talk about something that can be far more elusive than love: a sustainable way to pay for college. 

For anyone looking to continue their education, it’s that season to finance that schooling. 

The average cost of continued schooling for 2021-2022 is between $13,130 for a public 2-year institution and $22,290 for an in-state public university, according to the Trends in College Pricing report published by College Board. And that’s not including the costs of books and living expenses. And those will rise for the next academic year as well. My guess is that most people seeking a higher education don’t have that kind of money stashed in their mattresses. With those numbers, students have to look for a better way to pay for college. 

If you are filing for Federal Student Aid (most often referred to as The FAFSA®), the federal deadline is officially in the summer of the academic year you attend school, but each state has its own deadline—the deadline in Kansas is April 1, 2022—and many colleges set their own deadlines also. Completing a FAFSA application is often required by colleges and universities, and the student loans and grants that come from this program can be a great way to get the immediate funds you need to earn your degree. But I want to talk to those of you who are like me, whose family made too much money to qualify for federal grants but certainly couldn’t pay for schooling out of pocket. 

If I had a time machine, I would go back and tell my younger self to take advantage of the “free money” out there, better known as scholarships. Scholarships are seemingly everywhere. Not only are they everywhere, but there is something for almost everyone. 

When I say they are everywhere, I am not kidding. Mark Kantrowitz reports that “each year, more than 1.7 million private scholarships and fellowships are awarded, with a total value of more than $7.4 billion.” That’s a lot of dough to grab. However, he also points out that only 2.7% of recipients in the 2015-2016 school year received enough in scholarships to pay for 90% of their attendance costs. In fact, as Melanie Hanson explains, “scholarships and grants cover [an average] of $7,500 of annual academic costs per student.” So, what’s the point of applying for scholarships then?

The one thing that these statistics may not have taken into account is that most scholarship recipients apply for, and receive, multiple scholarships each academic year. As a full-time high school English teacher, I work with my graduating students to apply for scholarships. And each year, I am happy to announce that most of my students get the scholarships they need to at least get started in their post-secondary education. 

Here are a few tips that have helped my students get that cash floating around out there: 

  1. Find the right scholarships for you. There are websites that can help you find scholarships (see my list of resources below). Also, you should always check with your local clubs and organizations like Kiwanis and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
  2. Don’t be afraid to apply. It doesn’t matter if it is a small scholarship or big award. What’s the worst that can happen? They say no. Then you just look for another opportunity. Don’t let it get you down; you just have to find the right fit. 
  3. When you see a scholarship for a mere $500, don’t pass it up! Saving pennies adds up over time. A penny saved is a penny earned, as the saying goes. The same goes for taking advantage of these small awards. Over time and effort, they can put a dent in the financial burden that a college education can be. In short, that’s $500 less to finance through student loans that accrue interest. 
  4. Write one personal essay that you can adapt to multiple scholarships. This is a big one. Most scholarship applications ask for some sort of short essay explaining why you should be the candidate to receive the scholarship. And as the Purdue Online Writing Lab and US News & World Report suggest, get personal and be specific. What adversities have you faced and how did you overcome them? Why are you pursuing the career path you’ve chosen? How would this scholarship help you achieve your dreams and help our society? In short, tell your story.  And don’t be afraid to brag, either. Start with about 250 to 300 words and go from there. Most scholarships ask for a limit of 500 to 1,000 words, so this gives you some room to adapt to the scholarship’s focus. 
  5. Start early and follow directions. If you don’t meet deadlines or follow specific instructions, that is one less application out of 100 (or 500 or 1,000 or more) for the committee to review. If you aren’t sure about something, ask advice from a school counselor, a teacher, or someone else going through the same process as you. You may even be able to reach out to the organization offering the scholarship. 
  6. Have someone read your essay over for proofreading and clarity. This can be a tie-breaker for some tight decisions. Oftentimes, if two or three essays have equally compelling content, the more polished one will win out. You can use technology to help with spelling, grammar, and punctuation, but it never hurts to have an extra set (or sets!) of eyes to help you find mistakes, clunky sentences, or even unintentionally offensive remarks. 
  7. Be aware of scams. Yes, sadly there are scammers out there preying on poor college students. Take advice from College to make sure you are not taken advantage of. A rule of thumb is if they are asking for money upfront, they are likely not going to pay out. 

As a final piece of advice, don’t be afraid to take advantage of the resources available to you. The book 1001 Ways to Pay for College, by Gen Tanabe, offers real resources to find that money floating around out there. Tanabe’s other book How to Write a Winning Scholarship Essay provides example essays and tips that can help any aspiring scholars get the money they need to pursue their dreams. And it tells you what not to do, helping you avoid some common blunders.

The library also has some ebooks to help you create a winning scholarship essay, such as The Complete Guide to Writing Effective College Applications & Essays, 2nd edition by Kathy L. Hahn. This resource not only gives tips and tricks from the author, but it also provides tips from actual graduates, professors, and selection committee members. Hahn is also a classroom teacher. Thanks to her teaching expertise, she gives great examples and specific focus to simple things all essay writers can do, particularly how to actually start, including ways to resist procrastination to actual thought starters. Parents, you might be interested in How to Win College Scholarships by Monica L. Matthews. This ebook breaks everything down in simple and easy to understand terms, including how to find scholarships, how to help your student succeed, and how to capitalize on the student’s experiences. 

If you are interested in further resources, I’ve created a list on our library catalog that has several other titles in addition to the ones mentioned above. You can find that list here

The bottom line is this: if you want to go to school, don’t let the cost scare you. There are ways to make going to school more affordable, and you can, with a little effort, make your educational dreams come true.