Helping a student find college scholarships

A post about college applications in a blog with “retired” in the title? According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, grandparents and parents make up the fastest-growing segment of student loan borrowers. Three-quarters of these borrowers are helping out children and grandchildren, and the other quarter are borrowing for their own or spouses’ studies.

If you’re helping a grandchild or a child pay for college, you may also be helping to identify colleges where there’s a good chance of cutting the cost.

I have a few suggestions from observing the college application process of my niece, a high school senior. “Your student” will be used here as if I’m addressing parents, and most of the advice will be for families that don’t qualify for enough financial aid.

Your student probably has preferences about location and size. Once there’s a list based on those factors, I suggest thinking about money. It’s all well and good to not want money to determine the student’s college choice, but what happens if he or she gets in and you’re looking at a $60,000-a-year pricetag you can’t afford?

So, it’s smart to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid as early as possible to find out your expected family contribution. FAFSA sends the EFC to the schools in which you indicated interest. The schools then may offer financial aid packages to make up at least a part of the difference between the EFC and their total cost (i.e., your need).

Many families, unfortunately, have too much money to qualify for need-based aid but not so much money that paying the full EFC is no problem. In that case, you should look for schools with generous merit scholarships, which are given for achievement and not financial need.

How do you find schools where your student might be offered a good merit scholarship? You want to look for places where he or she is in the upper 25 percent of enrollees. Websites like collegesimply.com list schools’ middle 50 percent ACT and SAT scores. Look for schools where your student is higher than the 75th percentile. Then look at their websites to find out what they offer in merit scholarships.

Most of the top 20 or 25 schools don’t award merit scholarships. Just below the elite tier, the university my niece was interested in awards only 140 merit scholarships — not a good prospect either.

In contrast, my niece’s applications to four universities ranked between 50 and 100 by US News & World Report — she is in the upper quartile at all four — yielded merit scholarship offers.

If your student has to look at lower-ranked schools to be in the top quartile, it doesn’t mean he or she can’t get a good education. There are about 2,500 four-year colleges and universities in the United States, and surely more than 100 deliver good quality.

My niece’s final choice is higher ranked in the fields she’s interested in than overall. So, another suggestion: pay attention to reputation in the desired major. That will likely count more with prospective employers than a school’s overall ranking.

So, let’s say the options have been narrowed down by scholarship possibility, majors, location, and size. Your student will also want to consider the campus vibe and any other factors he or she thinks important. Thorough research should be able to whittle the application list down to a half-dozen or fewer schools.

This may all sound too calculating to someone who is set on a dream school. It’s better if the student can avoid falling in love — or can fall in love with a number of schools. Keep the options open until all the information to choose wisely is in, including scholarship offers.

If you still think that your student should attend the highest-ranked school possible even if it means going into debt, consider this: lots of studies have found that success isn’t determined by where you go to college but how well you do there. And once you’ve been in the working world a few years, all that matters is your job performance.

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