For both parents and teens alike, the quest for scholarship money can feel quite similar to pouring water into a sandcastle’s moat. You frantically fill out applications to every national and local scholarship available, composing essays, pleading your case, submitting and waiting—yet, despite your near-constant efforts, very little headway is made. Even if your scattershot approach is modestly successful—let’s say you win a few hundred here and a couple thousand there—these efforts will hardly put a dent in the massive tuition bill that awaits. In 2019, the average private college in the United States has an annual cost of attendance (COA) of over $47,000; the average public institution charges $21,000. Many selective private schools such as Vassar, Franklin & Marshall, or Trinity College sport a COA of more than $70,000 per year.

“Never mistake motion for action” is a quote often attributed to Ernest Hemingway that is most apropos to the mission of procuring college scholarships. If we want to maximize our efforts at reducing the cost of a higher education for our sons and daughters, we must first ask the right questions:

  • Where does most college scholarship money come from?
  • Which schools are likely to give me merit aid?
  • Which schools are likely to give me need-based aid?
  • Which schools have formulaic scholarships based on academic credentials?
  • Where can I find legitimate private scholarships?
  • How do I win private scholarships?

The following will answer each of the questions with the aim of making you a more knowledgeable post-secondary consumer capable of efficiently hunting down cash for college.

Where does most scholarship money come from?

In the 2017-18 cycle, more than 184 billion dollars in financial aid were awarded to undergraduate students in the United States. The largest chunk—30%—came in the form of low-interest federal loans. Institutional grants, awards from the schools themselves, comprised 26% of the pie (in 2009-10 this figure was only 16%). Pell Grants for low-income families accounted for 15%, state grants were 6%, as were federal veterans’ benefits. Private scholarships, the darling that the masses spend much of their time chasing, added up to only 7% of the total money awarded. Given this reality, we need to give proper attention to fastest-rising source of scholarship money—the schools themselves.

Which schools are likely to give me merit aid?

Merit aid is money that is awarded for achievements in the areas of academic, athletics, or other talent/attribute. For our purposes, let’s focus on the academic criteria.

In general, schools where you are at or above the 75th percentile for test scores (ACT or SAT) and GPA/class rank are likely to offer a significant amount of merit aid to land you. Think about it. If, let’s say, you are applying to a selective school like Northeastern University, known for being fairly generous with merit aid. You have a 1400 SAT and finished just outside of the top 10% of your high school class. A 1400 is an excellent score but at Northeastern, that is right around the 25th percentile for admitted applicants. Their 75th percentile is closer to 1550. You might get into Northeastern but unless you possess some other rare and valuable gift (how’s your jump shot looking?), you are not likely to get much relief from the $68,537 cost of attendance. Yet, if this same student turned his/her attention to nearby Bentley University, another reputable school known for dangling handsome merit aid packages, the result would likely be quite different. A 1400 SAT is right near their 75th percentile, making you exactly the type of applicant Bentley wants to lure away from its competitors.

To view a treasure trove of merit aid statistics at more than 350 top colleges and universities, visit our free Dataverse page.

For families making $120,000 a year or more, 85% of available aide comes from the institutions themselves. Therefore, the type of strategy explained in the previous paragraph is typically the strongest move for families at or above that income level. However, those in the middle-to-upper middle class can still be eligible for need-based aid, awarded by the university.

Which schools are likely to give me need-based aid?

The schools that are the most generous with need-based aid are almost universally among the most prestigious colleges and universities in the country; of course, they are also the hardest to get into. For those that make the admissions cut, schools like the Ivies, Middlebury, Wesleyan, Stanford, or the University of Chicago will be extremely generous to those with legitimate financial need. These institutions have healthy endowments from which they can draw to cover the full COA for low-income students.

Becoming eligible for need-based aid is as simple as submitting a FAFSA application and, depending on the schools to which you are applying, potentially a CSS Profile as well. Regardless of your income level, it is worth taking the time to fill out these forms. Further, it is worth submitting them as close to the October 1st opening window as possible. Every year, 2.3 billion in aid is lost because families, pessimistic about their chances at financial aid, do not even bother to fill out the FAFSA.

Some colleges are more generous than others with need-based aid and we have compiled data that will help you identify these schools. For a sortable database of need-based aid statistics at 360 top colleges and universities, visit our free Dataverse page.

Which schools offer formulaic scholarships?

A growing number of schools publicize formulaic scholarship tables that tell you how much merit money you’re likely to get from them. These are most commonly found at larger state universities and while many are not guarantees of monetary awards, knowing, in general, what criteria equates to what level of scholarship consideration can be quite informative.

For example, West Virginia University has a range of scholarships for students with minimum GPAs ranging from 3.0-3.8 and minimum SAT scores from 1110-1340. At WVU, the amounts awarded to non-residents are much greater than scholarships for West Virginia residents, who already enjoy a greatly reduced in-state tuition. Louisiana State University offers as much as $32,000 per year for a 1490 SAT and a 3.5 but students with significantly lower scores can apply for awards in the range of $500-$2,000 per year. Other schools, like Miami University of Ohio will award anywhere from half-to-full tuition for students with at least a 1450 or higher. Students in the 1260-1440 range are considered for amounts as high as half-tuition.

Where can I find legitimate private scholarships?

Guidance counselors and teachers are a great place to start. They may be most aware of local opportunities and even scholarships available through your own high school. The closer the opportunity is to home, the less competition you are likely to face. For state or countrywide scholarship possibilities, your best source will be the trusty old internet, with one major caveat—only visit reputable sites. The following databases are all well-maintained and worth exploring:

Fastweb.com – Fastweb is the perfect place to get the lay of the land. You can browse the site prior to even setting up a profile and once you do, this site can deliver strong-fit scholarships based on your unique skills and attributes.

 Big Future (The College Board) –Loaded with helpful advice on planning the financial end of higher education, Big Future also boasts listings for six billion dollars’ worth of scholarships. Not as user-friendly or personalized with its search features as some of the other sites on our list, but still a fine resource.

Scholarships.com – Launched in 1998, this is granddaddy of the web-based scholarship sites. Scholarships.com prides itself on its refined algorithm that delivers individualized reports of higher education funding sources.

Cappex.com – The largest database around. Worth your perusal to assure that you’re not leaving any low-hanging fruit unclaimed.

Unigo.com –This well-organized database has literally thousands of search filters (the most of any site) which help streamline your search for college cash.

How do I win private scholarships?

Woody Allen once said that “Eighty percent of life is just showing up.” In some cases, this sentiment applies to obtaining scholarship money as long as the money is allocated for a highly- specific criteria that few people meet. For example: a scholarship for left-handed, Hispanic-American teen girls in North Dakota interested in studying electrical engineering. We made this one up, but there are narrowly-defined scholarships out there that sometimes go unclaimed. The key is meet the criteria and simply “show up.”

However, the vast majority of private scholarships are extremely competitive and your odds of winning are more in the range of 500 to one. In order to stand out, it is critical that applicants put in sufficient time polishing their applications and delivering memorable essays (where applicable). In some ways, the search for private scholarships is a volume game—facing long odds, you are better off sending out as many applications as you can manage. At the same time, quality control is of vital importance. In the end, the most successful scholarship seekers are able to produce quantity and quality simultaneously.

College Transitions’ Final Thoughts

In order to garner enough money through private and institutional scholarships to truly make college affordable, you need to begin by asking the right questions. Hopefully, our answers to these essential queries have put you on the path toward taking genuine action rather than the blind and ineffective motions of the lesser informed. A data-backed and targeted approach to netting scholarship money will put you and your child in far better position to receive a quality education and a price that they (or you) will not still be paying off, with interest, two decades from now.