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A Free Ride

By Sandra Guy

September 03, 2008

Students in Kalamazoo, Michigan, recently learned they could get a free college education. A program called offers students who’ve spent their entire academic career in Kalamazoo public schools a free ride to any public college or university in Michigan. Anonymous donors interested in furthering economic development set up the scholarship fund. In 2007, 458 students were accepted to receive the Kalamazoo Promise Scholarship.

Starting in 2007, residents of Wythe and Bland counties in Virginia can get two years of paid tuition at Wytheville Community College through a scholarship program offered by the .

All students in Chicago’s Social Justice High School classes of 2009 and 2010 are offered a free ride to Roosevelt University if they qualify for admissions.

Starting in the 2008-2009 school year, low-income graduates of Wisconsin public schools will be eligible for a $1,000 to $5,000 grant. The program is the Fund for Wisconsin Scholars and should soon be giving out more than 3,000 such grants each year.

But what if you don’t live in Kalamazoo or Wythe and Bland counties, don’t attend a Wisconsin public school or the Social Justice High School in Chicago? Is there any chance you could get a free ride to college? It’s not easy, says Barry W. Simmons, director of the office of scholarships and financial aid at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia. “Unless you can score a 1600 on the SAT or can run faster and jump higher than anyone else, there aren’t many ‘full rides’ out there,” he says. “It’s a matter of supply and demand.”

A student’s best bet is to combine a variety of aid, including scholarships, grants and financial awards. You’ll have to do your homework, but it can payoff. “If a student has been thorough in his research, and used scholarship search tools, he will find many opportunities,” Simmons says. Students must be aware that many local and regional scholarships last only one year, so they should check to see if they can “bank” any excess awards for future years, Simmons says.

Ben Kaplan, publisher of and author of How to Go to College Almost for Free: 10 Days to Scholarship Success, believes that students with initiative, resolve and creativity can cut their college costs tremendously.

Mark Kantrowitz, a nationally recognized financial aid expert and co-author of The Prentice Hall Guide to Scholarships and Fellowships for Math and Science Students, warns that only a select few students win a full ride to college, and the competition is cut-throat.

Kaplan won $90,000 in scholarships from two dozen scholarship programs after applying for 36 different awards. “Colleges are giving more and more aid to ‘special’ students, including merit scholarships and preferential packages of need-based aid,” he says. “Your goal when you apply to college is not just to get in. It’s to get admitted as one of those ‘special’ students,” Kaplan says. A scholarship winner Kaplan profiled in his book graduated high school with the lowest possible GPA required to get a diploma. The winner leveraged her community service activities to win $50,000 in scholarships.

Focus on one or two applications from which you can recycle components. After writing the initial applications, concentrate on awards that seek similar information. Apply for small, local scholarships, Kaplan says. A small scholarship victory can help applicants win bigger awards. “You’re setting up a process, a suite of reusable materials that you’ll draw on the next year,” he says.

Kantrowitz takes issue with scholarship winners who try to make the process look easy. “If you’re thinking you’re going to be able to get a free ride through scholarships because you’re a B student at a mediocre school and you have no hobbies, that’s not the case,” Kantrowitz says. He won about $300,000 in scholarships that paid for his undergraduate and graduate education. His winnings came from winning state and national mathematics competitions. “You’re only going to win if you match the criteria of a scholarship, criteria such as artistic merit or academic merit,” he says. “The only source that gives money simply for breathing is the federal government.”

In fact, only one in 15 undergraduate students received a private-sector scholarship in the 2003-2004 academic year. The average amount each student received was $1,982.02, according to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study conducted by the (NCES) within the U.S. Department of Education.

But Kantrowitz did point to prestigious scholarships in which students could win substantial money, as well as full freight. They include the ($100,000), the ($100,000) and graduate fellowships such as the , with a maximum of $50,000 a year for up to six years. “If you’re talented and you excel in an area that resonates with a scholarship sponsor, you have a good chance of winning a good amount of financial aid,” he said.


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