I write a lot about college scholarships and paying for college. And when I talk to parents just starting to look at colleges, I hear the same misperceptions about who gets money and who doesn’t. Unfortunately, these myths lead many families down a disappointing path. Without the right facts about scholarships, they can end up with little (or even no) financial aid for college.
Top 5 Financial Aid and Scholarship Myths:
Scholarship Myth #1: My straight-A student will get a scholarship.
Not necessarily. Sure, excellent students can get a lot of money for college. But it requires that you find colleges that will reward YOUR particular straight-A student (not another family’s student, but YOUR student). What I mean here is that depending on your particular financial circumstances, a college may not offer your top student any money whatsoever.
What, wait? I thought all top students could get college scholarships?
Nope. In fact, the majority of elite colleges—those that top the US News and World Report rankings—do not offer any academic scholarships. Nada, zilch, zero. Rather, they only offer need-based financial aid (which is based on your income and assets, not your student’s GPA). That means that if you are upper-income, you will still be required to pay a hefty amount for your straight-A student to attend one of these chart-topping schools.
Now if you are middle-or lower-income, these elite schools can be tremendously generous with money, but again, that money is not in academic college scholarships. Rather, it’s in need-based financial aid (which, again, is based on your income and assets). If you’re wondering whether your family is eligible for need-based aid at a particular college, fill in the school’s net price calculator (google the name of the school and net price calculator to find it). This will give you an estimate of your costs at that particular school.
That said, straight-A students from wealthier families can get a lot of money at schools that do use academic college scholarships (also called merit aid) to attract smart, successful students to their campus. These schools use these scholarships to lure students who could otherwise go to a more highly-ranked college. Where to find these schools? Everywhere! They’re just not the handful of schools every parent in America seems to want their student to go to (you know, those US News and World Report chart toppers).
Scholarship Myth #2: My B student can’t get an academic scholarship.
Wrong. Even your average student can get an academic scholarship, if you apply carefully (and all students, regardless of grades and scores, can apply for need-based aid). By carefully, I mean you need to find schools where your student stands out. These are schools where your student’s grades and scores (and extracurriculars) put her in the top 25 percent of the applicant pool. Remember, colleges use merit aid to lure top students to their campus. At many campuses, a top student is not straight-A everything in high school.
How to find these schools? Start at collegeboard.org/college-search. Enter your student’s SAT or ACT scores in the filter—and any other requirements you have, like say location—and you’ll get a list of schools where your student’s scores are a close match or above. Use that list to find schools where your student’s scores and GPA are in the top 25 percent (look under the Applying tab). Then head over to the Paying tab for that school and see how much in non-need based aid they offer (these are the non-need based scholarships awarded to top applicants at that school).
Scholarship Myth #3: I’m too rich for need-based financial aid.
As the saying goes: if you don’t try, you’ll never know. The fact is that some generous private colleges will offer even upper-income families some need-based aid because their costs are so darn high. Even wealthy families can struggle to come up with $70,000 a year (the sticker price at some private colleges, these days).
There are also other factors at play in the financial-aid calculations, which may surprise you with more money than you may think you’re eligible for. For example, if you have more than one student in college at the same time, your parent contribution is, in effect, divided among your children. In other words, while both your students are in college at the same time, you may actually qualify for financial aid.
In general, experts recommend even wealthy families go through the process of applying for financial aid. Sure, it’s a bit of a pain. But it just might be worth it.
Scholarship Myth #4: I don’t have much money, so my kid should go to a public school.
Again, not necessarily. While public institutions have much lower costs of attendance, private colleges can offer A LOT more need-based aid than public institutions (in fact, only two state universities meet what’s called full financial need). The bottom line: lower income (and even middle-income) families whose students can get into competitive private colleges are often rewarded with lots and lots of aid. Enough aid that a private college is often much less expensive than a public for those families.
Take Stanford. If your family earns less than $125,000—and you have minimal assets—you will pay no tuition (just room and board, books, etc.). If you earn less than $60,000, you will pay no tuition or room and board at Stanford. You may be thinking, Stanford? Who can get in there? And you’re right. Not many students can get in there, but there are private colleges that are easier to get into (than Stanford) meeting full financial need (and others meeting a high percentage of financial need). Google “colleges meeting full financial need” to get started.
Scholarship Myth #5: My star athlete will get a big college scholarship.
This may be the biggest, saddest myth of all. Why? Because so many young athletes are pushed and pushed by parents with visions of college scholarships floating around their heads. But here are the cold, hard facts on sports scholarships. Only two percent of high-school athletes get a sports scholarship and the average amount is around $10,000 (and that’s an average). Many athletes receive far less. In some sports, coaches are allowed to divide one scholarship up among many players. A mere handful (really, a handful) of students get full-ride scholarships. And only in football and basketball (for men) and basketball, gymnastics, tennis and volleyball (for women). Division 3 schools, which include many if not most of the elites, offer no sports scholarships whatsoever.
Now, all that said, being an excellent athlete is an asset in the college admissions process. Students who are being recruited can often get into better schools than their grades and scores suggest. And they may get merit aid (and need-based aid, if they’re eligible) too. Even students who aren’t being actively recruited can still play sports in college. So, don’t pull your soccer loving daughter off the team. Just be realistic about how much money (probably none) she’ll get for college by playing that sport.