College Costs HOW Much?! Scholarships and Financial Aid 101

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July 4, 2016 by poverty2professional

I give motivational talks to students in grades 7-12. One of my bragging points is that in college I studied abroad, lived on campus all four years, and graduated with highest honors and then finished two years in graduate school…without a dollar in student loan debt. No, I didn’t sell my soul to the devil either. I got scholarships.

Let me emphasize the plural: scholarshipS. I didn’t get a single free ride. To this day, I’m glad that I didn’t. Patch-working your scholarships for college takes some doing, it’s not easy, but it is incredibly gratifying. You learn a heck of a lot more – about organizations, about what your interests are, about life in general – when you have to go and scour the interwebz (or pound some pavement to your nearest financial aid counselor) for the right stuff that matches you.

But when I was a high school senior applying to scholarships for the first time, I had no clue where to start. Was I supposed to fire up Google and type in “scholarships” or “i need money for college”?

I started with the website a lot of high school counselors tell their students to go to: When I first started using it FastWeb was okay, although from a recent it visit it is ten times better than what it used to be. I can’t knock it anymore, but I will maintain that it has a sexier, smarter brother,  THAT is a scholarship search engine. It’ll take a solid 15 minutes to set up, but once that’s done you’ve got a powerful tool that’s going to be collecting data and info for you.

But this was winter of senior year and I didn’t know what was. So, Google it was. I typed in “scholarships.” That got me everything from real scholarships to a bunch of weird pop-up adds. I modified my search and got specific. “Scholarships for homeless students,” “scholarships for Latinos,” “scholarships for students in XYZ district.”

You starting to see the pattern? The more specific I got the better my search results were. I know this sounds obvious, but it never hurts to throw it out there. Another thing to keep in mind about searching for scholarships that are specific to your identity – including ethnicity, location, age, and activities (sports, volunteer work, hobbies) – is that this automatically lowers the number of people you’re competing with. Everyone can apply to the 500 Word Essay competition. Not everyone can apply to the Underwater Basket Weaving Scholarship. Pretty straight-forward.

Three tips for best results?

1. Get out there. If all you do is study, you’re missing out on the point of a college education. If you’re in high school right now, colleges want to see good grades and they want to see that you’re not just an egghead. So, start or join a school club around something positive – reading to kids, volunteering to clean up the neighborhood, or fundraise for a cause. Good things happen when you get involved. You find out your own interests (maybe you don’t really want to be a doctor, but law school looks cool), you meet professionals in jobs you didn’t know existed, and you have more experiences in general. This all gives you material for a scholarship essay, too.

2. Get networked. Meet people! If you’re in college, you should definitely get a business card (Vista Print will sell them to you cheap!). Talk to your teachers, librarians, counselors, and community members (friends and anywhere that you volunteer or after-school programs you attend). The more people you talk to the more information you’ll get. Please also remember that networking means keeping a clean social media profile. No pictures of you doing anything you wouldn’t want a boss/future employer seeing. Trust me when I say that hiring managers know how to find that stuff no matter how private you think you have it. Pro Tip: Make sure your email address also sounds professional. isn’t professional. is much better.

3. Get gutsy. Never ever be the first person to tell yourself no. Let someone else do that for you. You think that a scholarship has 5,000 people applying for it and that makes you nervous? Okay. No shame. Apply anyway. You’ll miss out on all the scholarships that you don’t apply to. Just make sure you know what they’re asking for. If they want a left-handed redhead who can ride the unicycle and you’re right-handed and play the trombone, then skip that scholarship. Ain’t nobody got time to learn how to ride a unicycle.

Now, before we finish this post off for the week, I want to let you (student, parent, educator, volunteer/professional in youth homelessness) know a couple exciting highlights about the FAFSA!!

…the what?

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a nifty online application that EVERYONE (regardless of how rich or broke you are) should fill out. It makes you eligible to receive grants (read: FREE MONEY) and loans (read: Money you will eventually pay back). You will need your parents’ tax return information from last year. The FAFSA used to not open its application until January 1st, but now opens on October 1st. That means, if you apply in 2016, you’ll need your parents’ info from 2015. If you are an unaccompanied youth (meaning that your parents are NOT with you or you don’t have a legal guardian to fully claim you), then the application will allow you skip over this part and the college that you decide to attend will ask for more financial documentation later.

TLDR: Fill out the FAFSA. It will help you and is required for you to receive most scholarships.

Not sure which colleges are most affordable for your current budget? Check out this tool, Pell Abacus. Named after the grant awarded to students from financially needy backgrounds and the old-school hand calculator with the beads on it, Pell Abacus asks you a few simple questions and quickly generates some college options.Want to share it with your parents, but English is NOT their first language? You’re in luck! The group that created Pell Abacus just launched the new Pell Ábaco (it’s Pell Abacus in Spanish). Because it’s not a government application and because this application does not award aid, it doesn’t get all up in your business like FAFSA. What it does do is let you know how realistically affordable college is. So, yes, while an average year at a college like UCLA might college $30,000 that does not mean that you will have to shell out that amount. If you still think that the projected amount is too high, remember that there’s still scholarships and 2) a little bit of loan debt will not kill you. Your college degree is worth so much more and it’s something that no one, at any point in your life, can ever take away from you.

Happy scholarship hunting!

Places to get you started:

The Biggies: Gates Millennium Scholarship and Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship are each a full-ride scholarship to a university. QuestBridge is another application that, if you’re admitted to one of the schools in their network, will also cover your tuition.

For Latino students, check out the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and Latino College Dollars, a more general search engine, for financial opportunities.

For African-American students, the United Negro College Fund remains one of the largest and most generous scholarship funds. will also give you a wide range of recommendations on any day.

Note: If you identify as one or more ethnicity, it is recommended that you should apply for scholarships in both areas.

For LGBTQ+ students, the Point Foundation is a solid place to start.

If you are currently or have recently experienced homelessness, please also see P2P’s Resources for Homeless Students page.







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