A college education costs money, no doubt about that. At many of the best private schools, the cost of a four-year education has now surpassed $100,000. And many of the high-quality state-supported schools are not far behind, especially for out-of-state tuition.
In Utah, in-state tuition per 15-credit semester ranges from $1,312 at Snow College to $12,726 at Westminster. Add to that housing, textbooks and other fees, and it means that most college students are looking at a whopping big bill.But the good news is that there is a lot of financial aid out there to help finance a college education, and for most high school seniors -- and even juniors -- now is the time to be thinking about it.
In general, financial aid comes in one of three forms:
Grants and scholarships: These may come as cash awards or as a waiver of tuition and other fees. Some grant money may come from the state or federal government and is generally tax-free. Private grants are also available but sometimes require that you use the money toward researching programs and issues with which the institution or organization is involved. Scholarships may come from the college or university itself or from various private funding sources, including businesses; community, religious or ethnic organizations; and large corporations. Some may have conditions attached -- such as certain academic standards or performance requirements. Scholarships can vary a great deal in what they cover.
Federal work-study: This is a government program that provides part-time jobs to students. Money earned is put toward either tuition or living expenses.
Student loans: Loans taken out by the student, rather than parents, are generally subsidized by state or federal governments. Rates are usually lower than regular unsecured loans; and in most cases, no interest is charged while the student is in school and no repayment is required until the student has graduated (or otherwise left) school.
Obviously, scholarships are a preferred way of financing an education because they don't have to be paid back. Just as obviously, getting a scholarship involves a competitive process.
The University of Utah, for example, receives about 1,600 freshman merit scholarship applications each year, says Angela Wimmer, scholarship program administrator. The U. gives scholarships to 10 percent to 12 percent of those. "It varies somewhat, depending on the quality of the pool, but that's about the average."
Scholarships to the U. are awarded on the basis of academic excellence and promise of future achievement, she says. "Financial need is an additional factor for some scholarship awards."
For most general academic scholarships, the two most important criteria are high school grade point average and ACT or SAT scores. For many departmental and private scholarships, things like extracurricular activities, community service and leadership can also be important.
There are many other scholarships available from a variety of sources, and digging for those can be rewarding.
So, how can you find out what is available and what you need to do? The best place to start is with your high school counselor or career guidance center, says Diane Nelson, counselor at Skyline High School. Every high school has a scholarship specialist.
At Skyline, she says, "we meet with every senior during September and October to talk about a lot of things. For the college-bound students, we have a scholarship book that lists criteria and deadlines for local and some national scholarships. In addition, we post notices and make announcements in our weekly bulletin."
They also have applications for all in-state schools.
Actually, she says, the scholarship process should begin in the ninth grade. That's when college-bound students need to think about the quality of classes they are taking. "GPA and ACT scores are important, but honors and AP classes can also increase your chances of getting a scholarship. And students will be more academically prepared for college."
Another source of scholarship information is the admissions office of schools students might want to attend. For out-of-state schools, students can write directly to the schools and can also find a lot of information on the Internet. Students must be sure to start early so they have plenty of time for research, advises Nelson.
Most deadlines for tuition scholarships at Utah schools come in February or March, but deadlines for other scholarships come throughout the year.
If you are applying for scholarships, here are some tips to keep in mind:
Be sure to apply for admission to any schools where you are applying for scholarship. Often admission applications must be accepted before scholarships are granted.
Be sure your application is complete and readable. If you are applying for more than one scholarship at the same institution, be sure to use the same name on all applications. Read and follow all instructions.
Before you start filling out an application, make a photocopy as a working copy. Once you are satisfied with all your entries, carefully transfer them to the real thing. Copy the finished application for your files as well.
Many schools now recommend that students apply over the Internet. Be sure you have all the information you need before making the submission, because partial applications will not be saved for later access. Also, keep a copy for your files.
In looking for people to write letters of recommendation, consider those who know you well and who believe in you as an individual. Give people at least two weeks to write the letter. Attach to your request a list of activities and achievements in school, community and church. Give the person a stamped, addressed envelope for each letter to be sent.
If your application is to include an essay, be focused and detailed. Talk about your ability to meet challenges, your specific career goals and real-life experiences that have helped you along the way.
If you are applying for a scholarship from a private source, learn as much as you can about the organization or individual. Let the entity know you are aware of its history, goals and interests. If your scholarship is offered by the Society of Women Engineers, for example, learn something about women engineers. If it is offered by the James Beard Foundation, learn about James Beard and his contributions to culinary arts.
If possible, contact students who have won the scholarship in the past. Each scholarship foundation will usually have a list of past winners. Compare yourself and your achievements to others, and use this as an inspiration.
If you are required to attend a scholarship interview, dress conservatively, be on time and try not to seem hurried or disoriented. Brush up on current events as well as the background of the committee and the sponsoring organization.
Apply for scholarships from several schools. You may not get accepted by your first-choice school, but by the time you find out, it may be too late to apply elsewhere.
The scholarship process can be lengthy, confusing and difficult at times, says Wimmer. "The foremost error students make is probably being careless in filling out the application. Social Security numbers may not match or entries may be hard to read. They may send information to the wrong office, or, when they apply over the Web, forget to follow up with the fee."
At the U. applications that come in are screened by two to four different readers, she says. Final decisions are made by a committee. And with the quantities involved, a neat, complete application can help make a good impression.
And that can make a big difference in financing your education.