WASHINGTON — As the deadlines for early college admission get closer, many parents dream of big scholarships for their star athletes or academically gifted students.
They argue that they didn't need to save. Instead, they shuttled — or dragged — their children to sports practices, hoping all that time on courts or fields would pay off in big money for college. Or they banked on their children getting merit-based financial aid because of their superior grades.
But when they finally get the financial-aid packages after the joy of the acceptance letters, many will be shocked into reality — or debt.
Only 0.2 percent of students got $25,000 or more in scholarships per year based on the 2015-16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, the most recent data available, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research for savingforcollege.com.
In analyzing the scholarship figures, Kantrowitz notes that a total of $6.1 billion in scholarships were awarded to 1.58 million recipients. That's 8.1 percent of students and an average of $3,852 per recipient. If you limit the data to students who are enrolled in bachelor's degree programs, the figures are 12.7 percent (1 in 8 students) and $4,202 per recipient.
The odds are not in your child's favor to get enough money for college that you can afford not to save.
My eldest child was in the top 5 percent of her high school class and was an AP scholar, a status awarded by the College Board to students who receive scores of 3 or higher on three or more AP exams. We were through the roof with happiness when she got a $20,000 presidential scholarship from the University of Maryland. However, divided over four years, it was $2,500 a semester. We had to make up the difference of about $60,000 with our savings and investment returns built up over 18 years in a 529 plan.
"Parents have a tendency to overestimate eligibility for merit-based aid and underestimate eligibility for need-based aid," Kantrowitz said. "I often hear from parents who think their child will get a free ride because they are their high school valedictorian or salutatorian. But there are more than 80,000 valedictorians and salutatorians each year, so that doesn't really distinguish them from other students. Thousands of students get perfect SAT or ACT test scores. With rampant grade inflation, hundreds of thousands of students get a 4.0 GPA each year."
Looking deeper into the data, here's what Kantrowitz says is the reality when you combine scholarships with need-based grants.
• 1.5 percent of students in bachelor's degree programs got enough scholarships and grants to cover 100 percent of the cost of attendance.
• 2.7 percent got enough to cover 90 percent of the cost of attendance.
• 5.9 percent got enough to cover 75 percent of the cost of attendance.
• 18.8 percent received enough to cover 50 percent of the cost of attendance.
Still dreaming your child will slam dunk an athletic scholarship?
Only 2.3 percent of students in bachelor's degree programs received athletic scholarships, with an average of $11,914 each based on the 2015-16 figures.
Of course, some will get more, others less. The point is that being athletically gifted doesn't guarantee a full ride. Even with a pretty substantial partial scholarship, many families are left with a deficit — especially for student-athletes who attend more expensive colleges, Kantrowitz said.
So this is yet another reminder to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form. Whether your child will be applying for early admission to college or is a returning student, complete the form sooner rather than later. With limited funds, schools often hand out scholarships on a first-come, first-served basis. Even if you're a high-income family, fill out the FAFSA.
If you've got some years to go before your child is ready for college, save all that you can, preferably in a 529 college-savings plan. Under a 529, earnings are not subject to federal tax — and generally state tax — if they are used for qualified education expenses such as tuition and fees.
OK, so now you know. This doesn't mean your child shouldn't be aggressive in applying for scholarships. And fall is the time to do it. In fact, November is National Scholarship Month, which is sponsored by the National Scholarship Providers Association.
When it comes to counting on scholarships, aim high. But prepare for the possibility that the amount will be lower than you expect — and much less than you need to pay for college.