Can You Pay for College With Scholarships?

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Gwen Thomas started preparing her son for college when he was just 13. Today, after helping him net $500,000 in scholarships for a higher-education experience that spanned some 30 countries, she teaches other parents how to get help sending kids to school.

Talk about a smart business idea. According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2014-2015 school year was $31,231 at private colleges, $9,139 for state residents at public colleges, and $22,958 for out-of-state residents attending public universities. And that's for just one child.

For my wife and me, parents of three fast-growing kids and living month-to-month and check-to-check, our best hope of getting them through school is to be like Thomas and help our children chase the right mix of scholarships.

The (Green) Paper Chase

Replicating even a portion of Thomas' success won't be easy. The key appears to be spending the time and effort required to unearth good opportunities, and then applying for all of them. Here are her three tips for college-bound students seeking financial aid:
  1. Start early. Thomas says she began getting her son into various leadership programs at age 13. She also advises parents to assess their children's "strong suits" and place them in programs that allow for unusual extracurricular success, whether that's sports, art, music, or making a significant contribution in a church youth group.
  2. Serve often. A service mindset is particularly important for those looking to win top dollars. "Gone are the days that committees simply want academics," Thomas says. "Instead they want to see the grades and the gas spent on getting kids involved in service and volunteering."
  3. Leverage the law of large numbers. Thomas started looking into scholarships when her son was in 11th grade. By the time college came around, he had applied for 100 merit scholarships and won 25. The more you apply for, the more likely it is you'll get the financial aid you need to send your child to a good school.
Where You Get Money Matters

Yet it's also not that simple. Scholarships not only vary in size but also duration. For example, a club or credit union that issues new scholarships every year may only grant awards for the school year in which they're won. Renewing the funds may require reapplying.

To get the best results, you'll want to first calculate your Expected Family Contribution, or EFC, which roughly equates to your estimated out-of-pocket for sending your student to college. Merit-based aid tends to reduce qualifying needs-based aid on a dollar-for-dollar basis, sometimes without zeroing out the EFC. Getting your estimate may help to develop a strategy for chasing an equitable mix of needs-based and merit-based aid.

Calculate your EFC here using the handy online tool provided by the College Board, and then make an appointment with the financial aid office at the college your child wishes to attend. They'll help you understand how the award could impact an overall aid package, says Jodi Then, education advisor at American Student Assistance's College Planning Center.

For those who don't yet know where they'll be going to college, high school guidance counselors can also help with planning. Or, if you're more of a self-starter, good resources exist online from The College Board and information portals such as Peterson's.

Merit-based awards are generally a boon for the students who get them. Applying them properly can mean the difference between getting the bulk of your education paid for and owing tens of thousands in tuition.

With his eldest headed for college soon, Motley Fool contributor Tim Beyers is about to become a scholarship junkie. Find him on Twitter as @milehighfool and try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.
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