If your financial aid package isn't helping as much as you need, there are other ways to fund your education. From asking the Internet for help to starting your own company, these creative alternatives to boring old scholarship applications can often reduce your college costs.
1. Get your hands dirty
A handful of schools allow students to pay their college bills in sweat equity. "Work colleges" require all students to work part-time for the school in exchange for scholarships that cover all or part of tuition.
College of the Ozarks, a work college in Point Lookout, Mo., requires all enrollees to work 15 hours per week during the school year in exchange for free tuition. Financially needy students who apply to work twelve 40-hour weeks during the school's summer program also receive free room and board for the upcoming year.
"Your freshman year, you'll be working in [jobs like] the cafeteria dish pit, or you'll be working in custodial maintenance," says Elizabeth Hughes, director of public relations for College of the Ozarks. "... The idea is that you prove yourself, and you get to move up the ladder. … A lot of students try to gravitate towards jobs that will be built-in internships for their careers."
Agriculture students, for example, can graduate with experience working in the school's hog or dairy farms. Future public relations directors can cut their teeth in the PR department.
"That just adds to the value of the education," Hughes says.
2. Build an empire
Mark Zuckerberg did it. Napster's Shawn Fanning did it, and so can you. Well-known companies such as Dell, Facebook and WordPress had humble beginnings as dorm-based businesses. Being your own boss means making your own hours, raking in a profit (hopefully) and having a job after graduation. But getting there won't be easy says Dr. Caroline Daniels, an entrepreneurship lecturer at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass.
"There's a vast difference between having an idea for a business and having a viable opportunity that will generate revenue at a reasonable cost and give you a profit," Daniels says. "There are a number of things you have to do to get your idea to a feasible business opportunity, one of which is test your idea with customers and find out if there's really a market for what you want to do. In my mind, the most important thing to do is manage your time well."
That can be especially tricky for students who are balancing books and business, but some colleges help. Many schools, including Babson, offer fabulous business accelerator programs that provide workspace, mentoring, networking events and workshops on everything from accounting to the legal aspects of running a company.
But before taking the plunge, students eyeing entrepreneurship should understand that businesses are time-consuming and many, many fledgling companies aren't profitable for years. Approach with caution.
3. Outsource your debt
Thanks to a new wave of crowdfunding sites, strangers from around the world can help with your tuition bills. PigIt, AngelDorm, GoFundMe and ZeroBound all allow needy students to raise money to pay college costs, though a few sites, including ZeroBound and Piglt, require students to offer volunteer service or incentives in return. Unlike traditional scholarship programs that come with strict deadlines, crowdfunding profiles can be set up at any time, but it pays to research how to run a successful campaign first. Some sites only let students walk away with money if they meet their campaign goal.
4. Get to work
For your college or university, that is. Many institutions offer full-time employees free tuition as part of their benefits packages. Some schools allow employees to extend those "tuition remission" benefits to spouses and dependents, too.
"Typically, [employees would] have to be working for a number of years at the institution before it kicks in that they would be eligible" for remission, says Bob Shorb, executive director and CEO of Tuition Exchange, Inc., a program that allows employees and eligible dependents to use their remission scholarship opportunities at 625 member schools. "... There are institutions that [start remission benefits] day of hire, but that is not as common."
Remission benefits may come with restrictions on how many credits employees can take per semester or only cover a portion of certain courses or degree programs. Read the fine print carefully.
5. Search for scholarships off the beaten path
Neither grades nor athletic prowess helped Jill Ma afford college, but the talent that did pay off was her razor-sharp greeting card design skills. After entering The Gallery Collection's annual Create-a-Greeting-Card scholarship contest with a colored pencil drawing she did of Christmas bells, Jill, a high school student in Maine, won $10,000 she will apply to the school of her choice this fall.
"I was very, very surprised. I didn't think that I was good in art and surprisingly I won this award," Ma says. "... I was very glad because it's a huge relief for my parents financially."
Academic and athletic prizes dominate the scholarship spotlight, but there are also awards for esoteric talents, ranging from duck calling to having "a demonstrated interest in confectionary technology." Students can start the specialty scholarship hunt by heading to their school's financial aid office for info on awards offered through their college, then hit up larger search sites like Scholarships.com or FastWeb.