When your child is in high school, you're likely to hear college counselors talking about the magical wonders of college scholarships, also known as grants. You may start to notice stories in the media about college freshmen who won thousands of dollars in scholarship money. All that can make it sound like it's not that impossible to get a full ride to the school of your dreams, just as long as you follow the right steps. However, most college applicants and their parents soon discover that winning big scholarships is not as easy as the alleged experts claim.

Key Takeaways

  • Realistically speaking, unless a student is an elite athlete, in the top 1% academically, or has accomplished some other notable feat, the likelihood of getting a full-ride scholarship is slim to none.
  • However, good students can still earn need-based or merit scholarships to cover a portion of the bill.
  • And don't assume that you won't qualify for scholarships because of your income, lack of stellar athletic skills, or ethnicity. There are hundreds of scholarships available, some small and some large.

How to Get a Full-Ride Scholarship

The full-ride scholarship may be the ultimate wish-list item for college-bound students and their parents, but it's only a reality for unusually special students. If your child is making national headlines for their athletic skills, musical virtuosity, scientific discoveries, or academic achievements, they may be on track for schools offering full rides, or at least very enticing award packages.

When it comes to full-ride scholarships, it is not enough for a student to have a 4.0 GPA or be the captain of the soccer team. Universities look for diverse individuals who stand out among their peers. Most students will not meet their criteria. That said, there are still plenty of partial scholarships, private scholarships, and other types of aid that can help defray college costs.

It is also important to note that offers of full-tuition and partial-tuition scholarships will not always come from your student’s dream school. They may be from colleges you have hardly heard of, in states you have never even visited. It is important to consider these scholarships, too, even if that was not part of your or your child’s original college plan.

Unfortunately, many students never apply for scholarships, due to concern over their grades, lack of athletic skills, race, or family income. While there are many scholarships directed toward individuals with particular skills or specific ethnicities, there are hundreds of other scholarships out there. Beyond freshman year, there are also scholarships designed for transfer students and sophomore, junior, and senior-year students.

According to the most recent "How America Pays for College" report from the lender Sallie Mae Bank, some 82% of college students received some amount of scholarship or grant money in 2018-2019.

How the FAFSA Can Help

For students with average athletic ability and academic performance, aid is still available, most of it through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Based on the information you supply regarding your income, assets, and other factors, the FAFSA computes your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) toward college. If your EFC is less than the cost of attendance at a particular college, the school's financial aid office will attempt to bridge the gap with grants, subsidized or unsubsidized federal loans, and paid work-study jobs.

Grants and scholarships represent money that you never have to repay. Federal loans do have to be repaid, but they tend to have low interest rates and very flexible repayment terms, compared with money you might borrow from a bank or other private lender.

While grants and subsidized loans are limited to students with "exceptional financial need," unsubsidized loans are available to students and parents regardless of need. So no matter how much money you earn or have in the bank, the FAFSA is worth filling out. State and local governments, private scholarship sources, and the colleges themselves can also use the FAFSA in determining their awards. 

For example, many colleges award so-called merit scholarships out of their own funds in order to compete for desirable, if not necessarily stellar, students.

$9,520

That's the average scholarship or grant aid per undergraduate in 2018-2019, according to the College Board's "Trends in College Pricing 2019" report. The number includes federal, state, institutional, private, and employer grants.

Don’t Write off Smaller Scholarships

While far from full rides, smaller scholarships—from local organizations, professional societies, and other groups—can be very useful. Typically in the range of $50 to $500, they obviously won't pay the whole college bill, but they could cover a semester's worth of textbooks or lab fees. Many times a smaller scholarship will have fewer requirements and be less competitive. Also, these smaller scholarships are usually paid directly to the student rather than the school itself, which makes it possible to use them for a wider range of costs.

Ask your child’s high school college counselor for more information about local scholarships and to recommend some trustworthy scholarship directories. Also ask the potential schools on your list about their available awards and funding. Your local library and your city’s chamber of commerce might also have information about scholarships you can apply for.

Scamsters prey on parents and students in search of scholarship money. They have no more access to scholarships than you do, and it's a waste of money to pay for their services.

Beware of Scholarship Scams

Millions of dollars of scholarship money go unclaimed each year—or so they say. Don’t let scam companies use this dubious stat to entice you to use (and pay for) their services.

When researching scholarships, you will likely come across shady businesses that offer their “expert" services to help you find scholarships. Some may even guarantee that they can get you scholarships in return for a fee. Never pay money for a scholarship search or to apply for a scholarship. Every legitimate scholarship is accessible through free means, such as the sponsoring organization's website. And, whatever you do, never give your credit card number or other personal information to one of these outfits.