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Who Gets Free Money for College?

Free money gets awarded to the students who are most attractive to people awarding the money. "Attractive" in this case doesn't mean the ability to win a beauty contest, so exposing yourself in a bikini is not a good idea for a video essay (despite its effect in the movie Legally Blonde). The most attractive students are the ones who are most likely to reflect positively on the college or the giving institution by doing well in school and becoming successful, famous, and wealthy — and, of course, giving back to the community.

Being attractive to colleges

Colleges want students who'll become distinguished alumni and give back to the college, either in reputation or with money. Attractive students are also those who'll have a positive impact during their educational years.

So who are these people? Colleges can't positively know for sure, so they make educated guesses, favoring applicants with qualities or skills that have succeeded in the past. Having any (or many) of these qualities gives you leverage in negotiating with your college for free money. Overall, whatever helps you get accepted at a college also helps you negotiate a better financial package. Take a look at some categories of students that colleges want:

  • The brilliant: Usually, the students with the top grade point averages (GPAs) and class rankings receive some of the best tuition discounts and other incentives. Colleges are, after all, institutions of higher learning, and grades count for a lot.
  • The famous: Having written a book, been featured in a major article covering your Junior Achievement project, and even appearing on the local news as a student spokesperson for an environmental group will impress the college financial aid committee. They now have reason to believe that you'll bring renown to the school. This kind of recognition can be a big help in winning scholarships from independent foundations, as well — for leadership activities, activism, or business acumen.
  • The athletic: For colleges with a serious focus on athletic competition, football and basketball are huge moneymaking ventures. Coaches may be paid better than tenured professors, and their scouting systems rival those of the professional leagues. Not only do the colleges benefit from ticket sales and television rights, they also enjoy endorsement contracts, finder's fees, and immense increases in alumni donations if the teams do well. Naturally, these colleges want the best of the best for their teams.
    In the past decade, some of the attention on sports has diversified. You can find sports scholarships offered for both men's and women's swimming, track, tennis, hockey, and a long list of other sports. You may not get the royal treatment for being a star archery champion, but you can certainly negotiate a better deal than can someone without your skills. If you specialize in a lesser-known sport, you should try to search out the schools with the best programs for your sport.
  • The talented: Fine arts scholarships are also widely available. Many colleges pride themselves on having a top-notch symphony orchestra, jazz ensemble, or literary population. If you're likely to make a name for yourself as an opera star, painter, musician, television producer, poet, or any other sort of fine artist, colleges want you. They know that the name of the college will forever be associated with your accomplishments, and they'll be able to count you as one of their distinguished alumni.
  • The diverse: Look through college brochures and you can recognize the qualities they value. Scholastics, athletics, talent . . . and diversity. Sometimes, being from, say, North Dakota can be a benefit if you're applying to an East Coast college bereft of North Dakotans. Colleges like to be able to advertise that they have a diverse student body representing a wide variety of states, ethnicities, ages, and backgrounds. If you're underrepresented on the campus of your favorite college, let them know.
  • The special categories: One college (and maybe more) offers money just for being left-handed, but the categories referred to here are the following:

Women: Special grant and loan programs are available for women, especially those with dependents. However, some colleges wish to encourage women to join programs that are more heavily male-dominated, and are willing to give promising women a deal to study in a particular field, such as engineering.

Ethnic minorities: Native Americans, Hispanics, African Americans, Asian Americans, and many groups can apply for special grants and scholarships.

Physically challenged: Governments and many colleges have special grant and loan programs for the physically challenged, but you can also use your circumstances to leverage colleges that wish to promote their openness and diversity.

Mature students: A quarter of all college students in the United States are considered "mature" — that is, 26 or older. Colleges with a lower percentage may want to close the gap. You can also use your greater life experience to demonstrate a wider range of interests and abilities than may be held by your younger colleagues.

Others who are likely to be able to negotiate a better deal are those students with a career direction that the college wishes to promote, such as genetics, special education, or whatever interests the school at the time. Ask around when you're applying — after all, you want to attend a college that values your field of study. Focusing on a particular field can also help you win institutional scholarships, usually from corporations, foundations, or individuals with the same background.

When you can combine any of these categories, your negotiating leverage rises, as does your likelihood of finding scholarships or grants that are perfect for you. For example, a judo champion may get an athletic scholarship, but a Native American judo champion with a 4.0 GPA who recently promoted her book on Oprah will have offers pouring in from colleges all over the country.

Being attractive to institutions

Independent giving institutions also want the students who receive their awards to reflect positively on their organization. For this reason, they often ask for some personal information, such as a personal history or bio. They're looking to do good, which usually means giving less privileged students an opportunity to go to college. Some awards offered by independent institutions are strictly merit-based, but most have a humanitarian sway.

Not surprisingly, some of the categories that are favored by colleges are also favored by independent institutions. However, the attitude toward judging them is often somewhat different. The following list gives the main categories of students that are most attractive to independent institutions:

  • The brilliant: Grades play a big role in institutional giving, but they often aren't the only factor in any particular award. Many awards require you to fulfill at least one of the other categories as well in order to qualify. Some of the other categories include community service, leadership potential, ethnic heritage, interest in a particular major, and achievement demonstrated by an essay. Then it comes down to marks.
  • The meritorious: Merit is a big deal because a lot of the organizations giving away money are called service organizations. These groups, such as the Rotary Club, the Elks, and others, get together specifically to do service in the community. They raise money for underprivileged kids, support the local eldercare facilities, and give scholarships to deserving young men and women. The kind of merit they want to see is varied — a history of public service, leadership in the community, civic-mindedness, and other high-minded ideals. Here are a few examples of what you can do: work at the local shelters, hospices, or eldercare facilities; establish a hot lunch program at your school; and other works.
  • The talented: Lots of scholarships and grants are offered for those in the fine arts. The categories aren't limited to music, painting, and drama, either. You can get awards for filmmaking, fashion design, accordion playing, authorship, dance, and so on. But you must submit a portfolio, a video, or perform live for judges.
  • The focused: Lots of awards are offered to students entering a particular field of study. From mortuary science to tropical ornamental horticulture, there are awards for almost anything you can study.
  • The ethnic: Some awards are limited to people of a particular ethnic heritage, and others require the applicant be enrolled in courses relating to that ethnicity. For example, the Welsh National Gymanfu Ganu Association offers a scholarship to students of any ethnic background as long as they're enrolled in "courses or projects, which preserve, develop, and promote the Welsh religious and cultural heritage."
  • The familiar: People like to give to their own, so you're better off looking close to home for monetary awards. Often, awards are designated for the children, grandchildren, descendants, siblings, spouses, or other close relatives of the specific group around which the award is based. The main examples are:

Employment: Many trade unions and places of employment give scholarships to members and/or their relatives. Several scholarships are also available for the families of police officers, firefighters, and other emergency service workers.

Military: Veterans' Affairs and the American Legion are among the larger funding organizations, supporting veterans and their families. However, more defined scholarships are available, for example, to descendants of Confederate soldiers and dependents and spouses of soldiers who are missing in action, prisoners of war, or blinded veterans.

Religious: Churches, synagogues, temples, and all sorts of religious institutions routinely set up scholarships for their members. The likelihood of receiving money depends on the relative wealth of your local place of worship and your level of personal (or family) activity. However, don't forget to approach the larger organization — your local church may not have the money to offer you a scholarship but the regional, state, or federal organizations might be another story.

Personal contact: Many awards are limited to members of a particular organization. Some awards further limit the applicants to those pursuing a specific field of study or to those who've achieved outstanding work in a particular field, such as insect systematics (the Thomas Say Award). Others are more open about the field of study, but may require an entrance essay.

  • The hybrid: The Penelope Hanshaw Scholarship awards women studying geosciences at colleges or universities in Delaware, DC, Maryland, Virginia, or West Virginia. This scholarship is just one of many examples of the awards designated in very specific categories. Be encouraged — surely you'll be perfect for some of these awards!

Be attractive to government programs

The federal government gives out the most financial aid for education, and most of this aid is awarded based on need. However, a few merit-based programs are run by the governments (federal, state, and even local), and by law these awards must treat all applicants indiscriminately (that is, without discrimination). That means that they look at your grades and award you merit scholarships based on those factors alone.

The people running government financial aid programs — merit-based or need-based — generally don't care about what community service you've done as long as you can get accepted to college. Sure, the awards do have some restrictions, such as never having been convicted of a drug-related crime, but, for the most part, government programs lump all applicants together and compare their statistics.

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